Was Cuba’s Fidel Castro – one of the most controversial figures of the past century – truly a prized baseball prospect as legend has so long had it? Read all to details in my latest essay for the SABR BIOGRAPHY PROJECT.
Most baseball fans tend to take their idle ballpark pastimes far too seriously. On momentary reflection, even a diehard rooter would have to admit that big league baseball’s most significant historical figures – say, Mantle, Cobb, Barry Bonds, Walter Johnson, even Babe Ruth himself – are only mere blips on the larger canvas of world events. After all, 95 percent (perhaps more) of the globe’s population has little or no interest whatsoever in what transpires on North American ballpark diamonds. Babe Ruth may well have been one of the grandest icons of American popular culture, yet little in the nature of world events would have been in the slightest degree altered if the flamboyant Babe had never escaped the rustic grounds of St. Mary’s School for Boys in Baltimore.
Such is certainly not the case with Cuba’s most notorious pitching legend turned Communist revolutionary leader. Although Fidel Castro’s reputed blazing fastball (novelist Tim Wendel suggests in Castro’s Curveball that he lived by a tantalizing crooked pitch) never earned him a spot on a big-league roster, the amateur ex-hurler who once tested the baseball waters in a Washington Senators’ tryout camp would nevertheless one day emerge among the past century’s most significant world leaders. Castro was destined to outlast nine U.S. presidents and survive five full decades of an ill-starred socialist revolution he in large part personally created. Cuba’s Maximum Leader would greet the new millennium still entrenched as one of the most beloved (in some quarters, mostly third world) or hated (in others, mostly North American) of the world’s charismatic political figures. Certainly no other ex-ballplayer has ever stepped more dramatically from the schoolboy diamond into a role that would so radically affect the lives and fortunes of so many millions throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond.
Castro remains the most dominant self-perpetuating myth of the second half of the twentieth century, and this claim is equally valid when it comes to the Cuban leader’s longtime personal association with North America’s self-proclaimed national game. Rare indeed is the ball fan who has not heard some version of the well-worn Castro baseball tale: that Fidel once owned a blazing fastball as a teenage prospect and was once offered big league contracts by several eager scouts, slipshod bird dogs (especially one named Joe Cambria working for Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators) whose failures to ink the young Cuban prospect unleashed a coming half-century of Cold War political and economic intrigue.
Read the full story here:
Stellar Los Angeles Dodgers Cuban rookie sensation Yasiel Puig may have fallen ever so short of Joe DiMaggio’s all-time big league first-month base hits standard (46 for Hall of Famer DiMaggio in 1936 and 44 for Puig last month). But another sensational Cuban slugger has just equaled a unique standard for Mexican League base-hitting proficiency that had stood the test of time for nearly eight decades. In brief, if Puig only shadowed DiMaggio, Despaigne has now caught up with four-hall-of-fame Cuban immortal Martin Dihigo. Wednesday night in Nelson Barrera Romellón Stadium the slugging outfielder (currently on loan from the Cuban Federation to the AAA league Campeche Pirates) banged out six straight base hits in as many at bats during a 10-4 victory over Saltillo’s Saraperos. On the night Despaigne singled five times (in the first, third, fourth, sixth and ninth) and capped the onslaught with a homer off Dominican veteran Willy Lebrón in the visiting team seventh frame.
The six-for-six Mexican League milestone was first achieved by Cooperstown resident Dihigo on September 18, 1936 during a game between Aguila and Agrario played at Mexico City’s Delta Park. A full half century later (on march 28, 1989) the cherished record was equaled by native Mexican batting star Daniel Fernández Méndez during a contest between the hometown Mexico City Reds and rival Tabasco. Despaigne – a multiple-year Cuban League batting and home run champion – is currently coming off a season (National Series #52) in which he outdistanced José Miguel Fernández for the league hitting crown (.382 to .355). The Granma “Stallion” recently joined the Campeche club along with Granma teammate Yordanis Samón (the National Series number-three hitter at .354) and long-time Cuban national team third baseman Michel Enríquez. But Enríquez was discovered to have a nagging previous undiagnosed leg injury that slowed his defensive play, and Samon simply could not adjust to Mexican pitching; the result was that the pair was quickly released and shipped back to their Cuban homeland. So far Despaigne has obviously experienced no such disappointing setbacks.
