Baseball spoken here. This has been the World Classic’s slogan since its emergence in 2006. Ten years later, it serves us well: two languages, a single idiom, interpreted perfectly on the diamond by those who live every strike, every catch, every homerun; and suffer after every error, every strike-out.
If anything unites Cuba and the United States, like nothing else, it is precisely baseball. They created it, but here, just like over there, its roots have grown deep in our culture, a palpable detail during the March 22 celebration at Havana’s Latinoamericano stadium, the exhibition game between Cuba’s national team and Major League baseball’s (MLB) Tampa Bay Rays.
It all transpired before Presidents Raúl Castro Ruz and Barack Obama, who were the guests of honor during an afternoon of peace and friendship painted on the faces of children carried in the arms of stars, and symbolized by a flock of doves released during the opening, after the ceremonial pitch by two legends, Luis Tiant and Pedro Luis Lazo. All that was needed was a good game. The Rays and Cuba’s home team delivered.
A LOSS CAN TEACH A GREAT DEAL
Supported by their exact philosophy and precise moves, the Rays were faced with the Cubans’ energy, intent upon demonstrating that the historic quality and long tradition of baseball in the country has not been lost. The result was a close game, in which both teams learned something, and showed the world their strengths.
The Rays came out on top (4-1), supported by spotless pitching (just one walk given up), lead by left-hander Matt Moore. Their offensive production was precise, taking advantage of their rivals’ shortcomings, scoring four runs on five hits, with three runs batted in by first baseman James Loney. These were the details that derailed Cuba, obliged to face the Rays’ tough pitchers again and again.
The Cuban team’s manager, Victor Mesa, commented, “The boys earned my respect. No one should be worried; we were in a great game, and the balance sheet is positive. One more time, it was shown that a loss can teach a lot of baseball,” noting some of the team’s shortcomings and mistakes.
“We were burdened with technical-tactical problems, questions we explain all the time. Manduley’s error was a result,” Victor said, satisfied despite the problems.
“We’ll explain these things with the video and they will learn from the mistakes. In any event, we made more hits than Tampa, and battled to the end, despite the figures we were missing. We proved here that, if we prepare, we are a danger, what happened is in the game, and can be improved with thinking and concentration,” the coach said.
“No doubt, they think more than we do, they function perfectly, and get this from the daily games at a high level. It also helps that they are well compensated, the mind performs better, their discipline is impeccable, and they always know what to do. But we are going to solve these problems; we must come together to achieve it,” Victor said, emphasizing the significance of the day given the presence of Raúl and Obama, who witnessed a duel characterized by discipline on the field and in the bleachers.
AN AFTERNOON OF LEARNING
Everyone was aware of their errors, but everyone had new experiences as well, against a well-prepared opponent. Cuba’s starting pitcher, Yosvani Torres commented, “A great experience, in my mind, I’ll take away the tactical discipline with which our opponents played, and maybe one trophy – striking out Evan Longoria. I don’t know him, but everyone talks about him.”
We asked the star from Pinar del Río what most impressed him, and he responded, “The concentration, the attention paid by every one of the Rays, the pitchers and batters alike; their body language at the plate, and on the mound they were very poised, with no clues that could reveal a deficiency. It’s not that they don’t have them, but they don’t show it.”
As for the Cuban team, Torres didn’t hesitate, “Satisfaction, because we showed that we can play at this pace, sustain a duel with no difficulty, although it is true that we have lots of details to polish up, work more on control, for example, and this is something we will achieve if we play at a good level; there’s no other way to get it.”
While the scoreboard did not indicate a huge difference between the two teams, it was clear that the home team lacked effectiveness, failing to score despite making more hits, until Rudy Reyes brought the crowd to its feet with his homerun off of Tampa’s ace closer, Alex Colomé.
“Just imagine,” Rudy said, “getting the opportunity and hitting a homerun off a MLB closer. Plus we saved a little face with that run. Anyway, with or without the homerun, we didn’t do badly, we were able to give the opponents a game and people enjoy good baseball, that’s the most important.” The long-time member of Havana’s Industriales gave spectators a few seconds of tension as they watched his hit soar toward the foul line in far left field, ultimately staying within the field.
When the 27th out was called, the Rays raised their fists in victory, but there was no solitary celebration on the field, and instants later the two teams exchanged shirts – a custom seen often in soccer, but rarely in baseball. The spontaneity of the moment reflecting the spectacular climate felt in the Latinoamericano stadium, a national sanctuary where the visitors witnessed the country’s love of the game.
“In the end, we’ve only been in Cuba a few hours, but we felt the warmth and friendship of our Cuban brothers. We felt the taste of baseball here, like no other place – we’re never going to forget this,” said the Ray’s Puerto Rican catcher, René Rivera.
“This will not be forgotten, it is an unquestionable step forward in sports,” insisted the great Omar Linares, and right he is, since the game not only gave the two teams a valuable competitive experience, but served to strengthen the foundation of a new bridge between Cuba and the United States.
The spark was lit.
Yankees former star shortstop Derek Jeter told Granma that he had always felt something special for Cubans, and admired their way of competing. He had the opportunity to play with some who helped him see the political difference between the two countries, “But I also understood that we have baseball in common, and we are sailing in the same direction, with the same passion.”
(By Oscar Sánchez Serra, from Granma)