Cesar Espinal was optimistic before the big World Baseball Classic semifinal between his beloved Dominican Republic team of major league professional stars and the "amateur" Cuban national team.
"I'm not worried about my team performing," Cesar explained on Saturday morning before the noon start. "I'm just tired of hearing the Cubans trash-talking."
Cesar came to San Diego 10 years ago from the Bronx and stayed. "I liked it here," he said. His family, he related, has grown tobacco in the Dominican Republic for three generations. Cesar created his own cigar label with some of that tobacco. Cesar sells those cigars and many other well-known brands at his shop-cum-bar, Cesar's Cigar Lounge and Wine Bar, in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego, five short blocks from Petco Park, the home of the Padres, where the World Baseball Classic semis and final are being played.
Dominicans, some of whom live in Southern California and others who traveled here, mostly from New York, gathered at the bar. They waved flags and donned the team jersey. Cesar, if needed, would have had to change only his jeans to have been properly dressed to pitch to one batter.
Unfortunately for Cesar, whatever talking the Cubans were doing, they backed on the field, winning a sloppily played 3-1 decision to move into the final against Japan, which defeated Korea, 6-0, on Saturday night in a game that was a clinic in how baseball should be played. Of course, after Korean relief pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a two-run pinch-hit dinger, we wondered if the Korean manager had actually seen the 2001 World Series. Then the Arizona Diamondbacks closer, Kim gave up the game-tying homer to the New York Yankees' Tino Martinez, then the game-winning tater to Derek Jeter. In Game 5, Kim allowed Scott Brosius to tie the game by going long. This time, unlike the D-Backs, who ended up winning in Game 7, Kim's team got blanked by an unmerciful Japanese team that had lost twice to the Koreans in earlier rounds.
After the Cuba victory, Cesar was back at his bar with his compatriots. They were drowning their sorrows in beer and wine. There are some 50 beers and even more wines on offer here, in addition to more than 20 Ports. This, friends, is a cigar bar in California, a state that has among the most restrictive antismoking laws in the country. Cesar explained that he got his license to allow smoking only six months and much red tape ago.
"It took me three years to get it," he said. "I can't even explain the kind of license we have. It's different from the others." The result is, for all intents and purposes, a cigar bar in downtown San Diego.
That has made this long weekend that much more enjoyable. Friends and I traveled from different parts of the country to take in a unique event bolstered by the decision to eliminate baseball from the Olympic Games and borne of the imagination of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. The World Baseball Classic, or WBC as everyone is calling it, has captured the imagination of baseball fans around the world. Part of the fascination is that a U.S. team of all-stars didn't make it out of the second round, due in part to a confusing tie-breaking system that put Japan ahead of them despite having the same record. Part of the frustration is that the games took place during the Major League spring training, while the Cubans interrupted their regular season to participate. Don't even ask about pitch-count limits designed to save the arms of major leaguers before the season starts. And then there's George Steinbrenner, who didn't want his Yankees stars risking injury and time away from camp to play in the classic. Some of the Dominican fans argued that their stars were not ready yet. The Dominican manager had an answer for that grievance.
"I think everybody in baseball knew, even before the All-Star break last year, that we were going to play this baseball classic," Manny Acta told the media after his team was eliminated. Acta is also a coach for the New York Mets.
"Everybody that had the desire to play prepared themselves to play for this tournament," added Acta. Yes, they didn't have 100 at-bats or whatever before this, but we got all the way to the 'seventh game.' We played two rounds, the guys saw enough pitches, they had enough at-bats, and there's no excuses." As we say in Spanish: "Punto y final." (Period!)
The postgame gathering with Cuban manager Higinio Velez became somewhat surreal when he detoured from answering the first question about his players wearing their "lucky" red uniforms to address a previous comment he had made that turned into a "misunderstanding." Velez had tried to explain the difference between the superstars -- "names" -- on the Dominican and U.S. teams and his group of no-names, whom he called "men." The clarification was mind-bending.
"When I said that this was a [Cuban] team made of men and not names, I didn't mean that the others were not men. They're as manly as we are; we're all men and good men and hard men and manly men," Velez said. Kinda ranks right up there with Donald Rumsfeld's "you don't know what you don't know," a quote that came out of another recent conflict.
Manliness notwithstanding -- on Sunday Velez, threatened to slap a Spanish-language TV reporter who was unrelenting in trying to interview the manager in the Cuban team's hotel -- the classic has taken on meaning beyond what has happened on the field. The Cubans, trailed by politics throughout the tournament -- a "Free Cuba" sign was held up during Saturday's game until security arrived -- mostly stay out of the public eye. Still, a U.S. immigration officer has been at the ballpark to handle any "issues" that might arise. A different kind of sign spoke to the perceived snub by 2005 American League MVP Alex Rodriguez in first deciding to play for the Dominicans, then ultimately choosing to go to bat for the United States "Tickets to the WBC: $150," the sign began. "Denying 'A-Rod' roots: $252 million. Being Dominican: Priceless."
Ultimately, that's how most of the Dominican fans were feeling early Sunday morning, around 3 o'clock, after finishing their consumption of Dominican cigars along with libations at Cesar's bar. Especially Cesar.
"I'm not disappointed," he said. "I'm proud of my team."
Tonight's first pitch is scheduled for 9:09 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN. Cuba is the home team. The next classic is scheduled for 2009.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Cesar's Cigar Lounge and Wine Bar
503 5th Avenue, in the Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego, California