Image: Cuban baseball game
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Cubans watch the World Baseball Classic final game between Cuba and Japan in Havana on Monday night.
By
NBC News
updated 3/21/2006 8:33:17 PM ET 2006-03-22T01:33:17

The Cuban baseball team returned home triumphantly — as national heroes — despite losing the World Baseball Classic championship game to Japan in San Diego Monday night.

Family and friends joined top government and sports officials greeting the players as they stepped off the plane at Havana’s José Marti Airport.

From there, the players boarded open olive-green military vehicles and for close to two hours rode on a miles-long procession through the streets of the capital city. Along the parade route, they were cheered by tens of thousands of excited fans, including schoolchildren waving paper Cuban flags.

Early in the evening the players made their way to La Ciudad Deportiva, a large sports stadium, for an awards ceremony officiated by Cuban President Fidel Castro. The WBC silver medalists received a standing ovation from the 15,000 people crammed into the bleachers, including top political figures and sports stars.

The entire celebration was broadcast live on Cuban national television and transmitted around the world.

Following Monday night’s 10-6 defeat, Cuba’s passionate baseball fans have faced a range of emotions. Monday night some trudged home quietly, some tearfully, after watching the game with thousands of others on a big-screen TV mounted in Havana’s Central Park.

Team manager criticized
Many on Tuesday criticized team manager Higinio Velez for the way he arranged the pitching lineup. They accused him of burning out the team’s two best pitchers to win the semifinal game, leaving less powerful pitchers to face Japan’s strong batters in the final round.

But along the parade route, those disappointments seemed to fade as the crowds exuberantly welcomed their returning athletes.

Cuban baseball historian Ismael Sene said, “This tournament has brought happiness to our people in tough times.” Cheering on the Cuban national team has been a welcomed diversion for Cuban citizens who struggle daily to make ends meet economically.

During Monday’s game in San Diego, Havana and the rest of Cuba were mesmerized by the face-off with Japan. And when the Cuban team came close to snatching the game toward the end, the local crowds went wild.

In homes, bars, stores and social clubs throughout the island, television sets were tuned into the game and the normal busy streets of Havana were virtually empty.

Reaching the semifinals a success
Much of the reason for the fuss is that a lot of people here (and around the world) never expected the Cuban team to advance to the championship. In doing so, the young team beat other squads featuring Major League players.

“These guys were already winners to me when they made it to the semifinals,” said Guillermo Garcia, a hotel chef. “They played with heart.”

College student Froilan Sanchez added, “The Japanese team may have won the tournament but we won the fight. We played with courage.”

Lionel Zuniga, a retired accountant who watched the entire series with his extended family, said his only regret is that the Cubans did not play the U.S. team, which was eliminated earlier in the tournament.

“We love the American people, but we would have relished the chance to beat them.”

Mary Murray is an NBC News producer based in Havana, Cuba. Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Cuba.

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