Best players can't participate, but country still aims for title
By Jesse Sanchez
Yasmany Tomas knew it was a home run once he made contact. Everyone did.
The ball landed more than 20 rows up in the stands beyond the left-center-field wall at the Fukuoka Dome. It gave Cuba a 1-0 lead against the host team, Japan, in the third inning of a first-round game during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Tomas' teammate Alfredo Despaigne later put the game away with a three-run homer against the two-time tournament champions.
It's a memory that will last a lifetime. It was history and, in some ways, it was a bit of revenge. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Cuba lost to Japan in the championship game at San Diego's Petco Park. And three years later, in 2009, the Cubans were eliminated by Japan in the second round.
While Tomas and Team Cuba were knocked out of the second round by the Netherlands in the 2013 Classic, the memory of its strong showing remains.
"It was a great and unique experience to be able to represent your team against the best players in the world," said Tomas, who went on to sign with the Diamondbacks in 2014. "It was something very important for me and our country. There is something very special about putting on the Cuban uniform in this tournament."
The mystique of the talented Cuban national team returns in this year's World Baseball Classic. And while the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed since the country's first appearance in 2006 -- and the relationship between the United States and Cuba continues to evolve -- one thing remains the same: Cuba expects to win the World Baseball Classic.
"I've had a chance to look over the roster, and I expect them to compete, do a good job," Tomas said. "Cuba takes its best players, and the goal is to win it all. That's how we approached [the WBC in 2013], and I don't expect this to be any different."
"Everyone knows that the Cuban team has changes every day with the players, but everybody also knows the talent that exists in the country and the talent the players have," said Abreu, who defected in 2013 and signed with the White Sox that October. "We wish them all the best in the world and the success they deserve."
Defection has traditionally been the only way for Cuban players to make it to the Major Leagues since the late Fidel Castro took power in 1959. But new regulations were introduced by the U.S. government last spring that would allow U.S. companies, including MLB, to pay salaries directly to employees and not to the Cuban government. The proposal, if accepted, could change baseball in Cuba forever. Previously, because of the U.S. embargo, any defector who wanted to do business with an American company first needed to establish residency outside both Cuba and the United States.
The future relationship between the two countries is unclear, but a step toward strengthening diplomatic relations through baseball came in December 2015, when several Major Leaguers -- including the Cuba-born Abreu, Ramirez, Brayan Pena and Yasiel Puig -- returned to their home country as part of a goodwill tour organized by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.
The tour opened with a news conference at Havana's Hotel Nacional, followed by youth baseball clinics at Estadio Latinoamericano and Estadio Victoria de Giron in Matanzas. The players toured the capital city, ate at the iconic El Floridita restaurant in old Havana and participated in a charity event in conjunction with Caritas Cubana, a United States-based non-governmental provider of humanitarian, social and emergency services on the island.
Three months later, the Tampa Bay Rays became the first Major League Baseball team to visit Cuba since the Orioles in 1999. The two-day event began with a formal introduction of the Rays' contingent at a morning news conference that featured Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark and several high-ranking Cuban Baseball Federation officials. The trip also included youth baseball clinics. Former President Barack Obama, who announced that he was working to thaw relations between the two countries in late 2014, sat next to Cuban president Raul Castro during Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory against Cuba's national team at Estadio Latinoamericano.
Eight months later, Cuban leader Fidel Castro died at age 90.
"The political situation is something that is in the hands of Cuba, but we all just want to be able to play for the Cuban team, play in the Major Leagues and go back to our home countries like other Latinos," Tomas said. "We are forced to make a tough decision if we choose to leave our family and life behind because we can't go back freely. We will always be Cubans, and we are proud of where we come from."
Fittingly, Cuba's first game in the 2017 Classic is against Japan at the Tokyo Dome. Tomas will be in the middle of Spring Training, but he'll be there in spirit, supporting his countrymen.
"I'll always be available, and I want to play for the Cuban team," Tomas said. "My countrymen feel the same way, but it's not that simple. We would all love to play in the World Baseball Classic, but we are not allowed. Most of us will watch it from the television, and that's just the reality now."
The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.