Team Cuba Personnel Coming to American Soil
While there has been no official announcement of the Cuban squad slated to travel to the American Midwest and east coast in late July for a renewal of their series with the USA Baseball Collegiate all-stars, I have been able to uncover here in Rotterdam reliable information on the makeup of most of the traveling island ball club. The Cuban catching corps debuting on American soil July 18 in Des Moines will represent a complete change from the squad here at the World Port Tournament; the receiving duties will be handled by Lorenzo Quintana (Pinar del Río), Lednier Ricardo (Cienfuegos) and Lázaro Herrera (Matanzas). Nine pitchers will make the trip and seven are known at the moment. The group will be headlined by Ismel Jiménez (Cuba’s all-time career winning percentage leader) and Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara) who is fresh off a record 40.2 consecutive scoreless innings hurled in last month’s National Series semifinal and final playoff rounds. Other hurlers will be Diosdani Castillo of Villa Clara (the league ERA pacesetter at 1.55), Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos 14-game winner currently here with Team Cuba at the Rotterdam World Port Tournament), Jonder Martínez (bullpen ace for Villa Clara during the recent playoffs), Villa Clara southpaw Misael Silverio (the only left-hander on the incomplete roster), and rookie of the year Norge Luis who divided his season between Camagüey (his assigned regular season team) and Sancti Spíritus (where he helped fuel a near-miss championship run as a “second half reinforcement” addition). Two further pitchers have yet to be revealed.
Team Cuba’s starting infield on the American tour will be largely the same as the one now here in Rotterdam this week: José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos) at first; José Miguel Fernandez (Matanzas) at second, veteran slugger Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus at third), and Erisbel Arruebarruena (Cienfuegos) manning shortstop. Additional infielders include Andy Sarduay (Villa Clara) and Yurisbel Graciel (Matanzas third baseman). But there will likely be at least one major change as home run king Abreu is currently suffering from a nagging rib cage injury and will most probably have to be pulled from action. The outfield, however, will boast a fresh appearance with Yasmani Tomás being the only World Baseball Classic and Rotterdam holdover. Newcomers to the Team Cuba outfield include Darion Varona (Villa Clara), Rusney Castillo (Ciego de Avila), and William Luis Campillo (Camagüey). Castillo is bouncing back from a sensational 2011 fall season in which he lead the entire field in batting during the Panama-based IBAF World Cup; William Luis moved from Camagüey to Cienfuegos this season as a second-half replacement player and tied Elephants teammate José Dariel Abreu for the league long-ball boasting rights with twenty.
One additional holdover and also one new wrinkle in the World Port Tournament roster currently on display have also been quietly leaked. World Baseball Classic skipper Victor Mesa will replace Yovani Aragón in the manager’s seat while Juan de Dios (Sancti Spíritus) will continue to handle the pitching staff. A complete finalized roster (included ages and other personal data) will be available on www.BaseballdeCuba.com shortly.
The “wicked orange-clad witch” is finally dead and Cuba reigns yet again as champion of the Rotterdam World Port Tournament. Sunday’s second-straight 4-0 shutout victory over the Dutch seemed to put an end to a run of almost uninterrupted recent Orange successes against Cuba. The string started with two victories (including a gold medal triumph) at the 2011 Panama IBAF World Cup, nip-and-tuck wins earned on the strength of solid pitching by Rob Cordemans and Orlando Yntema. Dutch mastery was then punctuated with an additional pair of successes during round two of the recent WBC third edition in Tokyo and included a heart-wrenching late-inning loss that kept Cuba out of a second appearance in the WBC final round. The only interruption to the string of Orange successes came in last year’s Haarlem Baseball Week when Vladimir García shut down the host Netherlands squad 4-0 en route to Cuba’s gold medal triumph over Puerto Rico.
