For love or money
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
March 18, 2006
"The major leagues?" Pedro Luis Lazo said. "We've shown they're in Cuba."
In the depths of Petco Park, Lazo sat on a golf cart with Higinio Velez, the manager of the Cuban national team, and together they laughed. Major League Baseball had to be some sort of a misnomer, what with the showcase the Cuba has put on in the World Baseball Classic.
Condescension drips from Lazo's voice these days, and every bit of it was warranted after he stifled the potent Dominican Republic lineup and helped send Cuba into the WBC finals with a 3-1 victory. Before Saturday afternoon, it had been almost seven years since Cubans played in the United States. While most of the team was shrouded in enough mystery to stump Horatio Hornblower, Lazo was renowned.
Some people, in fact, believe he's better than Jose Contreras, who is Lazo's good friend and longtime teammate but no longer his countryman. Contreras defected from Cuba during a 2002 tournament in Mexico and got the money, the house and a World Series ring with the White Sox.
"Best game of your life?" Lazo was asked.
"Yes," he said, and he didn't hesitate.
For the final 4 2/3 innings, Lazo stumped a Dominican lineup that included, in order, Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre and Moises Alou. The team was so good Alfonso Soriano pinch hit in the ninth inning, and Lazo struck him out with his fastest fastball of the afternoon.
It was like Lazo was just getting warm when the Cubans, clad in their lucky and intimidating all-red uniforms, celebrated by jumping the old man. Three hours, 42 minutes of intensity ended with the 35-year-old Lazo (he's listed at 32) getting pummeled by a group that included the team doctor, Tony Castro, who happens to be Fidel Castro's son.
"This," said Peter Bjarkman, a historian on Cuba, "is the biggest game ever in Cuban baseball."
Since the embargo against Cuba started Feb. 7, 1962, its teams have dominated international baseball competitions that usually don't include professionals. Cuba's talent was unquestionable. How it would fare against the best, on the other hand, was easy to ask.
Turns out the answer was easy, too, evident in Lazo's ability to carve through a lineup dangerous enough to merit a hazmat label.
"Right now what they needed was a strong stopper, a strong closing pitcher," Lazo said, "and that's where they had me."
There is no shame in Lazo's cockiness, none in anything he does. He is a hulking man, 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, who wears a fluorescent-colored band on his left wrist. He's as quick to smile and flash a peace sign at cameras as he is to proclaim his love of Cuba.
Lazo grew up around Pinar del Rio, a small tobacco-farming town in the west part of the island. He and Contreras played together on the Pinar del Rio provincial team – one of 16 in the Cuban league – and on the national team, which made them rich only in celebrity and status.
"These guys play in conditions like Double-A baseball players – in the 1940s," Bjarkman said. "It's a third-world country, and it's a third-world country now with major economic problems. They don't have the resources. And yet they put everything they can into baseball."
When there wasn't a baseball field available during WBC training, they practiced at a field-hockey complex. During a tournament earlier this year, they ran out of serviceable balls, their supply to the United States cut off.
Understand now? Only the blackest heart could not empathize with Lazo, a prisoner of an old political battle. On one side is the United States, which purports itself the beacon of freedom while handcuffing Cuba. And then there's Cuba, the country in which Lazo was born and became a man and is now a hero, and also the one that would smear his name the second he left.
"It's a very personal decision," Bjarkman said. "No one leaves without mixed emotions. Contreras has said as much. People expected him to be the last one to leave because he was such a favorite of Fidel. He reached a point in his life where he wanted, for whatever reasons, to do it. And you can never predict that.
"Remember, they grew up in a society where there are things of far greater value to them than material. They don't think like us. With most of the players, from the impression I get, those that have the talent to play in the majors and would love to are more motivated by playing at that level and testing themselves and being recognized as competing with the best than making money."
For now, Lazo is happy with his pittance so long as he can play for Cuba. It's a theme that surfaced again and again after the game. Velez, the manager, referred to his team as "men without names," a Communist ideal if there ever was one. In an interview session, an interpreter was softening the words of the Cuban players to keep them from making bold political statements.
Subtlety was Lazo's style. Pujols had exited the interview room, and Lazo tapped him on the shoulder, one giant acknowledging another. Pujols turned around, and it took him a second to recognize Lazo. When he did, they exchanged pleasantries, and as Pujols was walking away, he had a plea for Lazo before Monday's final.
"Represent the Caribbean," Pujols said.
Pedro Luis Lazo nodded. It's all he knows.
Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Sunday, Mar 19, 2006 11:25 pm, EST