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BEIJING 2008 : BASEBALL

Cuba tries to restore its glory of the past

August 15, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Once upon a time they were baseball's Big Red Machine, unbeaten for 10 years in international play and winners of more than 150 consecutive tournament games.

But Cuba's national team has fallen on hard times.

Last fall it lost to the Netherlands in the preliminary round of the World Cup, marking the first time a European team had beaten Cuba in Cup play. Then five days later, Cuba lost to the U.S. in the gold medal game for the first time in its history.

The reaction in Cuba was swift and predictable. Manager Ray Vicente Anglada was fired.

"It's like in the major leagues," said Sigfredo Barros, the dean of Cuban sportswriters. "If you lose, they say 'Hey, you're a good guy. You have a nice family.' But you're no longer the manager."

The man in the hot seat now is former national team second baseman Antonio Pacheco, Team Cuba's third manager in two years. And if anyone can bridge the gap between Cuba's glory years of the past and the current rebuilding brought on by age and defections, it's the personable Pacheco, captain of the island's first two Olympic gold medalists and manager of three of the last four Cuban League champions.

He's certainly off to a good start in Beijing, where Cuba has a chance to become the only team to survive pool play undefeated after beating Japan and Canada, then battling the U.S. to a 2-2 tie through six innings today.

"If we win," Pacheco said, "it will go down in history."

But whether this is the start of a new dynasty or the dying gasp of the last one remains to be seen. Baseball, like the rest of Cuban society, has been hit hard by economic woes, with defectors telling of broken bats being nailed back together and balls being held in one piece by tape. During the first round of the 2006 World Baseball Classic in San Juan, Puerto Rico's Eduardo Perez, son of Cuban-ball Hall of Famer Tony Perez, was so moved by the team's shoddy equipment he gave the players his.

"They took whatever my wife and I took to the hotel. Bats, gloves, batting gloves, wristbands," said Perez, now an ESPN analyst. "All their studs are getting old and their young guns are threats to leave. So . . . "

He'll leave it to Pacheco to finish that sentence.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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