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Cuba’s semifinal place at the World Baseball Classic only heightens event’s spotlight

Alfredo Despaigne drew a walk to score the first run on Sunday's World Baseball Classic semifinal for Cuba.Megan Briggs/Getty

MIAMI — LoanDepot Park is in the Little Havana section of Miami, a silver dome wildly out of place amidst streets crowded with small businesses and apartment buildings.

But for a little while on Sunday night, the ballpark must have felt as welcoming to Team Cuba as Estadio Latinoamerico in actual Havana, only 228 miles away.

Wearing Cuban flags across their shoulders like capes, their fans flooded the ballpark for a semifinal game against the United States in the World Baseball Classic. They cheered the incongruous sight of the Cuban flag being displayed on American soil as the island’s national anthem was played before first pitch.


That joy was not fully shared. There also was a small group of Cubans protesting outside the park and a heavy police presence, a reminder that the national team also represents a notoriously oppressive regime that drove so many to seek a better life in the United States.

A fan seated behind home plate in the fourth inning held up a sign in Spanish critical of the Cuban dictatorship. There also were loud chants of “Libertad!” (Freedom!) as Cuba played its first baseball game in Miami since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

The game was briefly delayed three times when protesters ran across the field. One carried a sign and two Cuban flags. Even the Team USA players felt the conflict.

“We had a long discussion this morning about it. To be quite honest with you, there’s a lot of anxious feelings,” said third baseman Nolan Arenado, whose father is Cuban.

“We had a long discussion about it, we really did. We’re excited to play Cuba, and I know if it wasn’t for the sacrifices my grandparents made to get here for my parents, I don’t know if I would have been the player that I am today.


“So there’s a lot of feelings I feel toward it. I respect them, I respect the players.”

Arenado delivered a fourth-inning triple to help power Team USA's offense in Sunday's win.Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

Arenado remained focused on the field, going 2 for 3 with a run batted in as the US rolled to a 14-2 victory. Cardinals teammate Paul Goldschmidt homered and drove in four runs. A third Cardinal, Adam Wainwright, allowed one run over four innings for the win.

“That was the most crazy environment I’ve played in,” Wainwright said.

Trea Turner, whose grand slam beat Venezuela in the quarterfinals on Saturday night, homered twice and drove in four runs.

“The Phillies gave him $300 million for a reason. The guy can flat play,” USA manager Mark DeRosa said.

Turner, who has four homers in the tournament, said it had been several years since he homered during spring training.

“I’m not asking questions,” he said.

Team USA, which has scored 49 runs in six tournament games, advanced to Tuesday’s championship game against the winner of Monday’s game between Mexico and Japan.

That Cuba’s lineup Sunday included five players who left Cuba to play in the major leagues is a sign of some barriers breaking down. One of them, former Red Sox lefthander Roenis Elías, started the game.

Perhaps that will lead to more Cuban players playing in the majors.

“We haven’t been able to do that for reasons that it is not our job to explain,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson said via a translator. “They could come here without leaving their families behind. They could come here, play, and go back to Cuba. I think that’s a dream for many Cuban players.”


Ultimately, the WBC is about baseball, not politics, and the baseball has been very good. The tournament isn’t perfect, but it has become an event worth diverting some attention away from basketball or hockey.

It’s clear that playing for your nation means as much, if not more, to some players than playing for their team.

“It means everything. I love this,” Red Sox right fielder Alex Verdugo said Friday after helping Mexico beat Puerto Rico in its quarterfinal game. “There’s nothing more fun than putting this jersey on, playing out here and the atmosphere, just representing your country.

“It’s just been some of the funnest baseball, if not the funnest baseball, that you will play.”

Grammar aside, Verdugo makes a point that everybody involved in the tournament agrees with.

‘I think everyone is just watching, probably in awe of it. I think there’s probably plenty of players that wish they could play,” Arenado said.

“This really is a great tournament. There’s no reason why the stars of our game should not be playing in this. I’m thankful that we got Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, the faces of our game that are playing this thing.”

Mookie Betts, who was playing second at the end of the game, throws to first for an out in the eighth inning of Sunday's game against Cuba.Megan Briggs/Getty

Mexico coach Mexico coach Benji Gil was more succinct.

“I’ll go out and say it: Anybody that has a negative opinion about this event, they are absolutely crazy. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” he said.


For Red Sox fans, Monday’s game will be their first chance to see new left fielder Masataka Yoshida in prime time. He has been one of the stars for Japan in the tournament.

Yoshida is 6 of 15 with two extra-base hits, 10 RBIs, four runs scored, and two walks in five games.

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him @PeteAbe.