Alfredo Despaigne of Team Cuba singles in the seventh inning during the 2023 World Baseball Classic Quarterfinal game between Team Australia and Team Cuba at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
MIAMI- Cuba manager Armando Johnson knows that his team has had a long layoff since leaving Tokyo after defeating Australia in the quarterfinal round of the 2023 World Baseball, and everything – the atmosphere, the pitching, the fans – are going to be very different here in Miami.
“These days off shouldn’t affect us. We’ve been training in Asia for over a month,” Johnson said of his team “But, for example, what happened to the Major League players because of the jet lag when the professional players arrived in Asia, we are trying to make some adjustments. We’re trying to be awake during the day to be a hundred percent tomorrow [for]the game.”
The eyes of the Caribbean baseball world will be locked on the game Sunday, where a win would catapult Cuba, which lost two games in pool play to Italy and the Netherlands, to the final. Cuba hasn’t gone this deep into the World Baseball Classic since the inaugural event in 2006, and political and economic conditions in the country are different now, resulting in more players leaving the island nation, one of the world’s few remaining one party Communist states, to play abroad.
This year, the Federacion Cubana de Beisbol has allowed Cubans who play in Major League Baseball to play in the World Baseball Classic, which added bonafide stars like Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada, both from the Chicago White Sox, to the roster. Players who had walked away from Cuban National Teams playing abroad were not allowed to represent Cuba at the WBC.
“It’s no secret for anybody that this has been a very important injection for the team,” veteran Cuba slugger Alfredo Despaigne said of the additions from Major League Baseball. “Those who came, they did a great job. I’m very happy for the job they have done. I always congratulate them. Team Cuba, in the last years we have had a deficit of players because they made a decision, and we all respect that. They are playing in other leagues, and we haven’t had a powerful team as the one we have today. They helped us to come all this way. If they weren’t here, well, we would have fought, but we don’t know if we would be here.”
Despaigne, the all-time WBC home run leader who has played nine seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball and 12 seasons in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, recognizes that the pitching will be different in Miami.
“…The pitching over there was not the same as here. There are more high-speed pitchers here. They use more breaking balls over there,” Despaigne said. “We are now in America. We are no longer in Asia. We have to change the mindset. I will have to make some adjustments to the speed of the pitchers and we are doing that.”
Cuba expects a different atmosphere in Miami than they had at Pool A play in Taichung City, Taiwan and the quarterfinal game in Asia. They’ll be playing in a stadium that will be full of Cuban exiles and expatriates who may or may not be supportive of the efforts of a team run by what is essentially an arm of a government those fans fled.
But Despaigne doesn’t see it as being any different.
“You have fans supporting you and fans against you. That’s natural in baseball. It doesn’t affect us,” Despaigne said. “I played for nine years in Japan and we had fans supporting our team and others supporting other teams. So everyone is free to feel and to think whatever they want. It won’t affect us.”
Johnson noted that the team is united, a family, and the Major League Baseball players who left Cuba are just as much a part of the team as the others.
“These players are engaged with the team. We really have a true family,” Johnson said. “The players are focused and they will go all out to win, no matter the position of the crowd. This is not going to affect them. It’s going to be a tough scenario, a tough atmosphere, but we are both physically and mentally prepared for this.”