Wednesday, November 14, 2007

World Cup History is Celebration of Half-Century Cuban Domination


Osmani Urrutia’s opening night walk-off home run was only the latest chapter in Cuba’s incredible half-century World Cup history.

BaseballDeCuba.com

By Peter C. Bjarkman

Special for www.baseballdecuba.com


Osmani Urrutia’s dramatic walk-off opening-night home run lifting the lid on this year’s World Cup XXXVII in Chinese Taipei was only the latest small chapter in the rich history of what was once known as baseball’s Amateur World Series. Today’s IBAF-sponsored World Cup is an event that began nearly 70 years ago and that has been dominated by the Cubans over the years to a degree entirely unprecedented anywhere else in the history of this or any other sport. Reigning world champions since 1984, winners of more than 90 percent (in better than 300 games) of their pressure-packed world championship contests, owners of 25 titles in 28 tournaments entered, and possessors of a consolation bronze or silver medal in the only three tournaments in which they failed to earn gold. That is the Cuban ledger, and it is one that no Hollywood film about a sports franchise would even to offer as a believable script. Nothing found anywhere in American sports lore can legitimately claim the title of “true dynasty” when laid alongside the achievements of Cuban national teams in international baseball play. On today’s open date in the middle of this year’s World Cup pool play, perhaps it would benefit observers to take a small break from the action and read through a capsule history summarizing seven decades of previous World Cup baseball play. Such an exercise may well be necessary as well as informative, since this event—despite its popularity in Asia, Europe and the Caribbean region—receives little if any coverage from inward-looking North American media outlets. Perceived wisdom here seems to be that if it is not about home-bred American stars or glorious American victories it is not worth the retelling.

While the first attempt at an amateur-level world tournament took place in England in 1938, the event, as we know it today, was largely a creation of the Cubans themselves and celebrated its first several editions in Havana, thus staking the claim of that city as the true amateur baseball capital of the world. The original idea of a worldwide baseball tournament was launched in London 1938 with a two-team and five-game series that was the brainchild of American businessman Leslie Mann. The two squads consisted mainly of U.S. servicemen on assignment in England and thus had as limited a claim on the notion of a true “world series” as does the long-standing event annually staged by the major leagues of American professional baseball. A year latter, the Batista government in Cuba inaugurated it own three-team affair in pastoral La Tropical Stadium and it was this second effort that would slowly evolve into the “Amateur World Series” eventually adopted by a European-based International Baseball Federation. The five straight years of competitions in Havana (1939-1943) reached a high of seven competing nations (1940), produced four Cuban victories, but was severely hampered in its growth by the travel restrictions imposed during the hostilities of War World II. The most dramatic series was the 1941 affair in which Venezuela (with pitching ace Daniel Canónico) bested the host forces (and future big league hurler Conrado Marrero) in a deciding playoff match that remains one of the classic fixtures of Cuban baseball lore. Cuba avenged the 1941 defeat in succeeding years (1942, 1943) with a talented pitching corps that headlined Marrero (one of the icons of early Cuban amateur baseball), Julio “Jiqui” Moreno (another future Washington Senators hurler), “Limonar” Martínez, and Natilla Jiménez. This five-year tournament run in Havana, under sponsorship of the Batista government, constitutes the first “Golden Age” of world-level baseball competitions, and it likely did as much as the later relentless Cuban winning tradition to establish that island as the true home of the sport’s growing international traditions.

