After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball


After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball

From Comcast SportsNet
HAVANA (AP) -- A team of college stars representing the United States faced off with a veteran Cuban national squad in Havana, reviving a series between two baseball-crazy nations 16 years after it was called off at a nadir in relations. Players and fans stood respectfully in the city's storied Latin American Stadium on Thursday night as the Cuban and then the U.S. national anthems played on loudspeakers -- the latter a rarity in the Communist-run island nation. "This is awesome. I've never been out of the country before, so this is my first time," said USA outfielder Johnny Field, a 20-year-old sophomore who won a College World Series title less than two weeks ago with the University of Arizona. "We've heard all the hype about how great the stadium is, and Cuba is at baseball, and it's already shown since we got here. ... We're fired up to be here." The last time Cuba and the U.S. played a series like this outside of tournament play was 1996, which even among 53 years of bad blood stood out as a particularly bad year for U.S.-Cuban relations: That February, Cuba shot down two small planes piloted by an anti-Castro exile group that Havana accused of entering its airspace to drop leaflets. Later, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, which dramatically hardened the U.S. trade embargo. USA Baseball President Mike Gaski said there was no single event that prompted the series to be suspended and decisions on funding, timing and scheduling have kept play from resuming. But he acknowledged that political concerns complicated matters, and said it took years of building relationships to bring about this weekend's games. "It wasn't for lack of trying on both people's parts. And there were probably political pressures that went on above our pay grades. ... I wasn't privy to those conversations," Gaski said. "There's always been an anxiety about defections, and maybe everybody's at a better place right now." The plan is for the Cubans to pay a reciprocal visit next summer. "The most important thing is to maintain this matchup, both in Cuba and in the United States. I would love to go play there," said Victor Mesa, the former star outfielder who's now managing Cuba's national team. There've been a number of Little League exchanges between the countries, and in 1999, the Baltimore Orioles became the first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1959. The U.S. squad of 22 players and five coaches arrived in Havana on Thursday with barely enough time to check into their hotel before it was time to head to the ballpark, where batting practice was interrupted by a downpour typical of the Caribbean summer. Groundskeepers managed to rake the field into playable condition, and the game started about 90 minutes late. In the sparsely filled stands, a few people waved American flags surrounded by horn-blowing Cuba fans. The U.S. won the opener 4-3 on Michael Conforto's grand slam and Jonathan Crawford's 6 1-3 innings of strong pitching. The series is a warm-up for both squads ahead of the upcoming Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands. For the U.S. collegians, all but two of whom are freshmen or sophomores, it's also a chance to see how they perform against tougher competition. "In the past, the big stars from the United States played against us. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Frank Thomas," Mesa said. "We are a measuring stick for the major leagues. We are an elite team with pitchers who could pitch at any level, so if one of these boys stands out against us, he has the talent to play in the majors." If baseball is America's national pastime, it's equally an obsession in Cuba. Stickball games are a daily sight in crowded Havana streets, and it seems everyone here knows the English words "ball," "strike," "inning" and "home run" -- pronounced "hon-ron." The U.S. and Cuba are perennial favorites at competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, and both sides express respect for what they consider a tough rival. "Whenever we've gone to a tournament, both USA Baseball and Cuba, I know we both look to see which bracket each other's in," said University of Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, manager of the USA squad. "For them to start this rivalry back up is like the Red Sox and the Yankees -- it's supposed to be part of baseball."

Young understands work isn't done after claiming Celtics final roster spot

Young understands work isn't done after claiming Celtics final roster spot

WALTHAM, Mass. – For so many years the game of basketball came easy – almost too easy – for James Young.

He stood out on a young Kentucky team that played at the highest levels, delivering the kind of performances as an 18-year-old college freshman that catapulted him into the first round of the NBA draft.

To be so young and already having achieved a childhood dream, to be in the NBA, Young was too young to realize how quickly the dream could become a nightmare if he didn't put in the necessary work.

The past couple of weeks have not been easy for Young, aware that the Celtics were torn as to whether they should keep him around this season or waive him.

They choose the former and instead waived his now-ex teammate R.J. Hunter, on Hunter’s 23rd birthday no less.

One of the first acts Young said he planned to do following Monday's practice was to reach out to Hunter, offer words of encouragement to a player he looked upon as a brother, a brother who is in a state of basketball limbo right now which could have easily been the latest chapter in James Young’s basketball narrative.

And that’s why as happy as Young is to still be donning the Green and White, his work towards proving himself to this team, to this franchise is far from done.

You listen to veterans like Jae Crowder, a second-round pick who has come up the hard way in the NBA, they speak of how Young now takes the game more serious.

Even Young acknowledged that he didn’t take the NBA game and the need to work at staying in the league as serious as he should have initially.

“I wasn’t playing as hard (early on),” Young admitted. “I just was satisfied being where I was, being too comfortable. My confidence was down. I have to change that around.”

Crowder, a straight-no-chaser kind of fellow, said as much when I asked him about the changes he has seen in Young.

“He’s taking stuff a little more serious,” Crowder said. “It’s growing up. He came in as a first-round draft pick and was on the borderline of getting cut. I don’t know what else is going to wake you up.”

That’s part of what made this decision so difficult and on some levels, left players with mixed emotions about the decision.

For those of us who followed this team through training camp, there was no question that Young had the better camp.

But the one thing that was never questioned with Hunter, was his work ethic. He made his share of mistakes and missed more shots than a player with a sharpshooter's reputation should, but you never got a sense it had anything to do with him not working as hard as he needed to.

That was among the more notable issues with Young who came into the league as an 18-year-old. That youth probably worked for him as opposed to Hunter who played three years of college basketball and was expected to be seemingly more NBA-ready.

Even though Hunter’s NBA future is on uncertain ground now, he’s too young and too talented to not get at least one more crack with an NBA team.

And by Boston waiving him, he really does become a low-risk, high-reward prospect that an NBA team might want to take a closer look at with their club. 

And Young remains a Celtic, doing all that he can to climb up the pecking order which now has him as the clear-cut 15th man on the roster.

He might see more minutes than rookie Demetrius Jackson and possibly second-year forward Jordan Mickey, but Young’s future with the Boston Celtics is still on relatively thin ice.

“I told him this morning, this might be the first time he’s earned anything in his life,” said Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations.  “He earned this by his play, day-in and day-out. He was given a lot as a young kid with a lot of promise, a lot of potential. We talked about earlier this summer, he had to come out and win a spot with some good competition and he did. He needs to keep doing what he’s doing.”

More than anything else, Young has been consistent in his effort, overall energy and attention to detail. But it remains to be seen if Young has done all that to just secure a roster spot, or has he truly grown up and figured out what has to be done in order to be an NBA player.