Some will of course argue that this week’s double shutout victories over the Dutch forces are shallow because this is not the same Dutch team that boasted top AAA prospects and a handful of big leaguers in both Panama and Tokyo. But that is a lame comparison at best. While this Cuban team did feature 13 WBC holdovers, it did not have the best of its WBC pitchers on board (namely Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Vladimir García, Norberto González, and Diosdani Castillo), while the current Dutch squad did display the better part of its Tokyo pitching contingent (Cordemans, Yntema, Diegomar Markwell, David Bergman, Leon Boyd, Kevin Heijstek and Berry van Driel). If the Dutch didn’t have the likes of Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Kalian Sams, Roger Bernadina and Andruw Jones in its Rotterdam lineup, it also must be remembered that in Tokyo Cuba never had the luxury of calling upon such big league reinforcements as Alexei Ramírez, Yunel Escobar, Dayan Viciedo, Yoennis Céspedes and Leonys Martin.
In short, the only truly fair comparison between Cuba’s and Holland’s international teams is one that matches native Cuban Leaguers against a squad representing those currently playing in the domestic Dutch professional League. Leave the exported professionals now laboring in the big leagues out of the equation. That was the matchup we had here in Rotterdam this week. And in point of fact it was Cuba and not Holland that was never at full strength since this Cuban squad was merely this year’s Occidentales All-Star Game winners and not a full Cuban national team. With a more level planning field here in Rotterdam, the Cubans roared back from a Game 2 7-0 setback (again at the hands of Cordemans) to dominate the final two meetings and finally put to rest the growing legend of a Dutch international dominance. The victory was sweetened for the Cubans by the fact that the two 4-0 whitewashings came against their two earlier nemesis foes from Panama 2011 – namely Orlando Yntema and Rob Cordemans.
Cuba won this tournament squarely on the shoulders of truly brilliant pitching, which is a great irony in the end. The Occidentales squad playing here boasted some of the island’s best sluggers but only a trio of its better pitchers. Since the Cuban brain trust was adamant about not supplementing the original Occidentales roster (despite the absence of Freddie Cepeda due to injury) the team arrived with only twenty-three players and seven pitchers (after Odrisamer Despaigne’s mysterious disappearing act in the Paris airport). With no more than seven available arms (all three opponents boasted ten) Cuba seemed in hot water from the very start. But such are the ironies of baseball that in the end the handicapped Cuban pitching overwhelmed this tournament and far outmatched even the celebrated Dutch mound staff headlining a full seven veterans of the March WBC squad that made it all the way to San Francisco.
In the seven-game event (including the finals), Cuban arms posted four shutouts; and two of the three remaining games were a 3-1 victory and 2-1 defeat (both against Chinese Taipei). The team ERA for the six-game round robin was a sensational 1.73 compared to 2.15 for the runner-up Dutch. Add on the final title game that the ERA comparison widens to 1.48 for Cuba and 2.43 for The Netherlands. On only two occasions did manager Yovani Aragón have to use as many as three pitchers; Cuban starters worked at least into the seventh frame on four occasions; veteran Wilber Pérez was the surprise of the week with two brilliant starting efforts and a perfect 0.00 ERA over 12.2 frames; and late bullpen relief provided by Duniel Ibarra and Raciel Iglesias didn’t allow a single tally across 9 full innings of mop-up duties.