The late 1940s and early 1950s produced the only extended dry spell for the Cubans in amateur World Series play, an arid stretch of eight years with only one title to show for the six tournaments staged between 1944 and 1950. Cuba did claim a pair of bronze medals during this stretch, one of them somewhat controversial, since both the Cuba and Mexico squads pulled out of the 1944 Caracas event during the three-team final round, protesting some obviously biased umpiring favoring the home nine. Venezuela in turn merely declared itself the winner by default. Much of the downturn for Cuba in the late forties could be blamed on the widespread signing of young prospects by the Havana pro winter league that was newly affiliated with USA organized baseball; a direct result of these signings was the considerable weakening of the island’s amateur game. Cuba didn’t send a team to the IBAF-sponsored events in 1945, 1947 or 1948. But in both 1952 (Havana) and 1953 (Caracas), the Cubans did again post gold, and in the process the revitalized Cuban squads of that era effectively launched the country’s still-active half-century iron grip on international competitions. After 1953, however, the Amateur World Series (as it would be known until the late 1980s) enjoyed a short hiatus and was not renewed until the 1961 games were convened in San José, Costa Rica. San José’s 1961 event notably came directly on the heels of the Cuban Revolution, an event which effectively ended pro-style league baseball on the now communist-controlled island and thus also breathed new life into a once proud but lately sputtering amateur sporting tradition.

Costa Rica’s Amateur World Series XV—the first tournament event to follow Fidel’s successful socialist revolution and the resulting Cuban government transition of 1959—would turn out to be the setting for one of Cuba’s biggest international triumphs. Mass tryouts in Havana produced an exceptionally strong Cuban team that featured a handful of stars (Pedro Chávez, Jorge Trigoura, Antonio González, Urbano González and José Pineda) who would also headline the first decade of the newly formed Cuban League now labeled the Cuban National Series. In a quirk of fortuitous timing, the fired-up Cuban contingent ran roughshod over the five other participating teams at precisely the same moment when Fidel’s army was repulsing a USA-backed home-front military invasion at the Bay of Pigs. At the end of the decade, in mid-August 1969, Cuba again ran the field undefeated in Santo Domingo during games that were also played under considerable political tension, this time due to strong anti-USA feelings spawned by an American invasion of the Dominican Republic four years earlier. An overflow pro-Cuban crowd of 20,000-plus witnessed the tense Cuba-USA showdown in the finale (both teams were undefeated) which spawned a new Cuban diamond hero. Pitcher Gaspar Pérez was the gold medal savior that year for the inspired Cuban forces, pitching brilliantly in relief, driving in the crucial tying run, and also himself scoring the eventual winning tally.

A new era opened with a bang in December 1970 during a dramatic IBAF tournament (Amateur World Series XVIII) staged in Cartagena, Colombia, an event that launched one of the true showcase decades for post-revolution Cuban amateur baseball. The Cartagena games featured an opening-round Cuban loss to Team USA, inspired by the knuckle-ball pitching of future big league stalwart Burt Hooton. When the same two teams opened the best-of-three championship round, Hooton was matched up against young Cuban ace José Antonio Huelga in a classic mound duel which finally fell to the Cubans, 3-1, after 11 hard-fought innings. Cuban southpaw ace Santiago “Changa” Mederos started the second playoff game and received stellar relief support from Manuel Alarcón—and once again from Huelga—in the 5-3 win that clinched Cuba’s tenth world championship crown. It was the closest the Americans have ever come to gaining a world title by besting the rival Cuban forces. Team USA did win two asterisk-tainted titles in watered-down 1973 and 1974 tournaments sponsored by a short-lived FEMBA confederation that had split off temporary from the IBAF body which still governed world amateur play. With the IBAF back in charge (after 1974) and Cuba back on the field, the perennial world champs rang up back-to-back titles in Cartagena (1976) and Italy (1978), on both occasions featuring the impressive slugging of Augustín Marquetti, Armando Capiró and Antonio Muñoz. Cuba’s most impressive title of this decade came in 1973, on home turf in Havana, and showcased a roster that may have been the most dominant World Cup line-up ever: the 1973 club managed by Servio Borges boasted a pitching staff that hurled 110 consecutive innings without allowing a single earned run. That year also witnessed another pitching masterpiece in the form of Cuba’s first-ever World Cup no-hitter, tossed by Juan Pérez Pérez against rival Venezuela. Additional highlights of the decade were the 1971 Havana-based Amateur World Series XIX that prompted the renovation of ageless Latin American Stadium into its present all-enclosed structure, and the 1972 event in Nicaragua that featured the first 16-team field ever and also witnessed the impressive hitting of national team newcomers and legendary National Series stars Wilfredo Sánchez and Armando Capiró.

