Opportunity lost for Lazo, Cubans

SAN DIEGO -- The door to the home clubhouse at Petco Park creaked open close to midnight, and out popped veteran Cuban pitcher Pedro Lazo wearing a red, white and light blue team tracksuit. Under different circumstances, Lazo, 36, could have been a star in the majors, and in a different time and a different era, perhaps he could have starred in the Negro Leagues.

Lazo is dark-skinned, emotive on the mound and a master showman who wears his stirrups high and his pants low and loose. He is old now, not ancient, but past his prime in baseball years. For a lifelong baseball player, that is pretty much as close to an early death as it gets.

A veteran of many Cuban national teams, Lazo is the most recognizable of all the Cuban players, though he's no longer the best and is not even close.

Perhaps before his weathered body forced him to walk with a tired limp, Lazo might have thought about how close he was to a different life, and he might have decided to make a run for it. Or perhaps he'd have a car waiting for him outside the ballpark that would take him to a hidden location until he could establish residence in the United States.

But not now. What could await him in America? Surely no major league team would take him at this point.

"He's not the same," one scout said of Lazo earlier this week.

So while security guards came in and out of Cuba's clubhouse -- including one who told the security guard at the door not to permit any Cuban players to exit the clubhouse -- nobody with the Cuban traveling group worried much about Lazo. He might have been the person least likely to defect.

"Excuse me, sir," the door attendant said in English when Lazo stepped beyond the roped-off section in front of the Cuban clubhouse. "You can't leave. You must stay here."

Lazo continued to walk a little bit farther outside the door until he finally turned around. Another security guard who was working the door told Lazo in Spanish that he could wander no farther.

Lazo said stolidly, "It's OK, guys. I can be here. I'm not going back with the team. I'm staying in America."

Lazo then let out a big smile. Of course, he had been joking. By this point in his career, Lazo, a veteran of four Olympics, knew the deal. You lose, you go home. And you don't just go home, you're escorted home. And who knows what happens when you finally get there.

But of the many tournaments Lazo had participated in, none had ended quite like this. After a 5-0 loss to Japan on Wednesday, Cuba was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, meaning that for the first time in 50 years, it failed to qualify for the final round of a major international tournament.

"How is the team doing?" Lazo said when a reporter asked what the mood was like in the clubhouse. "This is very difficult to take."

For Lazo, the loss carried an even bigger significance. From 1990 to 1999, Lazo was one of the most dominant pitchers in Cuba. He compiled a 78-36 record with a 2.94 ERA during that span. At the 2006 WBC, Lazo was 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA and one save. He easily was Cuba's most valuable pitcher in its run to the WBC finals. But not now.

Relegated mostly to mop-up duty, Lazo compiled a ghastly 7.71 ERA in two games. Clearly this was to be the end for Lazo in major international competition. The next Olympics is three years away in London, and even then, baseball won't be a medal sport. The next WBC is four years away, and by then, Lazo will be 40.

So in that short walk outside the team clubhouse, Lazo had found a quick escape and respite from a clubhouse that one stadium official had said was so quiet that "you could hear a pin drop."

As Lazo stood outside for that short minute, and it literally was not much more than that, one had to wonder whether all those years and all those tournaments had come flashing back to him, because this was it. For him, there likely would be no more chances at glory, and perhaps there would be no more chances to be outside of Cuba. This little patch of dull gray concrete near the clubhouse was sacred.

What an indomitable end for such a great player. Although his team was once again shut out by the Japanese -- in two games, the Cubans were outscored 11-0 by their rivals from the Far East -- Lazo was relegated to the bullpen as an observer.

"You want me to say something about the game?" Lazo asked the reporter before he popped back into the clubhouse. "What could I possibly say about the game? I didn't even play. Maybe if I had played, I could say something. But what could I say now?"

The Cuban players had bickered all night. In two separate meetings outside the team dugout, both after run-scoring innings by Japan, catcher Ariel Pestano seemed to complain angrily about the pitcher's performance the previous inning. He'd look at team doctor Antonio Castro, Fidel Castro's son, and motion with his glove that he had asked for certain pitches down in the strike zone, but the pitchers had thrown them high. Castro tried to temper the veteran catcher, but each time, Pestano stormed out of the meeting and into the dugout.

For all their prowess, the Cubans could not solve Japanese pitching. In two games against Japan, Cuba had three extra-base hits and just 13 total hits. Cuba's aggressive approach at the plate doomed it. Against Hisashi Iwakuma, who last year was the Pacific League's MVP and the Sawamura Award winner as the best pitcher in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league, 10 of 24 Cuban hitters swung at the first pitch. By the end of the fourth inning, Iwakuma had thrown just 45 pitches.

"I would like to congratulate the Japanese team for their great victory," Cuba manager Higinio Velez, who did not appear for a postgame interview, said in a statement. "They were much better than us, and that's why they deserved the victory. They do deserve to go on to the finals. So the only thing left for us to do is to continue to fight for our great game of baseball."

It was well past midnight by the time the Cuban team exited the clubhouse en masse. Players uncharacteristically carried their own duffel bags back to the bus. Usually, clubhouse attendants are assigned this duty. Prized prospect Aroldis Chapman, whom one scout described as being one of the top three pitchers in the world, dragged a heavy bag on the floor that clicked and clacked with the sound of bats bashing against one another. It was likely that as a 21-year-old novice player, Chapman, the loser in Sunday's 6-0 setback against Japan, had the indignity of having to carry a veteran player's bag.

Eventually, Lazo appeared once again. His dark, bald head glowed underneath the fluorescent lights in the Petco hallway. He walked past a group of Mexican reporters who had been filming him with a camcorder. Somehow, he managed a smile. Lazo continued to walk until he reached the loading gate, where two large buses, both flanked by security guards, awaited the Cuban team.

Lazo continued to pace toward the finish line with a small duffel bag around his left shoulder. He walked and walked until he loaded into a white bus and could not be seen anymore.
At 12:45 a.m., the Cuban team drove away.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.