In 2000, an American team of castoffs, minor leaguers, and Tommy Lasorda beat Cuba 4-0 to win baseball gold. Cubans were mortified. "No one spoke. Many people cried," one former player told MLB.com. Though Cuba excels in volleyball, boxing, and now judo, the baseball team is the tiny island's most storied and consistent winner. When Cuba won gold in 1992 and 1996 behind legends like Omar Linares and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and tallied a winning streak that stretched to 152 games, the team had an air of mystery and invincibility. This was proof that communism works, at least when it comes to turning the 6-4-3 double play.
To make amends for finishing second in Sydney, Cuba fired its old manager and ripped apart the entire team. The country even created a new "Super League" to shepherd the best young players to the national team. Cuba was primed to get its revenge on the USA. But there was a problem: The Americans didn't show up.
Cuba's baseball immortality is wholly dependent on a quadrennial showdown with its Cold War foe.But when an inferior team of American spare parts lost to Mexico 2-1 in a qualifying tournament last November, eliminating from the Athens games the country that invented baseball,the Cubans found themselves without their cross-Caribbean bête noir. Horrified, the head of Cuba's Olympic committee suggested that the U.S. team was a victim of an impractical, outdated system that unfairly punished high achievers. "Perhaps we should reflect on whether or not the system that has been adopted by baseball and other sports is the fairest method to decide on a winner," he said. Translation: Why didn't you let us beat you?
Without its natural foil, the Cuban team has had a hard time getting noticed in Athens. NBC's combined seven channels managed to show excerpts of only one preliminary-round game. (This afternoon's final, in which Cuba is expected to win the gold, is being shown on MSNBC.) But at least people in Japan were watching—for the first time, the Japanese brought a "dream team" of pro players to the Olympics. When the teams met in pool play, Japan beat Cuba 6-3. A rematch in the final seemed certain—if the United States wasn't there, at least the Cubans could prove their mettle against a world power. But then, in a huge upset, the Japanese lost to Australia in the semifinals. Instead of going through the United States and Japan, Cuba has had to beat Canada and Australia to win gold. That's like the Red Sox burying their cursed past by taking down the Devil Rays and the Brewers.
Will the Cubans ever get a chance for revenge? Probably not in the Olympics. Talk of a World Cup tournament, which would include major leaguers from the United States and other countries, has left the Olympic tournament's future up in the air. Cuba's Communist apparatchiks worry that a top player would defect during the games. But perhaps Fidel Castro should encourage defections this time around. At least then someone might remember that the Cuban baseball team exists.