Historic loss leaves Cuba quiet
Elimination marks lowest finish ever in top four international events
For years, those red pants and red jerseys evoked images of dominance on the amateur scene. The Cubans' success on the diamond around the globe was legendary. Their presence off of it was often shrouded in intrigue.
When winning against the world's best amateurs was not enough, a new challenge was issued. Everyone wanted to know how Cuba would fare against professional players from around the globe. It appears the past two rounds of World Baseball Classic play have provided some insight.
Cuba's baseball past is cemented. And it seems its future remains a work in progress.
When Japan defeated Cuba, 5-0, on Wednesday in Pool 1 action, it not only eliminated the country from the tournament, but it also put a dent in the island's history books.
According to the information provided by World Baseball Classic organizers, Wednesday's elimination marks the lowest finish ever in one of the four major international competitions -- World Cup, Intercontinental Cup, Olympics and World Baseball Classic -- for Cuba, and the lowest since a third-place finish in the 1951 World Cup.
Since 1952, Cuba had played in 40 finals in the above tournaments -- and won 33 times. Additionally, Cuba had streaked to 38 international titles in 49 tournaments since 1939.
Cuba's record in international play was hard for its opponents to ignore in California this week. And when the records were not enough, Cuba's straight-shooting manager, Higinio Velez, reminded everyone in attendance that his club was made up of men of honor and not men with recognizable names. He said his country didn't learn much from its participation in the 2006 tourney and was adamant that every other team was schooled about the quality of Cuban players.
They were Cubans. They knew baseball.
Wait, he said. Be patient, he pleaded. Wait for the Cubans to show up so everyone would finally see that the talent on his island is second to none. Velez was stern but he wasn't disrespectful. He never disparaged an opponent and his barbs with international media could be characterized as playful.
After the loss to Japan dropped the team's record to 4-2 this year and eliminated the club from World Baseball Classic title contention, Velez was not quite as bold.
He shared his thoughts through a written statement that was eventually translated into English, Korean and Japanese. Velez left the park without saying a word. He and Team Cuba will return to the island Thursday.
"I am sorry for not being able to make it here to this press conference but I would like to thank everyone for their kindness towards the Cuban team," the release said. "I would like to congratulate the Japanese team for their great victory tonight. They were much better than us, and that's why they deserved the victory. They do deserve to go to the finals. So the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game, baseball."
Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara was understandably in a better mood. He recognized the significance of Cuba's elimination and what his club had just accomplished. Cuba scored 36 total runs in this year's tournament. It scored zero against Japan.
"It was a big deal," he said. "I have great respect for the Cuban team, and we were able to beat them. To team Japan and the baseball world of Japan, it meant a great deal."
In the end, the Cubans left without a peep and all that remained of the Cuban mystique was a stack of papers with Velez's words typed on them.
"Thank you very much," he wrote. "All the best to all the four teams."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.