Cubans can play with anybody

SAN DIEGO -- For once in its long history of baseball successes, Cuba didn't cry at losing a tournament. Even though Japan won the final of the first World Baseball Classic on Monday, Cuba was not defeated.

"The most important thing is that baseball and the sport won," said Cuban manager Higinio Velez. "The quality of Cuban baseball was demonstrated."

Despite losing the title game 10-6, Cuba proved that it belongs at the world's highest possible level. The island nation played in its 37th straight championship game of an international tournament and still hasn't finished lower than second in any international competition since 1951.

"I'm not happy because I don't like to lose, but Cuba showed that they can play anybody," said outfielder Frederich Cepeda, who hit .385 with a team-high eight RBI in the tournament. Cuba placed three players on the all-tournament team: pitcher Yadel Marti, second baseman Yulieski Gourriel and designated hitter Yoandy Garlobo.

Cuba, the reigning World Cup, Olympic and Intercontinental Cup champs, fell short of adding a fourth title, but demonstrated it can compete against professional ballplayers. They finished the World Baseball Classic with five wins and three losses, falling to Japan, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, while beating Venezuela and then, the second time around, defeating the Dominicans and Puerto Rico -- teams loaded with major-league players and heavy favorites to win the first WBC.

"I'd like to recognize the work of the professional ballplayers, who for the first time forgot about the millions (of dollars) they make and thought about themselves to come here and provide a great show," said Velez. "We love and respect the major-leaguers, because most of them come from very humble backgrounds, and have succeeded with hard work, sacrifice and great effort."

More than 400 professional players participated in the 16-nation tournament, which exceeded the expectations of the organizers. A total of 737,416 fans filled the stands for the 39 games that were played in Tokyo, San Juan, Phoenix, Orlando, Anaheim and San Diego.

With its showing in the WBC, Cuba hopes that baseball is reinstituted in the Olympic Games, starting with the London Olympics in 2012. Baseball is scheduled to be played for the final time in Olympic competition during the Beijing Games in 2008.

"I hope the Classic remains and those responsible for eliminating baseball from the Olympic Games were able to see the great show that baseball is all about," said Cepeda.

Velez agreed: "Baseball is ready to return to the Olympic Games, but should do so with the best players, like the World Baseball Classic."

Enrique Rojas is a reporter and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com and ESPN.com.