By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006
SAN DIEGO, March 18 -- Two buses sat idling in the late afternoon sunshine outside a tunnel at Petco Park on Saturday. One of them quickly filled up with Cuban players, who strode toward their bus together, wearing red pullover warmups and waving to the crowd that had gathered beyond a steel barricade to cheer them on. The other bus filled up more slowly, as the Dominican players emerged from the tunnel one by one, dressed in designer clothes and sunglasses, walking silently and joylessly.
A baseball event unlike any other played out in odd juxtapositions and inscrutable scenes Saturday, as Team Cuba, the pride and joy of Fidel Castro, roared to a 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic in the semifinals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. On Monday night, the Cubans, the only team of amateurs in the tournament, will play Japan -- a 6-0 winner over South Korea in the other semifinal -- in the championship game of the most important international baseball event ever staged.
"This is a revolutionary team," Cuban left fielder Frederich Cepeda said after the game. "Baseball is not judged by the price of the athletes, but by the heart of the people."
That quote was translated to English-speaking reporters by a bilingual American reporter, after Francisco Campo, the official translator hired by the tournament to serve as a media liaison to the Cuban team, failed to fully translate Cepeda's answer. Another time, when an American reporter asked a question about the political ramifications of Cuba's victory, Campo failed to pose the question to the Cuban players.
Campo explained that he had been instructed not to translate politically charged questions or answers. A tournament spokesman, however, said those instructions did not come from tournament organizers.
The postgame translation episode only served to underscore the unique nature of the WBC, which brought together 16 national teams -- including a handful, such as the United States, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, whose rosters were loaded with multimillionaire major league players -- for three weeks of often inspired play.
Japan's hard-fought victory over archrival South Korea in the night game --which avenged one-run losses in each of the tournament's first two rounds -- was a perfect example.
Crisp pitching and suberb defense kept the game scoreless until the top of the seventh, when Japan pinch-hitter Kosuke Fukudome smashed a two-run homer off South Korea reliever Byung Hyun Kim, launching Japan to a five-run inning. Seattle Mariners superstar Ichiro Suzuki contributed an RBI single in the inning, as Japan silenced the sizeable pro-Korea segment of the announced crowd of 42,639.
For Kim, the outing bore an uncomfortable resemblance to his last appearance on a stage as big as this one. In the 2001 World Series, while pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kim served up titanic home runs to New York Yankees Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius -- the first two of which lost Game 4, and the last of which blew Game 5.
Although Cuba has long dominated Asian teams in international play, in the last major meeting between the teams Japan beat Cuba, 6-3, in the 2004 Olympics. Cuba, however, rebounded to win the gold medal.
Scouts, international baseball experts and even some Cuban ex-patriots in the big leagues predicted the Cuban team -- despite having dominated international baseball for generations -- would lose early in the WBC when matched against the best talent in the world. Meantime, Castro, Cuba's polarizing dictator, predicted certain victory.
In Saturday's semifinal, Cuba merely outlasted its more renowned opponent, taking advantage of a throwing error on Dominican third baseman Adrian Beltre and surging to a three-run seventh inning against the Dominicans' bullpen. Two Cuban pitchers, right-handers Yadel Marti and Pedro Lazo, combined to hold the powerful Dominican lineup -- anchored by sluggers Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz -- to eight hits and no earned runs.
Lazo's penultimate pitch of the game, to Dominican pinch hitter Alfonso Soriano, was a fastball that lit up the radar gun at 152 kilometers per hour (or 95 mph) for strike two, and he followed that with a 138-kph (86-mph) slider. Fooled by the pitch, Soriano tried unsuccessfully to check his swing.
"They are not professionals," Soriano said, "but they play like professionals. We are professionals, but we are not in very good shape."
Having watched the entire game from the top step of their dugout, Lazo's joyous teammates were already halfway to the mound when the umpires ruled that Soriano, the Washington Nationals' newly acquired slugger, had gone around for strike three. The Cubans gathered near the mound in a giant, teeming huddle, then -- suddenly and oddly -- most of the players were on their backs on the ground, kicking their legs in the air like overturned beetles.
Lacking the domestic star power of the U.S. team, which was eliminated in the second round, the WBC is struggling to remain relevant on these shores, as it went head-to-head Saturday against the NCAA basketball tournament. At first pitch, there were thousands of empty seats, although the official attendance was announced as 41,268.
Of the remaining teams, the Dominicans offered the most and biggest marquee names, but the Cubans were the most compelling story. In their first- and second-round games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Cubans were met with political protesters in the stands. And while there has been much talk about the potential for defections, none has occurred.
On Saturday, everything the Cubans did seemed a little odd. Their starting pitcher, Marti, featured an exaggerated pause at the top of his windup, then completely abandoned the windup later in the game. The Cuban manager, Higinio Velez, made three substitutions in the cleanup spot of his lineup -- in one inning.
And as the late innings played out, Cuban players would frequently fill paper cups with water and fling the water toward the field, an apparent good luck gesture that apparently worked.
But after the game, as they headed to their buses, they soaked in the applause from the gathering crowd behind the barricade. They raised their arms as the crowd chanted, "Cu-ba! Cu-ba!" One player filmed the scene with a camcorder.
In other words, the Cuban players could not have seemed more normal.