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World Baseball Classic: Playing Without Transgressors, Cuba Can’t Compete With MLB Stars

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Mar 20th, 2023 4:15am EDT

A protestor runs on to the field at loanDepot Park carrying a banner protesting the Cuban regime during the World Baseball Classic Semifinals between Cuba and United States at loanDepot park on March 19, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

MIAMI- On Sunday night, what could be the final athletic battle of the Cold War was fought on a turf field in a $634 million domed stadium between a team of Major League Baseball stars and a team from a country where a repressive regime requires its top players to wear ankle monitors — like criminals out on bail — when away from the ballpark.

After a week of international baseball in a congenial atmosphere, the feeling both outside and inside the stadium was decidedly different tonight at LoanDepot Park, where Cuba, wearing bright red pants and jerseys, faced off against the United States in a World Baseball Classic game for the first time, with the winner going to the championship game. For the first time all week, there was a large police presence and protests against the Communist government of Cuba outside the stadium.

Two hours prior to game time, Cuba took batting practice as classic rock and roll blared, serenading the island nation’s hitters with tunes by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the Georgia Satellites, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, while big fly balls and political tension hung in the air.

Miami, with 850,000 Cuban-Americans in the greater Metropolitan area, is the second-largest Cuban city in the world, trailing only the capital city of Havana, a little over 100 miles and a world away. The 850,000 who live here are a combination of emigres, refugees, and their children, and they can’t or won’t go back, while those who live there can’t leave due to economic or politics.

Cuba and the Cuban-American population in the United States are divided by an intransigent stubbornness that is something like one-way glass: it allows humanitarian aid and occasional family visits into Cuba, and for the baseball team and other privileged Cubans to leave, but only occasionally and with permission. 

This year, Cuba allowed several eligible players who play in Major League Baseball to represent the country in the World Baseball Classic, and manager Armando Johnson, and Federacion Cubana de Beisbol president Juan Reinaldo Perez, valued the additions.

“I think that the insertion of these players in national teams, Cuba, I think that could be great. It can make the championship better,” Johnson said before Cuba took on Team USA. “We would like that these players that dream on playing in the Major Leagues are able to do that, and we haven’t been able to do that for reasons that it is not our job to explain.”

Unfortunately for Johnson and Cuba, the additions of Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert Jr., and Sunday’s starting pitcher, Roenis Elias, among others, wasn’t enough, as Cuba lost 14-2 to the United States. It got late early for Cuba, whose pitchers were overmatched and unable to get outs. Team USA scored 14 runs on 14 hits and seven walks.

Cuba relied on players from the country’s Serie Nacional, the new Cuban Elite League that started this past winter, and players from some of the better international leagues, including Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, to build the roster for this World Baseball Classic. Many players, including, but not limited to, relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman and infielder Jose Abreu, were not invited to play for Cuba.

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena of the Tampa Bay Rays, who won the MVP Award in Pool C playing for Mexico, defected from Cuba in 2015 and wasn’t invited either. Arozarena was actually rooting for Cuba last night. Why?

“So then we can face them in the finals,” Arozarena told the Miami Herald, making a throat-slashing gesture. Clearly, there’s no love lost between Arozarena and his native country.

And after the first inning, which saw Cuba put five consecutive runners on base, the Cuba bats weren’t all that competitive, and the pitchers even less so.

Around the ballpark, fans clad in shirts with Cuban flags that say “Patria y vida” – homeland and life, a reclamation of a slogan from the Communist revolution that swept over the island more than 60 years ago – chanted that phrase over and over. 

With two outs in the top of the seventh and Team USA holding a lead that would have ended the game were it pool play rather than a semifinal, a fan climbed down the fake ivy above the wall in right center field and ran out onto the field with a banner protesting the Cuban regime. 

An inning later, another protester ran out, and from the upper deck, chants of “Libertad! Libertad!” echoed off the closed roof of loanDepot Park.

With the game well out of reach in the ninth inning, a fan in the first row behind the plate held up a sign saying “Abajo la Dictadura” – down with the dictatorship.

In the months leading up to the WBC, the Federacion Cubana de Beisbol issued several statements decrying the U.S. Government’s unwillingness to let the few Major League Baseball players on the Cuba roster travel to the island to work out with the team at Estadio Latinoamericano, a historic 1950s era baseball edifice that is still the largest in Latin America. Of course, it’s doubtful that a Major League organization would have let a player make that trip anyway.

The reality is that well over 100 Cuban baseball players have left the Communist country in the past decade, including 12 who left the Cuban Under-23 National Team at a tournament in Mexico in 2021, departures which the Cuban Government, according to a report from the BBC, called a “vile abandonment.”

Yuli and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. snuck out of the Dominican Republic into Haiti following the 2016 Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic. Both now play in Major League Baseball, Lourdes Jr. for the Arizona DiamondBacks and Yuli for the Houston Astros.

None of those who walked away from the Cuban National Teams, having transgressed against the regime, were allowed to represent Cuba in this year’s World Baseball Classic. 

If they had been there, clad in the red road uniforms Cuba wore on the field Sunday night in a not-so-subtle political statement, the result would not have been so lopsided.

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network