Nightengale's Notebook: WBC's Cuba vs. USA semifinal in Miami is fraught with tension
MIAMI — It may be the most polarizing game in the history of the World Baseball Classic, with protests and tightened security surrounding loanDepot Park, when Cuba takes the field Sunday night against Team USA in Little Havana.
Tension, resentment and rage have been building in Miami's Cuban community since the team beat Australia this week and advanced to the semifinals.
“A lot of people, even if they've been going back and forth,’’ Angela Torres, 70. tells USA TODAY Sports, “they'll still be upset about it. I know there's going to be trouble. Not violence, I mean protests. There will be a lot of yelling.’’
Torres is the mother of Vince Torres, chief marketing officer of tournament sponsor DirecTV, who attended her first professional baseball game Saturday when Venezuela played the USA. She won’t be at the Cuban game, but she’ll be intently watching like the rest of her family.
Torres was 10 years old when her family came over from Cuba with her parents in the aftermath of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
Her father, Angel Paez, proudly fought against Fidel Castro's forces in the failed operation supported by the U.S. government and was shot in the knee. He was imprisoned for 20 months and finally released in December 1962 when the U.S. government paid $53 million for food and medicine to Cuba.
He and his family came to Miami on a cargo ship one month later.
And never returned.
“No, I’ve never felt the need or the want to go back,’’ Angela Torres says. “Not once. Not while Castro was there.
Vince Torres says: “I would love to go to Cuba, but I will not go there until Cuba is free. That’s a personal decision out of loyalty to my grandfather. I don’t hold it against anybody else. It’s just personal.’’
The mixed feelings among Cuban Americans are similar to the players themselves. This is the first year that MLB players are permitted to play for Cuba. Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert from the Chicago White Sox are playing for Cuba, along with former All-Star Yoenis Cespedes.
Kansas Royals closer Aroldis Chapman, the seven-time All-Star and World Series champion who was born in Holguin, Cuba, refuses to play for Cuba. Tampa Bay star outfielder Randy Arozarena, who defected from Cuba in 2015, is playing for Mexico, becoming a Mexican citizen last year.
“You can see the conflict, the cultural element of it is so interesting,’’ Vince Torres, 49, says. “The challenge, unfortunately, is because some folks have given up so much to be in this country, there’s this political hangover that resides in people’s minds, that I think taints their view.
“I think the passion and loyalty to Team USA is undeniable, but they have this conflict, because it’s their heritage that’s on the other side. Players that come from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, these players will come play in the United States and be successful but they go home in the offseason or visit family.
“A lot of the Cubans that have defected or play in the United States, they can’t go home to their country.’’
The Cuban team understands what awaits, and refuses to get into any public political debates, saying it wishes to simply on winning a baseball team.
They can create a lot of national pride by winning the WBC, at least back home, no matter how it would be viewed in Miami.
“The players are focused and they will go all out to win,’’ Cuba manager Armando Johnson says, “no matter the position of the crowd. This is not going to affect them. It's going to be a tough scenario, a tough atmosphere, but we are both physically and mentally prepared for this.’’
Cuba president Miguel Diaz-Canel has supported the national team, even wishing them good-bye in person when they left for the WBC.
The dissenters will turn their backs on their team, condemning anything to do with the country.
“It is of the utmost disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here,” Esteban Bovo, the Republican mayor of Hialeah, said in a statement to the New York Times. “I am outraged, and I stand with the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition, and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the baseball game.”
For the Torres family, well, they just want to enjoy the WBC as baseball fans. Vince Torres, growing up and attending Coral Gables High School, played with major-league stars Mike Lowell and Eli Marrero, and against Alex Rodriguez, Shannon Stewart and Doug Mientkiewicz. He watched his first big-league game at Dodger Stadium, and now is a passionate Dodger fan living in Los Angeles.
But for this tournament, there are no mixed feelings.
“We all are very close to our Cuban culture, and we are definitely Cuban American,’’ Vince Torres said, “but the loyalty and patriotism that my grandfather had for the United States was second to none. …
“There’s a lot of folks that sacrificed a lot to come to this country, and if the story is told right, people will appreciate that, and appreciate the personal conflicts that exist as to why this is different for a Cuban fan in America than others that have immigrated into this country.’’
