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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Notes: Early exit illustrates struggles of Cuban baseball

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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Cuban baseball has suffered another slap in the face.

The Cuban team was the first team eliminated from the Caribbean Series this week, managing to win only one of its four first-round games. By the time the Cuban team beat Puerto Rico 2-1, it already had lost to Mexico (9-4), Venezuela (8-5) and the Dominican Republic (9-2).

Cuba had won seven Caribbean titles from 1949-60 before Fidel Castro issued a ban against participating in the tournament. That ban was finally lifted this year.

What must have Cuban officials concerned is that this is not a blip on the radar, but rather the continuation of the struggles Cuba is facing in international competition. In part, Cuban officials must feel like victims of the defection of so many players who aspire for a chance to play in the big leagues.

There were 21 Cuban-born players who appeared in the big leagues last year, including the headline grabbing quartet of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman.

Cuba was eliminated in the second round of the World Baseball Classic by the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2013 and also in the second round by Japan in '09. The Cubans lost the championship game to Japan in the inaugural Classic in '06.

Since winning the Gold Medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the World Baseball Cup in '05, Cuba has not won an international championship. The defection of many of the top Cuban players to pursue a career in the big leagues is considered a major part of the problem.

The Cubans moved toward alleviating that problem a year ago by adopting a policy that its players could play in foreign professional leagues. The United States' Cuban embargo, however, prohibits Cuban players from signing with an American-based Major League organization unless the player defects.

Numbers game

With Colorado announcing it will retire Todd Helton's No. 17 on Aug. 17, Seattle and Miami will be the only Major League teams without a current retired number (other than the No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson, which every team has retired).

The Mariners, who came into existence as part of the 1977 American League expansion with Toronto, have some interesting candidates, including a likely Hall of Famer in Ken Griffey, Jr., and the popular Edgar Martinez.

The Marlins, the expansion cousins of Colorado in 1993, have had two Hall of Fame inductees associated with the organization. Tony Perez has served in a special assistant role since the team's initial season and managed the Marlins in the final 114 games (54-60) in 2001. Andre Dawson spent his final two years as a player with the Marlins (1995-96) and remains a consultant with the organization.

Expansion Draft selection Jeff Conine is known as Mr. Marlin. He is the only player who was a part of the Marlins' championship teams in both 1997 and 2003, when he was a late season addition to help in the Marlins' stretch drive.

Even the two teams that were products of the most recent expansion in 1998 have retired numbers -- Arizona (Luis Gonzalez in 2010) and Tampa Bay (Wade Boggs in 2000). Boggs played his final two seasons (1998-99) with the Rays and recorded his 3,000th hit in Tampa Bay.

Did you know?

• Lou Gehrig was the first player to have his number retired when the Yankees honored him in 1939. The New York Giants became the next team to retire a number, honoring Carl Hubbell in '44.

• Helton will become the 172nd number to be retired, the 47th for a person not inducted into the Hall of Fame. Of the 47, Helton, John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are the only four not yet eligible to be considered for induction.

• The list of non-Hall of Famers include 17 managers. The only owners with a retired number are August Busch Jr. of St. Louis and Gene Autry of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

• Philadelphia has retired the numbers of seven players, and four of them were retired in 2001 -- Grover Cleveland Alexander, Chuck Klein, Jim Bunning and Richie Ashburn.

Quickly...

• With the death of Ralph Kiner on Thursday, there are three living Hall of Famers who are 90 or older. Bobby Doerr turns 96 on April 17. Monte Irvin will be 94 on Feb. 25, and Red Schoendienst turned 91 last Sunday.

• Matt LaPorta, 29, signed a Minor League deal with Baltimore last week. LaPorta was the seventh pick of the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft and was a key player Milwaukee sent to Cleveland as part of the package for CC Sabathia trade on July 8, 2008.

• Milwaukee was the only team that had not signed a free agent to a big league contract this offseason until Jan. 26 when the Brewers signed right-hander Matt Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal. Friday, they made another move, signing reliever Francisco Rodriguez to a one-year, $3.25 million deal. It's the third year in a row the Brewers signed Rodriguez off the free-agent market to a one-year deal.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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