SOUTH WILIAMSPORT, Pa, (AP) — A long way from home and playing in its first Little League World Series game ever, Cuba allowed just one hit Wednesday, but got no-hit in a 1-0 loss to Japan in an opening round game.
The Cuban team received a polite reception from the nearly 8,000 people in Volunteer Stadium, typical of the appreciation international teams receive at the LLWS. But the Cubans didn’t have many true fans.
Opposite the packed section of Japanese families sat a mere two rows along the first-base side adorned in the red, white and blue of Cuba.
As Japanese players embraced their parents after the win, most Cubans had only themselves for support. No families of players made the trip directly from Cuba to South Williamsport for the game, manager Vladimir Vargas said postgame.
“The kids are very proud of what they’ve done here knowing that their parents were watching the game on TV,” Vargas said through a translator. “So, the parents are very proud of that and are happy because the kids are playing here.”
Roberto Martinez lives in Las Vegas and was one of only two Cuban parents in attendance on Wednesday, Vargas said. Martinez said he hadn’t seen his son – also named Roberto – in “several months” and this week marked their reunion.
The younger Roberto led off and played center field for Cuba as his dad watched from the stands surrounded by many unfamiliar faces.
“I would like to have the opportunity to have more family members here but there’s no way for it to happen,” Martinez said through a translator.
Little League and the Federation of Cuban Baseball started talking about Cuba participating in the tournament during the Obama administration.
To get the Cuban national champs from Bayamo to this tournament, Little League worked with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control and the State Department to get 20 visas for the Cuban team, plus coaches and baseball officials.
Martinez said visas for players’ families proved too difficult to obtain, between cost and red tape.
“I know that it’s expensive, but it’s not only about the money,” Martinez said.
On the field, Japan starting pitcher Hinata Uchigaki had 13 strikeouts and allowed just three walks through five innings before he reached pitch-count limit and Akito Masuda shut down Cuba in the sixth.
Hinata also scored the winning run on Yohei Yamaguchi’s hard grounder to right field in the first inning, and – after being moved to shortstop – Hinata tagged out Jonathan Lopez to end the game.
Even though they couldn’t be there to watch the team, several Cuban major leaguers wished the team well and said they’d follow the team’s progress.
The team received gear from San Diego Padres pitcher Adrián Morejón, as well as video messages from Raisel Iglesias of the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins first baseman Yuli Gurriel.
“We never played in, like, such a big tournament,” Pittsburgh pitcher Johan Oviedo said. “It’s really good for them, for those kids to experience that and to play at that level.”
Youth baseball in Cuba, he said, “was everything. In Cuba, all you do is play to win. All you learn is about winning. That’s the goal.”
Houston’s Jose Abreu said that, no matter what happens in South Williamsport, “I think the one advice I would give these kids is whatever they do, just do it with conviction, do it with love. If they do that, they’ll be fine.”
AP Sports Writers Kristie Rieken in Houston and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
Seth Engle is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports