Photo: Roberto Morejón

The Cuban team preparing to participate in the IV World Baseball Classic opened one of its training sessions to the press recently, providing the national and international media an opportunity to see all members of the group on the field, along with manager Carlos Martí.

Tokyo will be the team's first stop, where the team will face its first round rivals Japan, China, and Australia. This round will allow two teams to advance to the next, to be played in the same city with the two qualifiers from the A Zone which includes South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the Netherlands.

A wide variety of topics made for a fluid exchange on the field of the country's most important stadium, the Latinoamericano in Havana. These included the team's prospects in the Classic; absent players; line-ups; the issue of Cuban players working in the U.S. Major Leagues; and the opinions of team members themselves.

Carlos Martí said that the first objective is making it past the first round of the competition. He announced that the opening pitchers would be Lázaro Blanco, Vladimir García, and Vladimir Baños, choosing not to identify which one would start in the team's debut against Japan on March 7.

"It's too early for that. We have learned that the host team could have a line-up with a good number of left-handers, and this might make us lean toward a left-handed pitcher," Martí said, without mentioning Yoannis Yera, another option given these circumstances.

It is precisely in the pitching corps where modifications have been made. According to the National Baseball Directorate, right-hander Freddy Asiel Álvarez, who is experiencing problems with his pitching elbow, will be replaced by a deserving Jonder Martínez.

When asked about the absence of outfielder Julio Pablo Martínez from Guantánamo - the most controversial issue since the team roster was announced - Martí responded that Martínez and Roel Santos have very similar characteristics, so the decision was to take one of the players but not both. Nevertheless, Yoelkis Céspedes and Víctor Victor Mesa share many of the same attributes, and they are both on the team.

Evident in this group is the same fighting spirit the team displayed during the Caribbean Series. Photo: Roberto Morejón

Martí commented, "I don't think they are the same. Víctor is a natural base stealer, runs the bases very well, has more power and a better chance at bat; he recognizes pitches very well. Add to that his range on defense. Céspedes is a natural right fielder, with a wide range in this area, and a strong arm like Mesa, plus lots of precision. He's fast, but not with the same qualities at bat."

He added that the coaching staff has come up with several different line-ups, saying, "It could be Víctor Víctor in center field and not Roel or vice versa - or even neither one, because Despaigne and Cepeda are capable of playing defense."

He explained that a similar situation exists when it comes to catching, "We know Frank Camilo Morejón is our best man, but there is an option with Yosvani Alarcón, depending on the demands we face on the playing field."

He noted that the players who have not played for a while, like Frederich Cepeda and Alarcón are in good shape, adjusting to the rigors of training and ready for any assignment.

Martí was asked if any of the regulations governing the Classic - 65 pitches per opener, a tie-breaker game, and the inclusion of the IBAF rule in the event of an extra inning, among others - presented any advantages or disadvantages for the team. He responded, "Whatever is the same for everyone, doesn't give anyone an advantage."

Regarding players who have decided to emigrate and are today working in U.S. Major League Baseball, Higinio Vélez, president of the Cuban Federation stated that the team announced is the one which will represent the country. Negotiations with the MLB are not relevant to our participation in the 4th World Classic, he said.

On this issue, player Frederich Cepeda commented that Cuba would send its best team to the competition, but added that these ballplayers had made a personal decision to not continue playing here, saying, "I would not be opposed to them playing in Cuban uniforms, since they are from here and play in that league… I am very happy and motivated by being a member of my country's national team."

When asked what his goal in the 4th World Classic would be, as the only player on the team who has participated in all of the Classics held thus far, Cepeda responded, "Make a contribution to the team; it wouldn't mean anything to have an outstanding individual performance if it doesn't lead to a victory for the group, for my teammates. So Cepeda's goal is to contribute, with a hit, a walk, a sacrifice, or a homerun."

Alfredo Despaigne is the team's media magnet, and a tangle of journalists gathered around him after the practice.

"I feel good; right now I have a bit of a cold, but nothing to worry about. I see this group as very motivated, we can go as far as we aim. We are going with the same spirit we showed in the Caribbean Series. The World Classic is a more challenging competition, but nonetheless the guys have taken on the responsibility to compete as equals, as they did in the Caribbean games, where we made a good impression on those who know this sport, As far as myself, I am not concerned about being the designated hitter or the left-fielder. My training has been focused on playing the two roles."

If Despaigne is the media favorite, also attracting his share of eager reporters was Carlos Benítez, who is making his first appearance on a national team following his decisive contribution to Granma's championship and his efforts in the Caribbean Series.

"I have waited a long time for this opportunity to wear the Cuban uniform: it is the highest aspiration of any player. I worked hard for long years to achieve this dream. Here I have heard the advice of Orestes Kindelán, which is a privilege, since he was one of my idols when I first started in baseball. I'm already anxious for the first game, to go out on the field to defend our national team. I am very proud of what I am experiencing right now, and will give my all to be the same

Benítez I was in Granma and in the Caribbean Series."

After playing in South Korea and Chinese Taipei against local teams in practice games, Cuba will then take on several in the Japanese league, since no such games are permitted between teams which are in the same first round group.