Peter C. Bjarkman* (in Tokyo)
HAVANA TIMES — For the second time in seven years Team Cuba now sits poised to pull off a World Baseball Classic “miracle run” designed once more to underscore the true quality of post-aluminum-bat and post-amateur-era island baseball.
It now all comes down to one final rematch on Monday night with either the Dutch or Japanese – this time with a trip to San Francisco as the ultimate prize. One more victory and Cuba will join Japan and Korea as the only three clubs so far to reach the final championship round of the MLB Classic on multiple occasions.
The Cubans have more than mildly surprised all the critics both at home and aboard with their week-long batting surge here in Asia. Many assessed this team as owning an inferior lineup before the first pitch was ever thrown but now are beginning to eat their words and revisit their pessimisms – especially after four straight multiple homer games (a slugging outburst that has left the Red Machine lineup only two short of the record dozen long balls slugged over a much longer stretch by the 2006 championship Japanese squad).
On Saturday night the potent Cuban offense put on an impressive slugging display that has few parallels in the short history of Classic tournament play. This particular fourteen-run KO was of a far different order than the similar mismatches between Team USA or Team Mexico and the weak South African squad back in 2006.
It came against a Chinese Taipei team that was a Pool B number one seed and also owned enough pitching to one-hit the Dutch last week in Taichung. The same Chinese Taipei outfit also forced the Japanese into a low-scoring extra-inning affair less than twenty-four hours before tonight’s one-sided mismatch.
Freddie Cepeda began the hit parade against the stunned Taiwanese with a towering two-run first-inning blast off starter Ching-Lung Lo that provided all the momentum and cushion needed. National team rookie Yasmani Tomás sealed the deal with a three-run opposite field dinger in the fourth (his second game-changing circuit clout of the tournament).
José Dariel Abreu (also his second) and Alfredo Despaigne (a tournament-leading third) added to the embarrassment of riches during the final eight-run sixth frame.
Yet despite all the heroics to date the Cuban fans back home – as well as certain segments of the Cuban sporting press – have not been fully satisfied with the team’s impressive showing.
Manager Victor Mesa continues to evoke howls of protest on the home front for his flamboyant managerial style and his often unorthodox game management. My own Facebook page has received dozens of postings and messages lamenting the fact that the Cuban squad is being directed by “a loco manager” whose moves seem to mystify the average fan.
This despite the fact that Mesa’s team has so far achieved as much success and performed equally as brilliantly as the two WBC clubs (both managed by Higinio Vélez) that preceded it. Cuba bats have slugged proficiently and consistently throughout the two rounds and even the loss to Holland witnessed plenty of Cuban offense (two homers and a dozen base knocks that were unfortunately muted by five Dutch double plays).
And Mesa’s pitching corps has far exceeded expectations. There have been only a couple of bad innings and a single ill-placed pitch from Yadier Pedroso to Holland’s Jonathan Schoop is likely all that has kept the Cubans from being undefeated at the moment. Danny Betancourt, especially, has emerged as the surprise mound star, and in last night’s vital outing the Santiago ace stymied a usually proficient and dangerous Chinese Taipei batting order with six brilliant innings of 3-hit shutout hurling.
Victor has been quick to answer his critics here in post-game press conferences with good humor and a sufficient dose of much-merited cocky defiance. His first comments to the post-game press gathering last night jovially addressed the flood of criticisms aimed at him in the domestic Cuban media.
With a direct reference to having Abreu bunt with Cepeda on first and none out in the fourth (a near-genius move that opened the door to victory when the Taiwanese were caught napping and botched the play with a throwing error that opened the flood gates), Mesa acknowledged that his tactics were increasingly questioned when he turned to Japanese-style sacrifice bunts with his top sluggers in the box.
Smiling to the large media throng Mesa quipped, “Let’s see what they are saying about me back home after that particular play.”
Manager Mesa also stirred the pot a bit last night on the eve of an all-important rematch on Monday with either potent Holland or the defending champion Nippon squad. Pressed by the local Japanese media during the post-game press meeting, Victor was not shy about admitting he was rooting for Japan in Sunday’s first qualification game.
“It would be my greatest pleasure to move on to San Francisco with the Japanese team,” Victor observed, likely an understandable sentiment given Mesa’s history of a four-year stint coaching here in the Asian nation and also his oft-spoken admiration of the Japanese approach to the game.
But it was not the kind of bold declaration most managers would risk making – one that could perhaps inspire the Dutch by publically announcing that they were the team the Cuban skipper felt most comfortable tackling in Monday’s crucial rematch.