Boras watching nervously
Scott Boras, the agent for Dodgers ace Julio Urias, came to Miami almost primarily to keep an eye on his star pitcher. If Boras had his druthers, Urias wouldn’t have pitched at all – or had any of his clients play in the tournament.
Boras’ chief complaint with the WBC, he says, is that it can adversely affect the MLB season, citing the season-ending knee injury to New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz.
And on Saturday, his client Jose Altuve suffered a broken thumb in Venezuela's loss to the United States.
“The trouble I have with this whole thing is that an injury resulted in a divisional corruption of the competition at the major league level,’’ Boras told USA TODAY Sports. “When you lose a superstar talent like [Diaz], obviously we’re running into damaging Major League Baseball and the greatest pursuit for players, and that’s winning a World Series.
“Look at the Mets. They are a completely different team now, and the competition between Atlanta and Philadelphia and the Mets are now different because of a tournament.
“I understand the draw of this tournament, but it’s just that these men are part of Major League franchises that invest a lot of money. Many of these players are one of the top three most important parts of a franchise. An injury like [Diaz] can dramatically affect the outcome, and the fanbase, and the economics of the team, in many, many ways.’’
Urias, 26, is considered one of the top free agents in the 2023-24 class and Boras took out an insurance policy to protect his potential future earnings.
“In this process,’’ Boras said, “we’re asking players to pitch in the WBC, pitch in the regular season, and pitch in the postseason. That is going to be eight months of pitching, and we want our major leagues to be the best.’’
So, did Boras try to stop Urias from pitching?
“You can’t recommend things,’’ Boras said, “you just have to talk risk. My job is information. I have an injury list from the WBC, a full document, and I give that to all of my clients. For some guys, the tournament has been fantastic, but do I worry about the greatest athletes, and [Shohei] Ohtani pitching this number of innings and being a free agent, sure you worry about it.
“It affects his future.’’
Boras realizes that players, particularly those representing foreign countries, are passionate about the WBC. Some players put the WBC on par with the World Series, saying that a title would mean just as much.
Perhaps this is why teams fear the WBC, knowing that injuries can happen, particularly to pitchers, knowing they are ramped up as if it’s October when the calendar says March.
“These guys are so routine driven,’’ Boras said, “that no matter how you look at this tournament, for many of them, it’s an interruption. The competition escalates, and for these men who are playing for their countries, it’s really the only opportunity they have something personal to do in front of their families. So they’re 110% from Day 1.
“But what happens is that you’re playing Major League baseball, and you have six weeks to prepare, and in the WBC you’re getting two weeks.
“This thing breathes irregularity, no doubt about it.’’
If you’re not going to have the WBC at the end of the season, when exactly is the best time to have it?
“What tournament?’’ Boras said.
Playing with a purpose
Team Mexico didn’t hide their disgust when they were forced to play Friday night at the WBC instead of Saturday simply so that the Fox could televise the USA game against Venezuela instead of it being played on Friday on FS1.
"It's nothing against the U.S., all right?’’ Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “It’s TV. If I'm not at the tournament, I would be watching the game, and I'm not going to say, 'Oh well, I'm not going to watch the U.S. game because it's on Friday and FS1, instead of Saturday on Fox. I mean, you put the U.S. playing against Venezuela on ESPN The Ocho, like dodgeball, and people would be watching.
“I'm a baseball fan. I love the players the U.S. has. They're All-Stars. I would be watching that game if it was Friday, if it was Saturday, if it was Sunday. Fans of this tournament that we're bringing to the sport are not going to watch the U.S. game just because it's on the main channel and not FS1.’’
Around the basepaths
– Every major-league player in the World Baseball Classic is insured by MLB, meaning the New York Mets will recover the entire $17.25 million salary paid to All-Star closer Edwin Diaz, a high-ranking MLB official told USA TODAY Sports this past week.
Diaz’s salary, however, still will count against the Mets’ luxury tax.
– The union and MLB still are progressing towards a new collective bargaining agreement for the minor leagues, but even if it’s not completed by opening day, Clark is optimistic it will be finalized in April.
“A lot of progress has been made,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “We’ll see if we’re able to get it across the finish line before opening day.”
