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Cubans take big slide in international baseball standing

WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

The national team, which once went a decade without losing an international tournament game, hasn't won a major international tournament in three years.

March 19, 2009|Kevin Baxter

SAN DIEGO — Dynasties don't last forever.

The Mings in China, the Romanovs in Russia, the Jacksons in pop music -- all enjoyed unchallenged rule before eventually being felled by either rebellion or a combination of puberty and plastic surgery.

Time appears to be catching up with Cuba's national baseball program too.

The Big Red Machine, which once went a decade without losing an international tournament game, hasn't won a major international tournament in three years.

Cuba has reached the final of the last 50 tournaments in which it has played, dating back five decades, baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman said. But in this year's World Baseball Classic, it faced elimination twice in the second round.

And where it once pummeled opponents, frequently putting up football scores, Cuba entered Wednesday's WBC game with Japan having averaged fewer runs than Mexico and with a higher earned-run average than the Netherlands.

"It's a team in transition," said baseball agent Joe Kehoskie, who has been following Cuban baseball for more than a decade.

Several factors have contributed to Cuba's fall, none more than the decision by baseball's ruling federation -- just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics -- to allow the use of top professionals in formerly amateur tournaments. Cuba lost to the U.S. in the gold medal game at Sydney and has had to settle for silver in three of its last four major international tournaments, including the most recent World Cup, its first loss there since 1951.

"International baseball has come so far; a good but great team is not enough anymore," Kehoskie said. "Before Cuba had, by far, the most veteran club in any tournament they entered. Now you've got major league all-stars on a lot of these teams."

The International Baseball Federation, using a complicated formula to rate countries based on performance in federation-sanctioned events over the last four years, still ranks Cuba No. 1 in the world, just ahead of Olympic champion Korea. However, age is also catching up on Cuba, making the federation ranking a precarious one.

Clubhouse leaders Ariel Pestano and Pedro Luis Lazo, both 35, have already announced they'll retire at the end of this year. They're just two of 12 players on the Cuban roster who are 30 or older. That's five more than the Tampa Bay Rays had on their World Series roster.

Defections also have hurt the Cubans.

Outfielder Alexis Ramirez, infielder Dayan Viciendo and pitcher Yadel Marti, who made the WBC all-tournament team in 2006, have all left Cuba in the last 17 months. And nine other defectors -- catcher Brayan Pena, infielders Yuniesky Betancourt, Yunel Escobar and Kendry Morales and pitchers Alay Soler, Alberto Castillo, Yoslan Herrera, Juan Miranda and Francisley Bueno -- have made big-league debuts since Cuba last won an Olympic title.

The possibility of defections often affects the way the Cubans choose their national teams, with deserving players sometimes left home in favor of less-talented but more loyal ones.

Which isn't to say Cuba doesn't bring good players. Frederich Cepeda, 28, entered Wednesday's game leading the WBC in four offensive categories, including hits (12) and runs batted in (10), while batting .600. Yoennis Cespedes, 23, isn't far behind with a .476 average and two homers in five games.

And they are not even the best outfielders on the team. That nod goes to slugger Alexei Bell, 25, who hit .500 with 10 runs and 10 RBIs in the 2008 Olympics but hasn't played in the WBC after being hit in the face by a pitch in the first game of Cuba's domestic season four months ago.

Yet, while everything around Cuba's national team has changed, one thing remains the same: the expectations of its No. 1 fan.

"They will come home either with their shields," former President Fidel Castro recently warned, "or on their shields."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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World Baseball Classic

All times Pacific; all games on MLB.TV, ESPN Deportes

ROUND 2

POOL 1

Petco Park, San Diego

Sunday

Japan 6, Cuba 0

South Korea 8, Mexico 2

Monday

Cuba 7, Mexico 4

Tuesday

South Korea 4, Japan 1

Wednesday

Cuba vs. Japan, late

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POOL 2

Dolphin Stadium, Miami

Saturday

Venezuela 3, Netherlands 1

Puerto Rico 11, U.S. 1

Sunday

U.S. 9, Netherlands 3

Monday

Venezuela 2, Puerto Rico 0

Tuesday

U.S. 6, Puerto Rico 5

Wednesday

Venezuela 10, U.S. 6

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SEMIFINALS, FINAL

Dodger Stadium, Sat.-Mon.

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