Team Cuba opened the 1980s as it had closed the previous decade, maintaining its iron grip on an event that now had been firmly stamped as exclusive Cuban property. In the Tokyo event of late 1980 (the first World Cup staged in Asia), Servio Borges emerged as winning manager for a record eighth time in World Cup play as his team breezed with an 11-0 mark. Highlights this time around were a memorable game-winning hit by Lourdes Gourriel (father of Yulieski) in the showdown match with the Americans, and another .400-hitting performance and MVP honor for giant first baseman Antonio Muñoz. Two years later, with the tournament remaining in Asia (this time Seoul) for a second straight session, the Cubans elected to sit on the sidelines for political reasons, opening the door for the final time to opposition forces. South Korea thrilled the local fans with a gold medal win over rival Japan, while the Americans limped home third. It would be the final time that the Asian and North American forces had much of anything to cheer about, since Cuba was now poised to claim all the remaining world championships to be contested during the final 20-odd years of the 20th century. That string began in 1984 in Havana, with Fidel Castro himself opening the festivities alongside visiting West German president Willie Brandt. On the field of play itself the resilient Cubans escaped from a potentially embarrassing opening round loss to upstart Italy mainly on the strength of clutch late-inning hits by Lourdes Gourriel and Alfonso Urquiola. Fleet outfielder Victor Mesa was the top Cuban hitter and also the tournament MVP, while a skinny 19-year-old Barry Bonds notably appeared in the American lineup. The format now in place was a pair of preliminary and championship round robins with Cuba (11-2 overall record) easily outdistancing second-place Chinese Taipei (7-5).

In the nineties, the juggernaut Cuban forces not only swept all three events played but they never even lost a single game as they posted consecutive unblemished 10-0 marks in Edmonton (1990), Managua (1994) and Rome-Parma (1998). This was the decade when the international stage belonged largely to island sluggers Omar Linares (once considered the best third baseman on the planet and certainly the best outside the majors) and Orestes Kindelán (Cuban League career home run leader with 486 and RBI king with 1511). And there were plenty of other Cuban heroes on the scene as well. Lázaro Valle dominated the opposition in his three pitching starts in Edmonton; three future big leaguers (Orlando Hernández, Osvaldo Fernández, and Rolando Arroyo) shut down opposing bats in Nicaragua; and José Contreras went the distance versus South Korea in the 1998 Parma finale, striking out 13 and tossing an effective five-hitter. The 1998 event in Italy marked two historical turning points in tournament play: for the first time ever the games were now officially labeled as the Baseball World Cup, and also for the initial time the contests were open to professionals. Only the Dominicans and Panamanians showed up with any American minor leaguers in tow, however, and no major leaguers as of yet participated.

Three tournaments have now been played during the 21st century and the constantly renewing Cuban squads have showed absolutely no signs of letting go of their remarkable international domination. In the same Taiwanese venues that house this year’s matches, Cuba recovered in November 2001 (World Cup XXXIV) from a single pool-round loss to Japan to best the American 5-3 in the finale. Luis Ulacia won MVP honors in his final international appearance and José Contreras pitched brilliantly in the dramatic 3-1 11-inning semifinal victory over the Japanese. In Havana in 2003 another future escapee to the U.S. professional leagues, Kendry Morales, rescued Team Cuba with a ninth-inning homer versus Brazil that avoided unexpected disaster during the quarterfinals. Freddie Cepeda then slugged two late-inning solo homers to clinch the finale versus Panama. The string of World Cup titles stretched to nine in Holland during September 2005, where a Higinio Vélez-coached team (paced by the slugging of Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enríquez) ran through the field unbeaten and also largely unchallenged, clobbering the American AAA pros in the quarterfinals (11-3) and the Panamanians in the semifinals (15-2). Cuban forces then rode the brilliant pitching of Dany Betancourt to a 3-0 gold medal title victory versus South Korea.