– Los Angeles Angels infield coach Benji Gil, 50, who has managed in the Mexican Winter Leagues since 2014, and now has Mexico in the semifinals of the WBC, certainly is drawing rave reviews as a future major-league manager.
“I hope to be a major-league manager one day,’’ said Gil, who has yet to interview for a big-league managerial job. “I hope to be part of the process.’’
Colorado Rockies former All-Star Vinny Castilla, who’s on Gil’s coaching staff, is convinced he’ll be a great manager.
“He’s got everything to be a major-league manager,’’ Castilla said. “He knows how to talk to the players. You know one of the most important things as a manager is for the players to give 100%. He gives the confidence to the players, and they respect him.
“I think he’s got a great chance to be a major league manager. He’s smart. He knows the game. The players love him.
“He’s got everything to be a major-league manager.’’
– The coolest moment of the spring was Washington Nationals prospect Darren Baker, the son of Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, hitting a game-tying grand slam against his pops this week.
“He told me in the morning, 'Dad, I’m going to get you. I’ll get you,'" Dusty Baker told USA TODAY Sports. “And he did.
“The coaches asked if I was a proud papa or an angry manager. I told them, “What do you think?’’
So does that mean that Darren was buying dinner like he suggested?
“Nah, I’m his Dad,’’ Baker said. “He always tell me he doesn’t have any money. I’ll always pay.’’
And, yes, just like a year ago, they are roommates again in Jupiter, Fla., during spring training.
– Mark DeRosa is learning how tough life can be as a manager.
San Diego Padres starter Nick Martinez returned to the Padres camp when he wasn’t guaranteed a start the rest of the tournament, and St. Louis Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright expressed his disappointment being bypassed in the quarterfinal game against Venezuela.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. has had just one plate appearance for USA, while New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil has been benched the past three games.
“I think for me the biggest thing I learned about is just trying to create roles,’’ DeRosa said, “and create a team. I think when we first arrived, it was this feeling out process.
“Now, like Mookie Betts came into my office, shut the door, and said, 'Listen, I want you to manage these games like they're the World Series. Like, I don't want you to worry about hurting anybody's feelings.’
“That means a lot to me because it's hard to manage a room full of superstars, and you know you're not going to make everyone happy, even though you're trying to. I've always been a guy that I didn't want anyone not to like me in the clubhouse. But there will be two or three guys [upset], that's just the reality of it.’’
– Boston Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo, when asked what it means to him representing Mexico in the WBC:
“It means everything. I love this. They're ain't nothing more fun than putting this jersey on, playing out here and the atmosphere, just representing your country, having all the Mexicans out there just yelling, making noise with the horns, the hats.
“It's just been some of the funnest baseball, if not the funnest baseball, that you will play.’’
– Chicago White Sox All-Star infielder Tim Anderson has played 6,659⅓ innings as a shortstop in his big-league career and zero anywhere else.
Yet, here he was, playing three consecutive games as USA’s starting second baseman.
“Out of any player here,’’ DeRosa said, “he has grown on me the most. I think when you play in the WBC, it’s a feeling-out process at first. He kind of wanted to let some people know how good he was in that dugout, in that clubhouse, the coaching staff, down the line. He has really caught the eyes of a lot of people on this team.”
Says Angels MVP Mike Trout: “He’s a star. There’s no other way to put it.”
– Padres reliever Craig Stammen, who sustained a torn capsule in his right shoulder, says his 13-year major league career is likely over.
“Without saying that I’m done,” Stammen told reporters, “it’s highly unlikely that I pitch again. I’m fighting back tears talking to certain people, but I feel really at peace.
“So even though the playing days are probably over, hopefully there are some other days that are going to be very positive and uplifting and a lot of fun.”
– The Tampa Bay Rays were the ones who invented the “opener,’’ and now appear to be going back to an old-school traditional rotation.
The Rays, who had the fewest innings of a starting rotation in 2022, are envisioning Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Zach Eflin pitching at least 150 innings.
“In the past, we tried to make the most out of our roster,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters. “We had good pitchers, but we thought they could be better if we were aggressive in some situations with them. Now, we think we have the most talented starting staff that we’ve ever had, and we’re going to let them pitch to their limits.
“We’re still going to manage workloads, but we want them to pitch as much as possible.”
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WBC's Cuba vs. USA semifinal in Miami is fraught with tension