Cubans see crisis after tournament strike out
Martin Maldonado of Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez hits the ball against Cuba's Azucareros de Villa Clara during their 2014 Caribbean baseball series game, on February 4, 2014, in Porlamar, Margarita Island, Nueva Esparta state, Venezuela - by Leo Ramirez
In official newspapers, social media and the street, Cubans voiced discontent at what some billed as a baseball crisis in a nation passionate about the sport, whose fan base includes former president Fidel Castro.
There were high hopes in Cuba's grand return to the Caribbean Series, with domestic league champions Villa Clara representing the country and promising to compete for the trophy.
But Cuba struck out in its grand return to the tournament hosted by Venezuela, losing three out of four games.
"Let's not blame Villa Clara," wrote blogger Reynaldo Cruz. "We lost because Cuban baseball is clearly inferior to that of its rivals. The crisis was confirmed."
Cuba dominated the Caribbean Series before withdrawing 54 years ago, when Castro outlawed professional sports. It won seven of the first 12 tournaments between 1949 and 1960.
Despite the end of professionalism, Cuba remained a giant in the sport, winning 25 international trophies as well as three Olympic gold medals and second place in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
But it has failed to lift any international trophy in the past eight years.
Cruz wrote that Cuban baseball has been hurt by the defection of its best players, who have fled to the United States for lucrative contracts in Major League Baseball.
"The desertions have been a very strong and defining factor because they are increasing," he said. "Those leaving the country are more and more the best ones."
The daily Juventud Rebelde said it was time for "a deep analysis of the current state of Cuban baseball."
The government, which has implemented a series of reforms since Castro's brother Raul took over in 2006, reintroduced professional baseball last year, increased player salaries and gave them permission to play in foreign leagues under certain conditions.
But it did not help in the Caribbean Series.
The final tally was three big defeats against Mexico (9-4), Venezuela (8-5) and the Dominican Republic (9-2), and a close 2-1 victory against Puerto Rico -- scoring just 13 runs while allowing 27.
The result left Cuba out of the semi-finals of the series -- Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic advanced to the final four.
The team "defrauded" their fans, said the Internet site Jit run by the Cuban Sports Institute.
"Let's be brutally honest: The game meted out justice," said sports writer Michel Contreras on the official website Cubadebate. "It eliminated the worst, the beaten up pitchers and the weak defense."
Isabel, a 70-year-old fan working in an office in downtown Havana, had tough words for Cuban baseball's leadership.
"We must sack everybody -- the managers, directors and bosses who for a long time have led Cuban baseball to defeat after defeat," she told AFP.
Fans, journalists and managers have criticized the Cuban league's format, saying that having 16 teams -- one per province -- was detrimental because it is spreading the talent too thin.
Critics say the league should be reduced to eight teams to make the teams more competitive.
Others blame the crisis on the lack of international experience due to a lack of resources that has reduced Cuba's global presence.
"It's not that the level of Cuban baseball has lowered. Cuba continues to enjoy excellent quality," Villa Clara third baseman Yulieski Gourriel told AFP in Venezuela's island of Isla Margarita, where the series were played.
"But we do run the risk of being left behind due to the lack of international experience. Caribbean baseball has improved," he said.