Twelve days later, the American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican stars have all gone back to their state-of-the-art big-league spring training camps and millionaire teammates. And the Cubans are still here to play Japan in the championship game.
They will play in a sold-out major league stadium in front of well-heeled Americans, with seats going on eBay for $150. The game will be televised by ESPN, which paid $5 million for WBC rights.
Japan's best player, Ichiro Suzuki, signed a four-year, $44 million contract in 2003, and Japan's roster is laden with highly paid stars from the U.S. and Japanese major leagues.
The Cuban players are paid about 23 pesos per month.
Surely if they win, and perhaps even if they lose, they will be greeted as conquering heroes upon their return to Havana. What little glory there is to be had in today's Cuba will be theirs.
But each of them faces a heartbreaking choice. In San Diego, riches and freedom that surely even the most patriotic among them has contemplated is no farther away than a foul ball into the stands or a home run over the fence. Even back in Cuba, every glance to the sea will be a glance at a big league check waiting to be cashed and a big league life waiting to be lived.
It is 90 feet from home plate to first base. It is 90 watery miles from Havana to Key West.