Cuba defeats Mexico to take Caribbean Series title
Pinar del Rio takes home island's first title since 1960
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Cuba's return to the Caribbean Series after a 54-year layoff last year in Venezuela was met with curiosity and rowdy protestors at their modest team hotel on Margarita Island.
The former Caribbean baseball royalty were strangers this time around, known as winners in international tournaments, but still foreigners to the Series. And it seemed they returned in name only, eliminated after only four games and departing Venezuela before the tournament even ended.
This year's Cuban team, a fortified squad from Pinar del Rio featuring some of the biggest names on the island, arrived like rock stars. They flew into Puerto Rico with a mysterious flight plan and rode around the island on jet black charter buses that carried them to and from a five-star hotel with adoring fans often waiting for them in the lobby.
Cuba was the favorite this year. The team lived up to the hype, overcoming a slow start to an eventful tournament and capping it off with a 3-2 win against Mexico's Tomateros de Culiacan in the tournament final Sunday.
The Caribbean Series title is Cuba's first since 1960 and arguably its most significant championship in a decade. The Cubans are back on top and the ghosts of championships past that trailed them in every tournament are tamed for now. The win comes amid changes to improve U.S. and Cuba relations and with Major League Baseball recently removing the requirement that Cuban players obtain a special license from the U.S. government before they can sign with a team.
"This is what Cuban baseball is all about," said infielder Yulieski Gourriel, the best player on the island. "We've had a lot of experience in international competition, in our Serie Nacional, and here against these teams on this level. Baseball is alive and well in Cuba. This is who we are."
The victory was met on the field with a celebration on the mound as chants of "Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!" echoed throughout the stadium. The thumping beats from a salsa band on a small stage in front of the main concourse served as the soundtrack outside the park. Players hugged and snapped selfies. The game jersey from center fielder Roel Santos was secured by the National Baseball Hall of Fame for its Viva Baseball exhibit.
It was a baseball party. Nobody mentioned the protestor who ran on the field in Cuba's last game or the two players that slipped away and defected earlier in the week.
On the field, Cuba's three biggest stars -- Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne and Frederich Cepeda -- combined on the island's first run. Gourriel and Despaigne hit back-to-back singles off Mexico starter Andy Vasquez and Cepeda followed with a soft single to center field to drive in Gourriel to put Cuba ahead, 1-0. The RBI was Cepeda's sixth in the last two games. Cuba tacked on another run in the second on a single by third baseman Luis Lao that scored first baseman William Saavedra for a 2-0 lead.
Gourriel's solo home run in the top of the eighth inning extended Cuba's lead to 3-1. Cuban starter Yosvany Torres pitched six strong innings, allowing only one run on two hits with five strikeouts, before yielding to Livan Moinelo in the seventh.
"This is one of the biggest things that can happen to us," said Cepeda, who was named the Caribbean Series Most Valuable Player. "I know our country is full of pride and celebrity with us because we will come home champions."
It's been a long wait for a Caribbean Series title.
An original member of the Caribbean Confederation, Cuba won seven Caribbean Series titles from 1949 to 1960. In 1959, communist leader Fidel Castro took over Cuba and ended the country's participation in the event after '60. Depleted, the Caribbean Series eventually disappeared for 10 years until a revival in '70 that included the addition of the Dominican Republic and Mexico and the removal of Panama from the tournament.
The Dominican Republic would go on to win 19 titles in Cuba's absence.
Last year, Cuba's Villa Clara club became the first team from the island to participate in the Caribbean Series in more than five decades. It finished the tournament with a 1-3 record and did not advance to the semifinals.
This year's team also finished with a 1-3 record after the first four games, but edged out Puerto Rico's Santurce Cangrejeros to qualify for the semifinals. Cuba defeated Venezuela, 8-4, on Saturday.
As for Mexico, it won its first two games of the Caribbean Series, including a 2-1 victory against Cuba in the first game of the tournament, before losing back-to-back games against the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
The 5-4 win against the Dominican Republic in Saturday's semifinal set the stage for Sunday's final. Mexico's first run Sunday came on an RBI single by D-backs infielder Walter Ibarra in the fifth. Right fielder Eric Farris drove home center fielder Rico Noel with a single off Hector Mendoza in the bottom of the eighth to cut Cuba's lead to 3-2.
Mexico would not score again.
"You have to give credit to the other team," said manager and former Major League infielder Benji Gil. "I'm just really proud of my team, the fans, the front office and everyone associated with Culiacan. We played hard and we made it to the championship game."
Next year's Caribbean Series will be held in a city yet to be determined in the Dominican Republic. There could be a new television contract for the Caribbean Series and a newly designed trophy for the champion by that time.
This much is certain: Cuba will be back.