There was a strange array of feelings as the baseball tournament at the Olympic Games in Beijing got under way. At stake was one of the most high intensity and hotly-contested gold medals of any Olympics, and yet the competitors knew that it would be the last time the event would feature on the roster for years to come after the International Olympic Committee decided to drop the sport from the Olympic programme.
As usual, the warm favourites were the Cubans. Since the sport made its first appearance in the Olympics the country had won three of the four Olympic gold medals on offer. They reigned supreme in Barcelona and Athens, not losing a single game on their way to the final, and they regained the title in Athens after another fine display of power-hitting.
Japan, theUnited States and South Korea were likely to pose the biggest threats and so it proved.
South Korea, under the careful stewardship of coach Kim Kyung-moon, went through the group phase of the competition at the Wukesong Baseball field unbeaten.
They recorded wins over the United States and the Japanese and, most crucially, registered a 7-4 victory over the Cubans which featured a five-run spree in the fourth inning. It was to be Cuba’s only defeat in the preliminaries, and after they crushed the United States 10-2 the stage was set for a memorable final.
On a sultry evening with the last baseball gold to be contested for at least the next 12 years, the two teams made quick starts. Lee Syeung-yuop smacked a two-run homer in the opening inning to give the Koreans the ideal start. Michael Rodriguez also cleared the fence in the second inning but for just a point.
Lee Yong-kyu added a run in the seventh on a double. The Cubans pulled one back through Alexei Bell’s homer in the same inning but they couldn’t close the gap and when Korean reliever Chong Tae-hyon got Yuliesky Gourriel to ground into a double play the game was over. The Koreans flooded onto the field and tossed coach Kim high into the air. The fact they would be unable to defend their crown could not have been further from their minds.