On March 10, 2006, the Cuban national baseball team plays Puerto Rico in the first round of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. While the Puerto Rican team was made up of major league All-Stars, the Cuban team was largely unknown to the world. Puerto Rico beat Cuba 12-2 that day, but the Cuban team would soon have its revenge.
Baseball has long been a favorite national pastime in Cuba. American sailors brought the game into port cities in the 19th century and its popularity soon spread. Professional leagues had sprung up by the 1870s and by the 20th century both Negro Leaguers and major leaguers spent their winters playing amongst Cuban professionals in the Cuban Baseball Leagues.
Professional baseball in Cuba was abolished in 1960, when Cuban President Fidel Castro instituted state-run athletic programs modeled after those in the communist Soviet Union. That same year, the United States placed a trade embargo against Cuba after Castro aligned himself with the Soviets, ratcheting up tensions in the Cold War. In spite of the trade embargo, the United States continued to allow Cuban émigrés to play baseball in America. The Cuban National League, however, does not accept players from other countries into its system, unlike winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and elsewhere.
Cuban baseball, then, had been largely isolated from the rest of the world since 1960, though the Cubans proved their mettle on the few occasions that Cuba agreed to allow their national team to play against outside teams. In 1999, Cuba played twice against the Baltimore Orioles of the American League, losing the first game 3 -2 in Havana, but winning 12 -6 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. (Fidel Castro watched the victory from his seat between Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.) Cuba has also dominated play in the Summer Olympics, winning the gold medal various times.
In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, few thought Cuba—one of the only teams without a major league player on its roster—had a realistic chance against the All-Star lineups fielded by the United States, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. While the combined annual salaries of the players on those four teams totaled $471 million, Cuban players made just $10 to $15 per month working mandatory day jobs and playing baseball at night.
Five days after being trounced by the Puerto Ricans, Cuba bounced back with immaculate play. They beat Puerto Rico 4-3 to move into the semifinals against a powerful and heavily favored Dominican team that featured major league MVPs Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada and superstars David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre. The Cubans prevailed 3-1. In the final, however, Cuba lost to Japan—led by star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and Seattle Mariner outfielder Ichiro Suzuki—which played the same style of game as the Cubans, relying on good hustle, situational hitting, strong pitching and team defense.