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HAVANA – It was supposed to be a triumphant return.
After 54 years away, Cuban baseball was back this week in the Caribbean Series, a regional tournament it used to dominate with seven championships from 1949 until 1960, when Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports on the island.
Instead, three quick humbling defeats on Margarita Island, Venezuela, and an early exit from the competition have islanders questioning Cuba's ability to compete internationally — especially on the heels of other subpar performances.
"Nightmare Island," read one headline in Cuban official daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
"Let us be disgustingly honest: Justice was done," government website Cubadebate said. "The worst (team) was eliminated, the one with clobbered pitchers and weak defense."
Villa Clara, last year's Cuban league champions, got off to a bad start in Margarita with a 9-4 defeat to Mexico's team. An 8-5 loss to Venezuela followed, before a 9-2 drubbing at the hands of the Dominicans.
The Cubans salvaged some national pride with a 2-1 squeaker over Puerto Rico, but by then the country needed a miracle to advance.
There was none to be had: Puerto Rico's victory over Venezuela on Wednesday ensured Cuba would be the only team eliminated in the first round, and the humiliation was complete.
Cuba had never finished lower than third.
It's a new low point that reflects a crisis for Cuban baseball, which is a national passion and even obsession for many.
Since winning Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and the world amateur title the following year, Cuba has not won a single international tournament.
One of the key factors has been the defection of stars like Yasiel Puig, Jose Fernandez, Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman, who were lured to Major League Baseball by the promise of multimillion-dollar contracts.
"Our baseball, our beloved baseball, is sick. Its ailments are too many," wrote Marlys Rodriguez Francisco in the Escambray newspaper. "In Cuba we have not passed the stage of denial. We continue to believe we are the center of the world in baseball terms, and reality is crushing."
Rodriguez urged sports authorities to hasten the application of a new law last year that allows players to sign paid contracts to compete overseas — though complications including the U.S. embargo mean the Major Leagues will still be off-limits for islanders unless they defect.
"Let us not delay any longer the sending of our players to foreign leagues," Rodriguez wrote, adding that Cuban baseball was left to "look ridiculous."
Three players have been authorized to compete in Mexico's league, and Higinio Velez, president of Cuba's baseball federation, said the policy would continue.
"What is it we don't want? For our players to have to desert to play in a league," Velez said on Margarita Island. "What do we want? For them to leave legally through the airport like any other player, compete in whatever league and return to their country."