Cuba’s Streak Challenged

By Peter C. Bjarkman*

Catcher Ariel Pestano in the Cuban dugout in San Diego
Catcher Ariel Pestano in the Cuban dugout in San Diego

HAVANA TIMES, March 17 — Once again the always potent Cuban national team finds itself in dire straits and in danger of a long-avoided mortal blow to its increasingly fabulous international tournament record winning streak. That intact record has now stretched to a mind-bending fifty straight major events.

Over the course of the past half-century—a stretch almost exactly spanning the years President Fidel Castro has remained entrenched as the island’s guiding force and revered father figure—the Cubans have fifty times running either won a major international baseball championship outright or (on but eight occasions) finished a highly respectable second as a result of a loss in the gold medal match.

Cuban teams have been in tight spots numerous times in the past, and on nearly every occasion they have somehow found a way to survive. Time after time they have gone to the well in hard fought semifinal matches and managed to survive and thus extend a record that dwarfs such landmark streaks as UCLA’s decade of NCAA basketball domination under John Wooden in the 1970s, the Boston Celtics NBA reign of the 1960s, or the New York Yankees nearly uninterrupted string of American League pennants between the late 1940s and early 1960s.

Recent memorable “survivals” along the route to yet another gold medal showdown have been the tournament-opening 2-1 survival against Australia in Taiwan in 2007 (when clutch solo homers in the ninth and tenth by Cepeda and Urrutia propelled the run to a tenth straight World Cup Gold Medal match), and also the extra-inning victory over the Americans in pool play last summer in Beijing (when Michel Enriquez’s 11th inning double ignited victory under the bizarre new IBAF tie-breaker rule). When the chips have been down, so many times the Cubans have found a way to fight back and almost literally steal improbable victory from the jaws of looming defeat.

Plenty on the line Monday

Sunday’s 6-0 whitewashing at the hands of nemesis Daisuke Matsuzaka and defending champion Japan has left Team Cuba facing a must-win scenario today against Mexico and Atlanta Braves right hander Jorge Campillo. One more loss and Cuba’s dream of once again shocking the baseball world with a second run to the WBC final round will end in bitter disappointment.

Yet on the line Monday night will be far more than a mere shot at a second appearance on what has now become baseball’s biggest international stage. While the present Cuban team—and the bulk of the Cuban fans back home—are squarely focused on the present moment, the burden of history is also clearly at stake here.

The string of Cuban tournament triumphs began with the 1961 Amateur World Series (forerunner of today’s Baseball World Cup) staged in San José, Costa Rica, in the very shadows of Cuba’s earliest hours of socialist transition. Mass tryouts in Havana produced an exceptionally strong Cuban team for the first international competition after the installation of Fidel’s revolutionary government.

In a quirk of fortuitous timing the Cuban baseball entry ran roughshod over five other competitors (Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Guatemala and host Costa Rica) at precisely the same moment when Fidel’s army was repulsing a USA-backed home-front military invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

In 49 tournaments that Cuba has entered since, 41 have brought home a precious gold medal victory. (Across this five-decade span the Cubans have skipped the World Cup matches of 1965, 1973, 1974, and 1982; they also stayed home for the first three editions of the Intercontinental Cup in 1973, 1975 and 1977.) The mere eight occasions that have not brought outright victory have been spread over five decades, three coming in the past three years, with second place finishes in the inaugural 2006 WBC, 2007 Taiwan World Cup, and recent 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The earliest years of the victory skein brought skeptical reactions from many who claimed that Cuba’s proud victories were largely earned against highly inferior opposition consisting of Asian and American university all-star squads, or low-level minor league talent.

Changes in the Past Ten Years

But that picture has altered in the past ten years, with professional major leaguers first welcomed into Olympic-style tournaments beginning with the 1999 Winnipeg Pan American Games (the official Western Hemisphere Olympic qualifier tournament) and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

In the first decade of a new century Cuba’s perch at the pinnacle of international baseball has now been more severely challenged yet still never undermined, despite this drastic shift in professional opposition. While Fidel has now outlasted ten U.S. Presidents, Cuban baseball has also remained largely unchallenged on the world scene—from the distant big-league Golden Era of “Mickey, Willie and the Duke” in the fifties down to the current shameful big-league epoch of steroids and spoiled multimillion dollar celebrity athletes.

The Cuban streak is without doubt one of the most marvelous feats in the full history of baseball, or any other team sport for that matter. Across the half-century of Cuba’s socialist system under Fidel Castro, the unprecedented achievements of Cuban baseball in international tournament play are not merely unparalleled but almost unfathomable.

Baseball is a sport, remember, where at most levels (especially in the lofty professional leagues) teams win champions by averaging victory in little more than sixty percent of their games. Cuba’s national team triumphs on the baseball field—not infrequently against the rival Americans who claim original parentage of the bat and ball sport—have also represented the bulk of visible propaganda triumphs for an island socialist system that is now itself struggling desperately to survive.

The raw totals of Cuba’s mind-numbing 50 tournament success story are 450 games won and a mere 35 individual games lost. At times these tournaments have featured round robins with final overall standings and not single-elimination playoff rounds determining a champion. In all of those, the Cubans have come out on top.

The miraculous string often is claimed to be only 38 tournaments by other media outlets, since some commentators do not include the Pan American Games tournaments among the mix. But those tournaments down through the years (featuring USA-Cuba showdowns, such as the one at Winnipeg in 1999, which determined the Americas Region qualifiers for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, or the memorable 1987 Indianapolis games that launched an individual-game Cuban international winning streak than later stretched to 138) have often been among the most competitive on the world baseball scene.

“The Streak” began quietly in the dark shadows of the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion and has now lived on for half a century. Is it finally about to come to a loud and much-publicized end? Manager Higinio Velez (in his Sunday press conference after the tough loss to Japan) hastened to remind Cuban fans of the first Classic with its stunning comeback after a first-round 12-2 drubbing at the hands of Puerto Rico’s big league all-stars. “Cuban fans should relax and have full confidence in this team, which will not fail to meet their expectations,” asserted the crafty and seemingly always optimistic Cuban manager.

But even if Cuba lives on to play again with its record still intact (versus either traditional rival Japan or old nemesis Korea in Wednesday night’s final elimination match), Higinio’s charges will still have a considerable hill to climb here in San Diego and up the road in Los Angeles.

And if they do not, they have nonetheless left an incredible legacy behind. And with the obvious talent now featured on the current Cuban roster—and no reason to believe the gulf between MLB and Cuban baseball will soon end—there is certainly reason to expect that more of the marvelous Cuban national team legacy still remains to be written.

To read more about Cuba at the WBC check out Peter C. Bjarkman’s Havana Times World Baseball Classic Diary.

To read Bjarkman’s complete story on Cuba’s remarkable performance in its last 50 international tournaments go to: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/WBCnewsContainer.asp?id=1353



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