Cuba’s highly successful run down the stretch started on Saturday with a 11-0 romp that saw the Cuban offensive finally come alive after two troubling tight matches with Taiwan. Aragón’s crew had failed to clinch a spot in the finals on Friday when they squandered multiple opportunities and left the sacks jammed in both the first and ninth frames of a 2-1 loss to the opportunistic Taipei ball club. Forced therefore to call on ace Ismel Jiménez for the must-win Saturday rematch with Curacao, Cuba jumped out early with four tallies in the third and another pair in the fourth; it was only a downhill joyride after that and a “mercy rule” knockout was assured when four singles and a hit batsman produced 3 final runs in the top of the eighth. Andy Ibánez was the offensive hero with his second straight three-hit afternoon against rather mediocre Curacao pitching.
Sunday’s game provided one of the best-ever Cuba-Dutch matchups as the Dutch again sent Cuba-killer Cordemans to the mound and Aragón was forced to come back with 36-year-old Wilber Pérez for the second straight time against the host club. Pérez nearly matched his early outing, but this time lasted only until the fifth frame despite allowing only two safeties. Cuba took early command in the third when Mayeta opened with a double but seemed destined to be stranded on third until clutch two-out singles by Yulieski Gourriel and Eriel Sánchez produced a two-run cushion. The game turned in the home half of the sixth when with two retired and two aboard clean-up hitter Brian Engelhardt smashed a deep drive to right that appeared on route to sail out of the park. Cuban right fielder Yasmani Tomás raced more than forty feet to the wall and leaped to spear the drive off the top of the fence and thus preserve the slim Cuban lead. It was one of the most sensational defensive plays ever witnessed by this writer, especially given the tense circumstance of a championship match.
After Tomás had robbed the Dutch of the potential go-ahead runs, manager Steve Janssen appeared to leave a tiring Rob Cordemans on the hill one inning too long, which provided a second irony of sorts. Cuba had lost the fateful final meeting in Tokyo (a game which Cordemans had started for the Dutch) when skipper Victor Mesa left Norberto González on the hill just long enough to surrender a game-turning homer to Andrelton Simmons. A similar scenario unfolded Sunday in the Cuban eighth when the already spent Cordemans allowed a two-double to Alexander Mayeta that plated the all-important pair of insurance runs and salted away victory for the Cubans.
Final World Port Tournament Standings (Round Robin)
Through Saturday, July 6
Teams — Record — Points — Runs (For-Against)
Cuba (first) — 4-2 — 8 — 22-10
Netherlands (second) — 4-2 — 8 – 24-13
Chinese Taipei (third) — 3-3 — 6 — 14-18
Curacao (fourth) — 1-4 — 2 — 11-30
Championship Game (July 7): Cuba 4, Netherlands 0
On top of their superb team effort, the Cuban forces also walked off with the bulk of the tournament’s top individual prizes. As the week’s fifth leading batter (.304) among those with the minimum required 20 plate appearances, and as author of some sterling glove play at third, Yulieski Gourriel was tabbed the WPT 2013 MVP. With the only fence-clearing shot of the entire event Alexander Mayeta walked off with the trophy as tournament “home run king” while Ismel Jiménez (with a perfect 0.00 ERA over a tournament leading 15.2 innings) was an easy choice for “Top Tournament Pitcher.” Holland’s Dwayne Kemp was named top hitter with a .400 average across 20 at-bats, but the true hitting star was indisputably Cuba’s Andy Ibáñez. Appearing in only three games (2 starts) during the six-game round robin, Ibáñez posted a .667 BA (six-for-nine) and then kept up the pace with another three-for-five afternoon as the Cuban DH in the Sunday championship match.
