By Jesús Pérez Vichot (Chuchi)
No one should doubt the quality and importance of baseball and boxing in the history of Cuba: two sports that Cubans carry in their fabric and DNA. Just as Brazilians feel soccer or Americans feel basketball, to cite just two examples. But when we analyze all the Olympic and world titles achieved by Cubans in these two sports (baseball and boxing), we realize that they never faced the best of opposing countries.
In both sports, sometimes those from the Caribbean island had rivals who eventually became recognized professional figures, but we must also consider that they were too young. With this (I repeat), I do not want to minimize the quality of Cuban athletes, respected and admired all over the planet, with a special talent. But there will always remain the doubt of how many Olympic and world medals Cuba would have won if their opponents had been “the best” of each country they faced.
I have no doubt that Teófilo Stevenson would have succeeded in professional boxing, but he did not face Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, George Foreman or Joe Frazier in the major competitions he participated in. Félix Savón (91 kg, but he could have made it to heavyweight) did not test himself against fighters of the stature of Evander Holyfied, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe or Michael Moorer. There are many examples that could be mentioned, but I chose two of the most emblematic and successful Cuban fighters of the last five decades.
Something similar happened with baseball; for decades, Cuban teams dominated every international tournament that was held. Those were times when the exodus of Cuban baseball players was not common. Therefore, national teams were formed with a high level of hierarchy (they were practically professionals) and their opponents could not even take their professional players to these events.
In recent years everything has changed, now it is Cuba that does not go to international competitions with its best players, while the rest of the teams can opt for the presence of professional players, even in the World Baseball Classics they attend with their main stars and the greater of the Antilles does not have its athletes who play in the Major Leagues (The Association of Cuban Professional Ballplayers works in this aspect).
So, imagine those Cuban teams that were invincible, facing teams made up with their Major League stars. I do not disagree at all with the enormous quality of the national teams that won multiple international titles. They swept the Central American Games, Pan American Games, Olympic Games, World Championships and others. One thing, Cuba was Olympic champion in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, after the participation of professional baseball players in these games, they only won in Athens 2004, falling in Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008, and not participating in Tokyo. Yes, there are many reasons, that is clear, but the title became elusive. Of course, only the Asian teams have gone to the tournament under the five rings with the best they have (almost all of them), far removed from the World Baseball Classic.
I will only mention what could have been a great rival for that 1996 Atlanta champion Cuban team (Linares, Pacheco, Kindelán, Caldés, Paret, Manrique, Ulacia, Vargas, Scull, Lazo, Contreras, Ajete, Romero, among others), an American team made up of luminaries of the time (specifically of that same year 1996): Ken Griffey Jr, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Barry Larkin, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken Jr, Chipper Jones, Mo Vaughn, Jason Giambi, Craig Biggio, Matt Williams, Derek Jeter, Mark McGwire, Cecil Fielder, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Jason Kendall, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Randy Myers, Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Robb Nen, or Dennis Eckersley… and the Americans as hosts, with the crowd in their favor. Was it complicated or not the conquest of the title?
Nothing is impossible in the bat and ball game, but I am sure that things would have been more difficult for the Cuban team if the top stars of each country could be part of the rosters of their national teams. In fact, teams like those of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, which on many occasions did not qualify for these tournaments, would also have had a great chance of winning titles. I took as a reference only the boxers Stevenson and Savón, along with the 1996 Olympic champion baseball team. However, the situation would have been the same for any other boxer or baseball team that won the gold medal in summer tournaments.
I must emphasize once again (very convenient to avoid misinterpretations) that I am not trying to discredit the feats and achievements of the great Cuban boxers and ball teams. Since I think that if they had faced the best, history would have been different, I must also affirm that if those formidable Cuban boxers and baseball players had had the opportunity to be professionals and compete at the highest level of their respective disciplines, surely many would have triumphed. But we must be realistic, regardless of the quality of these athletes (demonstrated worldwide), they had a great advantage over their opponents for many years in these two sports.