Cuba have retained their position as the leading baseball nation despite a disappointing showing in the World Baseball Classic. That’s the message from the International Baseball Federation’s rankings, updated yesterday to reflect performances at the most recent major international tournament.
However, Korea and Japan are gaining ground and that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Havana.
This is the first round of revisions to the IBAF’s rankings, which were introduced in January (note that most of the links to the IBAF resources in the previous post no longer work). They take into account performances from the last four years and therefore the results of just one competition, albeit a major one like the WBC, have not significantly altered the standings.
The US have been the biggest losers, a little surprising at first glance considering their semi-final showing in the Classic. Their fall from second to fourth is due to the level of points that Japan and Korea received for being winners (200) and runners-up (160) respectively.
The US were also handed fourth place in the WBC by the IBAF ranking system behind fellow semi-final loser Venezuela, although no ‘bronze medal’ game was played. This decision has resulted in America gaining 60 points instead of the 120 that Venezuela received, something that seems unjust. Perhaps both sides should have been given 90 points instead, although Japan would still have beaten out the US to third spot in the rankings (by a mere 2 points).
Despite earning forty less points from the WBC, Korea were able to keep ahead of Japan to claim second spot in the rankings. The latter’s fourth placed finish at the Olympics last year has made all the difference when it comes to totting up the points. Still, the joy of retaining their WBC trophy will make this seem inconsequential in Japan right now.
By the same token, Cuba’s pain will not be healed by the news that they still hold the number one position by a decent margin (just over 132 points). They expect to win every baseball tournament they play in. Finishing second to Korea in the Olympics was bad enough. Not even making the semi-finals of the WBC? That’s a national tragedy.
So much so that Fidel Castro himself (or someone on his behalf) was moved to release a public response to his country’s early exit.
It won’t be a surprise to find that there is more than a slight political undercurrent to Castro’s observations. The placement of Cuba into the same Round Two pool as Korea and Japan has particularly irked him, being described as a deliberate plan by the organizers “to eliminate Cuba, a revolutionary country that has heroically resisted and has remained undefeated in the battle of ideas”.
He absolved the players of any blame, stating that “they are not the ones responsible for the errors that led them to the adverse result”. The players who were not part of the team following defections, “those of weak conscience who let themselves be bribed by our enemies”, didn’t get the same free pass mind you. Neither did the coaching staff, with Castro labelling the “team leadership in San Diego” as “abysmal”.
It is true that the Cuban team looked vulnerable particularly due to a lack of composure. A fiery temperament and a passionate desire to win are two qualities that can help you be successful so long as they are channeled in a positive way. In their Round Two loss to Japan for example, those emotions visibly boiled over when things started going awry. You got the sense that if you put them under enough pressure, the Cubans would beat themselves. Even with the presence of veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, who was coaxed out of retirement for the tournament, they couldn’t hold things together.
Japan and Korea’s execution of the fundamentals of the game impressed everybody and Castro was taking notes. He found time to praise the rigorous Japanese training regime and states that Cuba will have to learn lessons from their rivals if they are to maintain their “supremacy in baseball”.
“We have to apply methods that are more technical and scientific in developing our athletes … we have to revolutionize the methods for the preparation and development of our athletes, not just in baseball, but in all the sports disciplines”.
We will have to wait and see what this all means in practice. What we do know is that the WBC proved Cuba’s dominance of international baseball has been broken. They may be top of the IBAF rankings for now, but Korea and Japan are catching up fast.
The next major event that counts towards the rankings is the Baseball World Cup, to be staged in Europe during September. Cuba’s battle to stay ahead in the IBAF list will add yet another intriguing subplot to what should be a great event.