Individual Tournament Awards
MVP – Yulieski Gourriel (Cuba)
Batting Champion – Dwayne Kemp (Netherlands)
Home Run Champion – Alexander Mayeta (Cuba)
Best Pitcher – Ismel Jiménez (Cuba)
Press Award (Most Popular Player) – Michael Duursma (Netherlands)
Several young up-and-coming stars were showcased in this event, the group headlined by Ibáñez, Raciel Iglesias, and Johan Moncada. Twenty-year-old Ibáñez made his National Team debut (outside of a token appearance in the March MLB Classic) in sensational fashion with a solid three-hit performance as opening game starter at second. Reinserted in the DH slot for the final weekend Andy continued an offensive display that resulted in a final sizzling .643 BA and also played a major role in regenerating an earlier dormant Cuban offense. Iglesias (age 23) shared the pitching heroics with Ismel Jiménez and Isla teammate Wilber Pérez by saving four of the five Cuban victories. The wiry Iglesias worked 7.1 innings (3.2 in the finale), allowed no runs and a mere 3 hits, and struck out eleven enemy batters. Eighteen-year-old Moncada appeared only briefly in four games, had but two official plate appearances (one resulting in a touring fly ball to the warning track in left field), struck out twice, walked once, and executed a perfect sacrifice bunt late in the second meeting with the Dutch. (Moncada’s long outfield out was only one of about a dozen lengthy flies that would normally have cleared the fences of most parks; but this tournament remained largely free of long balls due to the extremely soft balls employed for tournament play.) But his brief display of outstanding physical tolls as a switch hitter and agile infielder were the talk of “scouts row” and Moncada continues to generate most of the buzz among the MLB scouting fraternity as the most impressive current Cuban League prospect.
There have indeed been some rather memorable individual performances down through the years to spice Cuban National Series post-season play. Outfielder Alexei Bell (2007) once smacked two homers in a single inning for Santiago during one playoff session and the same Bell also registered the oddity of three base knocks in the same frame during another post-season fray. Ernesto Molinet repeated the single-inning pair of homers for Habana Province only two seasons later. Omar Linares once homered in six straight playoff games (during the 1997 Revolutionary Cup post-season). But so far there has never been anything to quite match the rare performance authored over the past two weeks by veteran (but still young at 24) right-hander Freddy Asiel Alvarez of the Villa Clara Naranjas. Alvarez has now tossed four consecutive near-complete-game playoff shutouts (8 or more innings during each start) and has already written a new chapter in the Cuban League record book with his 33.0 consecutive scoreless innings. In the process he has also single-handedly launched his surprising underdog Villa Clara team (fourth-place regular season finishers) straight into the driver’s seat in the chase after this year’s Cuban League championship title.
The fourth straight brilliant outing for the Naranjas ace came last night in Victoria de Girón Stadium (Matanzas) during the lid-lifter of the league finals, a 4-0 victory for Ramón Moré’s overachieving ball club which is shooting for its first Cuban title in eighteen years (the last coming back in 1995 under manager Pedro Jova). Alvarez breezed through eight innings allowing a mere four safeties (all tame singles) and benefiting from a game-clinching fifth-inning uprising sparked by a pair of RBIs from former Holguín shortstop Yordan Manduley, plus an insurance-proving solo homer in the sixth off the bat of Ariel Borrero. For the fourth straight time Freddy Asiel was assisted by the stellar closing ninth-inning relief of Jonder Martínez, currently on loan from Artemisa courtesy of this winter’s mid-season reinforcement draft. As impressive as the Alvarez outings have been, it his perhaps more remarkable still that three of the four have come on the road – a vital factor given that Villa Clara has suffered from a home field disadvantage in both playoff rounds.
