Cuba won't settle for less than best

Tim Brown
Yahoo! SportsMarch 15, 2009

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Presented innocently enough, the question nevertheless galled Higinio Velez, the unsmiling field manager of the Cuban national team and president of the Cuban baseball federation.

He was asked about his team, his baseball program, and what it had learned from its second-place finish in the first World Baseball Classic.

He leaned into the microphone and stared not at the questioner but into the lenses of the television cameras lined across the rear of a conference room at Petco Park.

"I don't think that we … learned a lot," Velez said. "The rest learned a lot about Cuba."

The Cubans, he meant, do not learn lessons. They administer them.

Aggressive talk from the team that lost to Japan in the WBC final three years ago, that drew silver medals in the Beijing Games. But on the eve of his rematch against Japan and only recently reinstalled as national manager, the man was on a roll.

"We have a phrase, a saying," Velez continued. " 'Our team is a team of players and not a team of names.' "

With that, we pause to bid one final farewell to the team from the Dominican Republic. And we remember the Americans from 2006, a soft and arrogant group whose best couldn't be bothered to arrive ready to hit or throw baseballs.

You might understand where Velez is coming from. The world fawns over the ballplayers it sees on television and pulling big contracts and playing for famous organizations. Then those players can't work up the pride to get off their couches before the middle of February, and by then it's too late to win a couple games against the Netherlands. This is Cuba's choice, of course. But this is baseball we're talking, and Velez is a baseball man.

"We said that these were all people that we admired and we respected," he said, presumably of the Dominicans, the Venezuelans, perhaps the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. "I would say that 99 percent of all the players, if not 100 percent, these are humble people. These are simple families. And that's their background. We know their situation. And we know their background."

But for the circumstances and maybe the paychecks, they think, they are alike. Certainly, they believe, their baseball is alike, and maybe superior.

Two of his players – 22-year-old outfielder Alfredo Despaigne and 36-year-old shortstop Eduardo Paret – sat at Velez's shoulders like human epaulets. They did not nod their heads. They would barely blink.

On Sunday they will play the Japanese team, face Daisuke Matsuzaka, attempt to avenge that championship game loss from three years ago in this very ballpark. Four days ago, in a news story carrying a Havana dateline, Fidel Castro had been quoted as saying he'd most enjoy a championship when it went through Japan.

"The Japanese team is excellent," his quote read. "I would like our victory in the Classic to be against this team, with great technical mastery." Earlier in the tournament, Castro sent word of the "shame" of beating South Africa by only seven runs.

So the Cuban ballplayers, dressed in their signature head-to-ankle reds, took batting practice Saturday afternoon, and floated through their infield drills, and winked and smiled at the cameras that followed them. Long after their practice had ended, three players, including slugger Frederich Cepeda, signed autographs at the chain-link fence in right-center field. Due to a collision with his shortstop, Cepeda had eaten every meal through a straw for six days, but he still smiled and laughed and introduced himself to the people at the fence.

Meanwhile, Velez would not identify his starting pitcher, but said he had four in mind, refusing to narrow it further than that for Japan. Judging by its use of two left-handers in its own batting practice, Japan is bracing for Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who reputedly wields a 102 mph fastball and killer slider.

Normally, a game pitting Japan and Cuba would foster offensive style comparisons, of Japan's elegance and Cuba's brawn, and indeed the game could be played within those confines. Petco Park tends to dull a club's power, however, and Cuba's side of the bracket just lost a mile-and-a-half of elevation and significantly lengthened the distance to the outfield fences.

Nevertheless, three years ago, this was a 10-6 game.

Asked if he ever found himself counting the Cuban players who would win big-league jobs tomorrow, team Mexico third baseman Jorge Cantu swept his hand across the field.

"Every single one of them," he said. "Every single one of them can play in the big leagues. It's unbelievable. They have such talent and they play their hearts out.

"Every single hitter goes to the plate and crushes the ball, absolutely crushes the ball. We're all human beings. We all have certain levels of strength. But they're unbelievable.

"Obviously, circumstances keep them from coming over and developing their games here. But, in terms of their baseball instincts, they have it all. Man, I wish they could play over here."

A couple hours later, Velez was at a podium, his jaw tightening.

"I don't think you knew the Cuban ballplayers and nobody really thought they were at the level that they are," he said.

"We have a great league in Cuba. We play all year long. And I'm telling you, be patient. Wait for the Cubans. Wait to see the Cubans."

First lesson, 1 p.m. PT.