Cuba visits N.C. for love of the game

csmith@newsobserver.comJuly 23, 2013 

Cuba's Irait Chirino is congratulated by his team mates after putting Cuba up 2-0. Cuba played the USA Collegiate Team on Monday, July 22, 2013 at the National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

GREG MINTEL

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    Notable current players from Cuba

    Name; Position; Team; Years in MLB; 2013 Statistics

    Yoenis Cespedes; Outfielder; Oakland Athletics; Two; 15 home runs, 43 RBI, won Home Run Derby

    Aroldis Chapman; Closer; Cincinnati Reds; Four; 23 saves, 2.66 ERA, 15.1 K/9, named All-Star for second consecutive season

    Jose Fernandez; Starting pitcher; Miami Marlins; One; 2.75 ERA and 103 strikeouts, 8.9 K/9, named lone All-Star for Marlins

    Yasiel Puig; Outfielder; L.A. Dodgers; One; .369/.400/.581 with eight home runs in just 41 games.

    Kendrys Morales; First baseman; Seattle Mariners; Seven; .797 OPS with 14 home runs and 55 RBI

— Brazil has soccer. Canada has hockey. Cuba has baseball.

While in the United States there are many team sports – football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and the list goes on – vying for popularity, there is no question that baseball is the No. 1 sport in Cuba.

With the Cuban National Team concluding a five-game series with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday night, North Carolina and CNT outfielder Skye Bolt knows about the culture of Cuban baseball.

“Cuban players are very serious about their baseball,” Bolt said. “Up until this point, we’ve only played the game because it’s fun and we’ve succeeded at it. We take it seriously … but these are guys who are making it their livelihood.”

Whether it is shown through their No. 1 ranking by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) or their 50 gold medals between the Olympics, World Cup, Intercontinental Cup and the Pan American Games, Cuba has historically been one of the best baseball teams internationally.

Last year marked the first time that USA Baseball and Cuba played one another since 1996, with Cuba taking three out of five games from the Collegiate National Team.

With the Cuban National Team making its first trip to the U.S. in over 17 years, manager Victor Mesa knows the importance of the series.

“This is where the best baseball played,” Mesa said. “The most important thing is that the series strengthens our relationship and the United States can have a closer contact with Cuba. A lot of people don’t know about Cuba because of the politics, so this is a way for people to know that Cuba is there.”

Mesa believes that one day there should be much more than just a series between the USA and Cuba – like a tournament held to showcase several international teams in the U.S.

While that may not happen soon, USA Baseball Executive Director Paul Seiler hopes to expand the series to a home-and-home series each year for the Collegiate National Team and possibly the 18U National Teams.

Along with showcasing the two teams and expanded the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., Mesa hopes the series will also help baseball’s case to return to the Olympics.

“In September, there is a meeting to bring baseball back into the Olympics,” he said. “The MLB needs to keep up and pay attention to international baseball. … But an idea can come from anybody.”

With both teams expected to play a tight game – seven out of eight games played in the last two years have been decided by one run – the finale should be one to watch.

While the Collegiate National Team will be signing autographs at 5:30 p.m. prior to the game, it’s what likely will happen afterward that Seiler believes is important for the baseball as a whole.

“Following the second game, the Cuban team came out and shook hands with the U.S.,” he said. “(The Olympic committees) don’t care what the scores are, but they’re watching this. … This is an opportunity to show that through sports, differences and gaps can be overcome.”

Smith: 919-829-4841; @RCorySmith

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