Freddy Asiel’s Scoreless Streak Summary (to date)
Semifinals versus Cienfuegos (25 innings)
Villa Clara 1, Cienfuegos 0 (May 25) 5 de Septiembre: 8.2 IN, 2 H, 8 K, 3 BB (27 Batters)
Villa Clara 3, Cienfuegos 0 (May 30) A.C. Sandino: 8.1 IN, 4 H, 8 K, 1 BB (28 Batters)
Villa Clara 2, Cienfuegos 0 (June 5) 5 de Septiembre: 8.0 IN, 6 H, 4 K, 3 BB (25 Batters)
Finals versus Matanzas (8 innings)
Villa Clara 4, Matanzas 0 (June 11) Victoria de Girón: 8.0 IN, 4 H, 5 K, 1 BB (26 Batters)
Totals to Date: 33.0 IN, 0 R, 16 H, 25 K, 8 BB (106 Batters Faced), 0.00 ERA
A review of the historical record confirms the rather unmistakable conclusion that Freddy Asiel has proven over his short career to be a far different (and better) hurler under the pressures of international tournament outings or post-season league games – games when there is little margin for error and when championship banners are the ultimate prize. His playoff winning percentage is considerably higher than his won-loss standard for regular-season action; over the course of the past couple of campaigns Alvarez has been little better than a .500-level pitcher and he has rarely dominated league hitters in domestic play the way he often has in a number of brilliant international outings. Most memorable are his brilliant starting labor versus a big league-laced Dominican lineup at the 2011 Panama IBAF World Cup and also his stellar losing effort in late relief against the Americans during the 2009 World Cup finals in Nettuno, Italy. Why a different Freddy Asiel seems always to show up for the most tension-packed games is now a conundrum to be deeply pondered.
Complete Cuban League Record for Freddy Asiel Alvarez
Born: April 29, 1989 (Age: 24 yrs. 2 mos.)
Playoffs in Boldface
Year (Series) W-L (Pct.) ERA Runs/ER/IN/SO/BB/Games
2005-06 NS#45 4-5 (.444) 3.83 21/20/47.0/42/28/12
2006 Playoffs 0-0 (.000) 0.00 0/0/0.2/1/1/1
2006-07 NS#46 4-3 (.571) 3.64 36/34/84.0/79/30/17
2007 Playoffs 0-2 (.000) 14.40 8/8/5.0/4/0/3
2007-08 NS#47 3-2 (.600) 5.66 35/30/47.2/27/22/16
2008 Playoffs 0-0 (.000) 2.45 2/2/7.1/4/2/2
2008-09 NS#48 7-2 (.778) 3.40 46/36/95.1/54/32/17
2009 Playoffs 4-0 (1.000) 2.33 12/10/38.2/26/14/7
2009-10 NS#49 3-10 (.231) 3.82 55/49/115.1/71/39/17
2010 Playoffs 3-1 (.750) 3.00 16/14/42.0/38/7/6
2010-11 NS#50 8-4 (.667) 1.89 34/23/109.1/73/37/17
2011 Playoffs 1-1 (.500) 2.08 5/5/21.2/14/4/3
2011-12 NS#51 7-5 (.583) 2.90 41/3/2/99.161/28/15
2012 Playoffs 1-2 (.333) 2.55 7/7/24.2/18/9/3
2012-13 NS#52 8-6 (.571) 2.68 40/30/94.0/53/30/16
2013 Playoffs 4-0 (1.000) 0.00 0/0/33.0/25/8/4
Career TOTALS 57-43 (.570) 3.12 358/300865.0590/291/156
Regular Season 44-37 (.543) 3.30 308/254/692.0/460/246/127
Post-Season Totals 13-6 (.684) 2.39 50/46/173.0/130/45/29
Somewhat overlooked in the brilliant glare of recent Alvarez starts has been the mostly spotless relief effort (he did lose once) turned in by Martínez, who had largely faded from the scene in recent years. Jonder earlier enjoyed a number of top seasons as a starter with the recently disbanded Habana Province club where he won a league ERA title (1.55) in 2008 and a league championship under manager Esteban Lombillo a year later. Jonder was once a mainstay of a Habana Cowboys team that for a few short years boasted the island’s best mound staff and also the main corps of Cuban national team aces; but along with Martínez the remainder of that contingent (including Yulieski González, Yadier Pedroso, Miguel Lahera, Miguel Alfredo González, José Angel García) all fell on hard times when they were shifted en masse to a punch-less expansion Artemisa ball club, a team suddenly stripped of almost all its heftiest hitting offensive support. With saves in four of Villa Clara’s five post-season victories Jonder Martínez (who was the successful closer in Cuba’s 2011 Intercontinental Cup gold medal victory over the Dutch) has now apparently found a new life in the bullpen with Ramón Moré’s revamped and currently high-flying Naranjas outfit.