Taken as a whole, the Cuban record in World Cup play is absolutely staggering, whether one considers only the raw statistics, reviews the highlight events of various individual tournaments and contests, or reprises the list of individual heroes performing on the World Cup baseball stage. In thirty-six tournaments played so far, Cuba has participated 28 times, winning the gold medal championship honors in twenty-five of those outings. On the three occasions in which they did not win the title outright, the Cuban entry nonetheless captured a silver medal (1941 in Havana) and two bronze medals (1944 in Caracas, when the Cubans withdrew in protest of the hometown umpiring and forfeited their final medal-round game to Mexico; also in 1951 in Mexico City). Never have the Cubans been a participant without claiming one of the top three slots. The years when the Cubans either elected or were forced to sit on the sidelines included all the following dates: 1938 (England), 1945 (Venezuela), 1947 (Colombia), 1948 (Colombia), 1965 (Colombia), 1973 (Nicaragua), 1974 (St. Petersburg, Florida), 1982 (South Korea). In the eleven tournaments where Cuba has fallen short (in most cases, when they actually haven’t showed up), Venezuela has claimed three banners (1941, 1944, 1945), while Colombia won twice (at home in 1947, and again in 1965, when the Colombian government blocked Cuba’s attendance). Puerto Rico (1951 in Mexico) and the Dominican Republic (1948 in Managua) can each brag of a single championship banner. The Americans claim only two amateur world series crowns, but these both came in the two semi-legitimate substitute FEMBA-sponsored events of 1973 (Managua) and 1974 (St. Petersburg, Florida), during which the Cubans and Venezuelans were not present.

When one looks at overall games played and not just at gold medal titles, the record is even more astounding. Entering this year’s competitions (where they are so far still undefeated) the Cubans have captured 280 games over the years while dropping but 28 (an astounding .909 winning percentage, which is almost a thing of pure fantasy in the sport of baseball, where winning six of every ten usually means a league championship). During their nine-title uninterrupted run since 1984 the Cuban team has miraculously lost but a single nine-inning contest (5-3 to Japan in the pool round at Taiwan in 2001) over seven full tournaments, while winning a staggering 72 games. Seventy-two and one; it surely boggles the imagination! Through games played this week in Taiwan, Cuba’s current unbeaten streak presently stands at 31 games stretching back to the single 2001 defeat in Taipei. It is that current unbeaten skein that was miraculously salvaged by the heroic home runs launched by Cepeda and Urrutia on Tuesday night in Taichung. Major league fans crow about the 25-plus MLB World Series banners rung up by the New York Yankees (in more than 100 tries). The label “dynasty” has been freely attached to the double three-peats of the NBA Chicago Bulls from the 1990s, and also the eight-year run of the NBA Red Auerbach-coached Boston Celtics during the 1960s. If those were truly sports DYNASTIES, then the term is far too tame to attach to the unparalleled winning achievements over seven long decades hung up by Cuba’s national baseball team. This is not a mere dynasty tale; it is something almost more akin to a fanciful super-hero creation of childhood folklore, one whose truly legendary feats will almost certainly never be quite duplicated.

For those fans interested in delving more deeply into the World Cup baseball story, the history of this showcase event (as well as that of other major international tournaments, such as the Olympics, Intercontinental Cup, and Pan American Games) is recounted in detail in Chapter 7 (“Havana as Amateur Baseball Capital of the World”) of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007), and also in Chapter 10 (“Baseball’s Olympic Movements: World Amateur Competition”) of my earlier volume, Diamonds around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball (Greenwood, 2005). Both chapters contain year-by-year tournament capsule summaries, as well as full rosters, statistics, and all game scores for the Cuban teams participating in each event. These are currently the only comprehensive histories of World Cup baseball found anywhere in either English-language or Spanish-language publications.

Peter C. Bjarkman’s analyses of Cuban baseball can also be followed on his website at www.bjarkman.com, on his personal blog at www.bjarkmanlatinobaseball.mlblogs.com, and on the Cuban League site found at www.radiococo.cu (English-language page).

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