Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cuba Ponders Baseball Life Without Olympics

May 4, 2008

For Yulieski Gourriel, winning the baseball gold medal for Cuba in the Olympics parallels little else when it comes to boosting the morale of the communist island nation.

Baseball long has been the soul for a Caribbean country desperately searching for something to cheer about year after year, tournament after tournament. It brings the Cubans positive attention on an international stage and star treatment on the streets back in Havana.

And it is Cuba that stands to be most affected when baseball comes off the Olympic program after the Beijing Games this summer.

“To win in the Olympic Games for an athlete, for a baseball player, is like touching the sky, so I don’t want to think that this will be the last time baseball is represented,” said Gourriel, a star infielder and son of the former Cuban player Lourdes Gourriel. “The World Baseball Classic is very important, but it is not like the Olympic Games.”

Cuba is already preparing to find its baseball success in other places, like the World Baseball Classic next year. There is no other choice for the Cubans, who showed in the inaugural Classic in 2006 that they could compete with the world’s best and All-Stars from the major leagues. Baseball in recent years has far outshined boxing, which is no longer thought to be at the same high level in Cuba.

“Baseball in Cuba is the culture, passion and happiness,” Christian Jiménez, a top Cuban sports official, said. “It’s the blood of our people.”

The national team has a long list of international accolades, not to mention a reputation for being respectful in victory or defeat. After losing to Japan in the final of the Classic, the Japanese were busy celebrating in the middle of the diamond as Cuba’s players made their way out of the dugout to congratulate their opponents — a courteous gesture common in international play.

“Cuba, of the Latin American countries, is the one that would most feel this loss, but we think it is only momentary,” Jiménez said. “We are convinced that in 2016 baseball will be back on the Olympic program.”

Cuba won its 10th straight Pan Am Games baseball title last July, beating the United States. In November, the Americans bounced back with a victory over Cuba in the World Cup final, denying the Cubans a 10th straight championship in that event. The Cubans have won three of the four Olympic gold medals since baseball became a medal sport in 1992 — winning in ’92 in Barcelona, Spain; in 1996 in Atlanta; a silver medal in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, behind the Americans; and a gold medal again in 2004 in Athens.

“It’s frustrating to think that after Beijing, a ballplayer will not be able to participate in the Olympic Games,” the Cuban left-hander Sergio Espinosa said.

Cuba will certainly do everything it can to capture a gold medal in Beijing in August.

The Cubans consider themselves amateurs, but in reality, they are much closer to the level of the multimillionaires playing in the major leagues. Many of the country’s top players have defected to the United States.

But some Cuban stars do not seem worried about what the elimination of Olympic baseball may mean for all the players who cannot make it to the United States.

Minnesota Twins pitcher Liván Hernández played down any possible effects.

“Call Fidel and ask him,” Hernández said, referring to Fidel Castro. “I haven’t lived in Cuba for 15 years. I don’t play in the Olympics. I don’t know about the Olympics. It’s not a big deal. There are other tournaments, like the World Cup. The Olympics are more for other sports, like basketball.”

Some players figure the World Baseball Classic has contributed to hurting baseball’s relevance in the Olympics. Boston’s Mike Lowell is one who knows the importance of the sport for Cuba — his parents defected to Puerto Rico, where he was born.

Two years ago, Lowell wished ill will on Castro, the Cuban dictator. “I hope he does die,” Lowell said at the time. “Castro killed members of my family.”

Lowell hopes baseball will be back in the Olympics one day. The sport will not be a part of the 2012 Games in London, but many baseball officials believe it can return as soon as 2016.

“I think the W.B.C. is almost stealing some of the Olympics’ thunder,” Lowell said. “I don’t know who the people are who can put the pressure on, but if you have pole vaulting you’ve got to have baseball, you know?”

“I think baseball is one of their most recognizable sports,” he said, referring to Cuba. “I think they have a reputation of being an amateur powerhouse. It not only hurts them, but it hurts anyone who likes to play baseball.”

The longtime Spanish-language major league broadcaster Amaury Pi-González, a 63-year-old Cuban and member of his country’s Sports Hall of Fame, said he could imagine the effect no baseball in the Olympics could have.

Pi-Gonzalez was born in Havana in 1944 and left in 1961 when his parents emigrated to Miami, and he is working on a book about the country and its baseball. Succeeding in the W.B.C. will become that much more important, he said — and the players certainly will feel that pressure.

“I think the morale of the Cuban people is going to suffer a lot because people follow the team like a religion,” he said. “Baseball is like what soccer is for Brazilians. It’s always been like that, even before Castro. The country’s going to be very saddened if they don’t play.”

These days, as the Olympics near, the opinions vary in Cuba when it comes to baseball’s future in the Games.

Alberto Juantorena, a Cuban sports official and an Olympic champion in two events in track and field in 1976, seems more optimistic.

“Baseball will be the same in the island and we’re going to make it with other challenges — the Pan American Games, the world championships, the second W.B.C. — in other words, we will continue preparing the same way,” he said.

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