To place Freddy Asiel’s ongoing spotless streak in proper perspective a few comparisons and parallels are useful. On the big league front, New York Yankees Panamanian closer Mariano Rivera currently holds the all-time post-season record of 33.1 consecutive scoreless frames (only one out better than Alvarez) but this mark was established over several different seasons. The major league World Series mark is also 33.0 innings and once again it is a multi-year record. Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson of the erstwhile New York Giants still holds the single-season World Series record of 27 frames with his three consecutive 1905 whitewashes of the Philadelphia Athletics – a record so ancient that neither of those teams have existed for more than half a century. While Freddy Asiel now owns the Cuban league post-season mark by himself, he still stands some distance short of the all-time Cuban League standard of 46.1 frames set by Maximiliano Guitierrez (Vegueros) during National Series #17 (1978). Three other Cuban Leaguers have also topped the 40-inning scoreless-string plateau and they are: Eliecer Velazquez (Mineros, 44.0 innings in NS#11, 1972), Manuel Hurtado (Industriales, 41.1 innings in NS#10, 1971), and Maximiliano Reyes (Occidentales/Industriales, 40.2 innings over two separate seasons in NS#3 and NS#4, 1964-1965).
Peter Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team as senior writer for http://www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past six-plus years and is currently writing a book on the history of Cuba’s post-revolution national team.
Ever hear of Victor Starffin? Born in Russia … displaced by the Russian Revolution and World War I … becomes Japan’s first great professional pitcher … banned from baseball and exiled to an interment camp by the Japanese government during World War II … returns to action on the diamond and becomes Japan’s first 300-game winner … killed at age 40 in a most mysterious auto crash …
As baseball historian Richard Puff once wrote …
“Victor Starffin’s life reads like a Hollywood novel and, in a way, so do his pitching statistics …”
The complete Victor Starffin story is now available on-line from the SABR BIOGRAPHY PROJECT at the following link:
And if you want to see a live clip of Starffin pitching, there is also one of those available on You-Tube:
If you like baseball mystery stories, don’t miss this one drawn from real life.
It should serve as some kind of a warning to those dozens of young players now leaving Cuba annually with inflated aspirations for grabbing the next Céspedes-like or Chapman-like financial windfall. It should also be a wakeup call for all those diamond prospects in Havana and points beyond that are still fantasizing about the coveted possibilities of carving out a lasting baseball legacy by somehow making their way into the North American big leagues. The list of current Cuban League refugees now opening the 2013 season on big league rosters is hardly a very extensive one. In short, it is once again altogether obvious that some of the most talented recent “escapees” from island baseball are still finding the pathway to top-level professional baseball strewn with many unavoidable and even insurmountable pitfalls.
Top young prospects like Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers), Jorge Soler (Chicago Cubs), and Ronnier Mustilier (New York Yankees) all enjoyed productive spring training camps and yet none were able to crack the rosters of their respective parent clubs. Mustilier batted a respectable .314 over 21 games in Florida with the Yankees, and one top New York scout even told me in Fukuoka, Japan early last month (during the WBC) that the former Santiago infielder was a likely Opening Day outfield replacement for the injured Curtis Granderson. Puig owned the hottest bat in the LA camp all spring (a .512 BA, with three long balls) before being shipped out to AA Chattanooga at month’s end. Twenty-one-year-old Soler hit only .222 during his Cubs initial trial but did get tested across 17 games and with 36 at-bats. All three showed well, but at the end of the day all were also dispatched for still another round of much-needed minor league seasoning.
