HAVANA — Cuban baseball is gearing up for a serious battle.
Its all-star team went into seclusion on Wednesday for almost three weeks of power training before heading to the World Baseball Classic (WBC), where it has a chance of a showdown with its archrival, the United States.
National pride is at stake. Cuba has won three Olympic gold medals out the four contested since baseball has been an official Olympic sport in 1992. (The U.S.A. won the other, in 2000.) However, the game has since been declassified as an Olympic sport, leaving the WBC as the lone venue to test international baseball prowess.
In addition, the national team has suffered from several defections to the American big leagues as well as the retirements of many players who have been key to Cuban success in the past.
The defectors include Livan Hernandez, now with the Washington Nationals; his brother Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, playing this season with Arizona's Diamondbacks; the White Sox's Jose Contreras and the Dodgers' Danys Baez.
Thus the intense effort to be as prepared as possible. The island's baseball commission even went to the lengths of suspending this year’s national baseball season to let top players culled from the island's 16 top teams attend the camp.
The 16-team tournament, which kicks off March 3 (with Cuba playing its first game March 8), has been put together by the U.S.-based Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, and will include squads from Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, South Africa, the United States and Venezuela.
Cuban players win greenlight
The Cuban players headed to the WBC are classified as amateur athletes, even though in all respects they train and play baseball full-time.
And they won't be joined by their professional compatriots playing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Although the WBC rules allow athletes living abroad to compete for their home countries, the Castro regime regards them as defectors. However, the question as to whether the Cuban Baseball Commission would have allowed their participation never arose since no foreign-based Cuban pros petitioned to play.
Initially the U.S. government barred the Cuban team from participating — citing its long-standing trade embargo on the communist nation — but a license was issued after Cuba proposed donating any proceeds to Hurricane Katrina victims. The other 15 teams will earn between one percent and 10 percent of the profits, depending on advancement.
"We are running out of time. We have just 20 days," said Higinio Velez, national team manager since 2001 and the man credited with leading Cuba to Olympic gold in 2004.
Velez split the 60 players into two groups, sending one to practice in Havana's Changa Mederos Stadium and the other across the city to the Latin American Stadium. He will be able to take a 30-man roster to the tournament.
Security at the stadiums will be as tight as "a bank vault," said sports trainer Alexis Martin, with the goal of keeping the players focused and strategy a secret.
Guards will be stationed at all entrances, forbidding anyone but baseball's chosen to get through the doors. In addition, cars won't be permitted to park outside the stadiums nor fans allowed in the surrounding area.
The press corps is banned from the premises while players reportedly are under a gag order.
Additional security also is expected along the top rows of the 55,000-seat Latin American Stadium, on the lookout for anyone shooting pictures or video from the adjacent rooftops where fans routinely climb to catch a free game.
Baseball veterans pitch in
Nothing is being left to chance. Velez has brought in an impressive array of retired gold medalists and world champs to help polish the relatively young national team.
Alexander Ramos, known as the "Iron Horse" of Cuban baseball for holding the record of most consecutive games played — along with versatile infielder Antonio Pacheco, the record holder for the most hits in a Cubannational season — will coach the batters.
The outfielders will be coached by Javier Mendez, who holds the national record for hitting doubles, and the legendary Victor Mesa, who led the team to gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and made the national team a dozen times.
In addition, German Mesa, once considered the world's best amateur shortstop, signed on as an outfield trainer. Meanwhile, two retired national team pitchers, Jose Elosegui and Julio Romero, along with superior contact hitter Lazaro Vargas, also came on board.
They have their work cut out for them, say the experts.
"Mainly, these young athletes will need to work on cohesion," said Ismael Sené, a retired diplomat who knows as much about the game as any pro scout.
Some diamonds in the rough
The average age is 25. While many have excelled in international amateur competitions, there's some fear they could wilt next to opponents packing experience in the U.S. major leagues.
And some are really young. Right-fielder Dayan Viciedo is just 16 years old. He first played for the country's junior team at nine and last autumn earned Most Valuable Player in the World Junior Championships held in Monterrey, Mexico. He now plays for his hometown Villa Clara team under the tutelage of Olympic hero Mesa.
In an interview last winter, Mesa described Viciedo as an athlete "with tremendous power" but "a diamond in the rough." That same article also quoted Viciedo as confessing that packed stands "distract" him.
The team is also pinning hopes on 17-year-old Alberto Soto, who can throw a ball more than 90 mph and possesses five pitches. Cuba's baseball commissioner recently held up Soto as an example of the island's new rising stars.
Another young player is third baseman Yuliesky Gourriel, 21, considered by many to be Cuba's best all-rounder. This season, Gourriel already has 23 home runs, and with more than two dozen games to go, he's expected to break the national record of 28 home runs in a season.
"Gourriel can cover third base, second base, handle the outfield and swing a bat like a demon," said Luis Manuel Iglesia, a 39-year-old actor who never misses a game.
Island nation's baseball fever kicks in
Although Iglesia and other aficionados play down the chances of their team winning the tournament, they do look forward to a potent display of Cuban talent.
One advantage for the island team is that the WBC comes in the middle of the Cuban season while American-based players are just starting to train.
The Cuban team will play in a four-team qualifying round from March 8 to 10 in Puerto Rico. If they are successful there, the team will advance to semifinals to be held in San Diego's Petco Park on March 18. The championship game will be held two days later in the same stadium.
Cuban TV plans to televise the entire tournament — and fans are eager to watch. "A big part of the excitement will be to see our players against the big stars, see how they stack up," said Sené.
They'll have that opportunity from the get-go — on March 10 when they go up against Puerto Rico, whose current 60-man roster contains 46 players who have played in the U.S. and other professional leagues.
Expert fans weigh in
The young team's lack of experience has not dampened their fan's enthusiasm or speculation about their chances in the international competition.
Auto mechanic Jorge Ramirez spends his lunch hour arguing baseball at a park bench in downtown Havana. The shouting gets really loud when the talk turns to the lineup for the WBC, with some fans arguing to sideline the young talent in favor of the retired tried and true.
"It all comes down to the pitchers — who we have and how they measure up," Ramirez observes to everyone's nods.
"Things have never looked so bad. How can you have a 17-year-old pitch against pro players?" asked Ramirez.
It's been a tough season for Cuba's front-line pitchers. Three of the island's best are dealing with nagging injuries and one remains benched.
In addition, WBC rules restricting the use of a pitcher clashes with how Cuba tends to play the game.
A player will be allowed just 65 pitches in the first round, 80 pitches in the second and 95 pitches per game in the semifinals and final. Also, if a player threw 50 or more pitches in a game, he has to sit out a minimum of four days before pitching again.
Cuban managers tend to keep a pitcher working as long as his arm is hot, a practice that Velez has used extensively to compensate for the drain of Cuban pitching talent.
"Given their age and lack of experience, the challenge will be mental as much as physical," said Agustin Marquetti, 60, who played in 22 seasons of national-level baseball in Cuba, batting at .288 with 207 home runs and 1106 RBIs.
"You can't compare big-league ball to amateur ball. The other teams play a superior game to ours. But no matter, it's a great opportunity to showcase our boys," said Marquetti.
Pride of place no matter what the chances
Lacking the power pitching it used to have, leading NBC Sports analyst Tony Demarco gives the Cuban team 40-1 odds of winning in his online column. Cuban bookies are waiting until the final tournament roster is announced before laying down their odds but may offer an even larger spread.
For baseball enthusiasts like Sené it almost doesn't matter who wins — this time around. "I'm just proud this team made the pick. It shows we're a powerhouse that can't be overlooked. And there's always another tournament."