In three straight Classics now Cuba has faced exactly the same scenario – a single final Round Two showdown with all the marbles on the table for a trip to the prestigious tournament finals. The count is even with one triumph (the dramatic 2006 San Juan successes versus host Puerto Rico with its bevy of big league stars) and one failure (the 2009 elimination meltdown against overpowering Japanese pitching in San Diego).
Few if any (stateside or back home) expected a Cinderella Cuban ball club to shine so brightly in the inaugural Classic (their first true test against squads of MLB all-stars). The 2009 elimination loss to eventual champion Japan was especially painful and historic because it finally broke a miraculous string that had witnessed fifty full years of reaching the finals in every major international tournament entered.
This third test is the most intriguing of all, since widespread expert opinion pegged this current Cuban club as the weakest of its trio of WBC entries. A victory in this year’s final elimination test would certify manager Mesa’s current crew as the true equal of any talented Cuban squad from the island’s rich baseball past.
Tonight (6:00 a.m. in Cuba) the Japanese and Dutch (Cuba’s two top international rivals) square off in a showdown of opening day victors designed to launch one of them into the San Francisco final round. No matter what the result of that contest history will now be made.
If the Nippon squad behind starter Kenta Maeda (ace right-hander of the Hiroshima Carp) gains the victory, they will be the only club to visit all three World Baseball Classic finales. If the Dutch (who will count on veteran hurler Rob Cordemans) come out on top, it will mark the first-ever European appearance in the WBC elite Final Four.
On paper at least the Dutch seem to own a huge offensive edge; but don’t dismiss the power of artful Japanese pitching, the fanatical Tokyo Dome home crowd, nor the long tradition of Japanese clutch performances. My own money is on the Japanese in this one.
Finally a word or two has to be written about the stark contrast on display here in Tokyo between Asian ball fans and those back home on the island of Cuba. Much has been written about all-too-obvious differences between Asian-style on-field play (with its “small ball” bunting mentality) and that found in the Caribbean (a more wide open freewheeling style); but the contrasts are just as eye-catching in the grandstands.
In Saturday’s game, with Cuba leading 14-0 in the final “mercy rule” seventh inning, a large contingent of Taiwanese rooters kept up their constant din of chanting and singing and urging on their favorites in the face of an imminent and embarrassing tournament-ending drubbing.
At the press table we joked about the fact that one entering the stadium at that very moment would have thought that the Taiwanese faithful were celebrating a victory, or that we were witnessing a knuckle-biting deadlocked game and not a mere one-sided shellacking.
Asians love the diamond sport, adore their teams, and also love the baseball experience – win, lose or draw. In a similar scenario North American fans would have already headed for the exits, while the bulk of Cuban fans would have been wailing about doom and destruction and the abject failures of their latest ill-suited manager and ballplayers.
Asian fans adore the spectacle of the sport no matter what the score, American fans tolerate only winning, but Cuban fans for the most part are simply obsessed with back-stabbing complaints and wrenching lamentations.
The Cuban fans are of a whole different breed from the Asians. While the island has always boasted some of the world’s best baseball teams and players, it appears to also houses the most spoiled and out-of touch fandom.
Yes Cuban fans are the savviest on the planet when it comes to understand the history and strategies of the game; yet at the same time they own a rather debilitating blind spot when it comes to the cherished national team.
It is difficult to figure out at times if many of the Cuban fans truly want solid performances from their ball-playing heroes, or rather whether they secretly welcome disaster which opens the door to the true national pastime of constant second guessing and breast-beating.
In the aftermath of last-night’s impressive 14-0 walk-off there will be many on Havana street corners who will now spend most of the day ruing the fact that a super-knockout (15 or more runs) was not achieved, or more likely faulting manager Mesa for bunting with his cleanup hitter (Abreu) during the four-run fourth-inning outburst that broke the game wide open.
In brief, Cuban fans probably don’t deserve another trip to the Classic finals in the face of their deluge of complaints about this current club and manager which are now proving themselves the equals of any that have come before.
But if victory does come against either the Dutch or Japanese, this tight-knit current edition of Team Cuba will deserve a ranking as likely the best Cuban squad ever; they will have triumphed (no matter what happens in two contests at Pac Bell Park) against the best international baseball field ever assembled.
They can then also turn a deaf ear to the din of constant criticisms and second guessing from so many back home who simply don’t appreciate the beauties of the baseball tradition that they possess, and also don’t comprehend the challenges of the modern-era international game as it is currently played.
(*) Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.