Baseball-Crazy Cuba Hopes to Clinch World Title Against Japan

Cubans put their troubles aside over the weekend as they celebrated their semifinal victory over the Dominican Republic at the first World Baseball Classic.

The collective euphoria continues as Cuba takes on Japan tonight in the finals, a contest they never thought they could play in, much less win.

Baseball is Cuba's passion, and the national team is a source of collective pride on this Caribbean island of 11 million people who often feel belittled, misunderstood and victimized by the outside world.

Months ago, the U.S. Treasury Department ruled that Cuba, the undisputed champion of amateur baseball, could not participate in the first World Baseball Classic because the prize money would violate the U.S. trade embargo.

The Bush administration reversed its decision only after the World Baseball Federation threatened to boycott the games and President Fidel Castro offered to donate all proceeds to Hurricane Katrina victims.

That set the stage for the Cuban team to compete against the world's best teams for the first time since the 1959 revolution put an end to professional sports on the island.

Covering All Bases

Early Saturday evening, Havana's streets were deserted and the usually packed buses were empty. Homes and bars rocked in near hysteria as the Cuban team pulled ahead in the seventh inning and then held off a Dominican lineup of major league stars to win the game, 3-1.

"It was bedlam. Horns began blaring and the celebrating was so loud I couldn't hear the announcer's final words," said Carlos Barnes, a retired government functionary in Cuba's third-largest city, Holguin.

The country basked in the victory and is getting ready to start all over again tonight as Team Cuba takes on Japan at San Diego's PETCO Park.

Victory in Reaching the Finals

Whatever the outcome of tonight's championship game, the WBC has already brought joy to this Communist-run country that has suffered hard economic times since the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States imposed sanctions.

"After the last pitch, everyone poured into the street to celebrate," said 27-year-old Eduardo Machin in a telephone interview from eastern Santiago de Cuba, the Caribbean island's second-largest city. "People I never saw before hugged me or shook my hand," he said.

"All of a sudden no one was thinking of their everyday problems and sorrows, of making ends meet, finding transportation, or of loved ones who have emigrated," Machin added. "We were living moments of pure joy."

Cuban athletes, though national idols, are treated as state employees and are expected to play for love of the sport, not glory or money.

Some of the country's best baseball players, such as Jose Contreras and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, have found their way to the United States and the Major Leagues despite government obstacles. Their careers are followed with pride by fans on the island, even though the state-run media never mention their names after "defecting."

Major League Myth

Reaching the WBC final is a triumph for Cuba. Even though the national team has won three out of four Olympic gold medals in baseball, 25 of the 28 World Cups, and nine of 12 Intercontinental Cups, it was speculated that the Cubans would be no match for the professionals who add power to most of the other 15 teams in the WBC.

The "hot corner," a traditional meeting place for hundreds of baseball fans in Havana's Central Park, was filled Sunday with ecstatic men debating what would happen tonight.

"For 60 years, the Americans have said we are very good amateurs, but no match for the Major Leagues," said a young man in the crowd.

"There has been the myth that they are invincible. Well, the myth has finally been put to rest with our wins against Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic," he said, with those around him nodding their heads.

Meanwhile, a big party is being planned in the capital for the team's triumphant return, no matter the outcome.

And Cuba's best-known baseball fan, Fidel Castro, who reportedly has watched all the games, plans to welcome the team home and share in the glory.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said, "If they win there will be even more joy, but if not, our people think they have done their very best and proved the quality of amateur sports in our country."