A bevy of other veteran Cuban minor leaguers also once more failed to make the grade despite being offered a large dose of spring training playing time. Leslie Anderson (now 31) clubbed the ball at a .396 pace over 22 games but was beaten out by James Loney and Shelley Duncan for the two first base roster spots with Tampa Bay. Seventeen-year veteran Jose Contreras inked a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in late February, hoping for one final spin around the MLB circuit; but Contreras in the end saw no actual game action in the Pirates’ Bradenton camp. Twenty-nine-year-old former Habana Province outfielder Juan Carlos Linares batted over .300 for the second time in three spring trials with Boston but also is headed back to Pawtucket and the International League for the third straight summer. Francisley Bueno (age 32) enjoyed 10 spring appearances with the Royals before yet another reassignment to the minor league camp. And the recent apprentice-league sojourns of other former Cuban prospects like Jose Julio Ruiz, Yadel Marti and Bárbaro Canizares have all recently ended either in total limbo or with semi-permanent lodgings in the AAA summer-season Mexican League.
Opening Day MLB rosters for 2013 contain exactly 13 Cuban-born ballplayers, eleven of them actually refugees from the Cuban League and thus legitimately classified as island-trained ball-playing athletes. Céspedes and Chapman will again be expected to enjoy high-prolife headliner seasons with Oakland and Cincinnati, while American Leaguers Alexei Ramírez, Dayan Viciedo, Kendry Morales (now with Seattle), Yunel Escobar and relative newcomer Adieny Hechavarria (moving from Toronto to Miami) will likely all be starters at least at the season’s outset. After a pair of trials with the Texas Rangers, Leonys Martin seemingly has now finally nailed down the Texas starting centerfield post (along with the top-dollar bonanza contract attached to such an assignment); and it looks like highly touted José Iglesias will finally get his shot (after a brief apprenticeship in Pawtucket) as the everyday Boston shortstop. But despite this renewal of moderate Cuban big league presence, the all-time list of island major leaguers will obviously remain frozen at 169 at least until partway into the current season.
Cubans on April 2013 Opening Day MLB Rosters
(13 Cuban players ranked here by current 2013 MLB Salaries; # = did not play in Cuban League)
Pitchers in Boldface
Yoennis Céspedes, OF (Oakland Athletics) $8,500,000 (MLB Debut: March 28, 2012)
Alexei Ramírez, SS (Chicago White Sox) $7,000,000 (MLB Debut: March 31, 2008)
Kendry Morales, DH (Seattle Mariners) $5,250,000 (MLB Debut: May 23, 2006)
Yunel Escobar, SS (Tampa Bay Rays) $5,000,000 (MLB Debut: June 2, 2007)
Aroldis Chapman, LHP (Cincinnati Reds) $4,835,772 (MLB Debut: August 31, 2010)
Leonys Martin, OF (Texas Rangers) $3,250,000 (MLB Debut: September 2, 2011)
Dayan Viciedo, OF (Chicago White Sox) $2,800,000 (MLB Debut: June 20, 2010)
José Iglesias, SS (Boston Red Sox) $2,062,500 (MLB Debut: May 8, 2011)
Adieny Hechavarria, INF (Miami Marlins) $1,750,000 (MLB Debut: August 4, 2012)
#Yonder Alonso, INF (San Diego Padres) $1,120,000 (MLB Debut: September 1, 2010)
Yunieski Betancourt, SS (Milwaukee Brewers) $900,000 (MLB Debut: July 8, 2005)
#Branyan Peña, C (Detroit Tigers) $875,000 (MLB Debut: May 23, 2005)
Raúl Valdés, LHP (Philadelphia Phillies) $505,000 (MLB Debut: April 11, 2010)
It is true that former Cuban Leaguers at the moment edge out the imported Japanese Leaguers by the slimmest of margins. The two leagues each boast 11 alumni in the big time on Opening Day, but the presence of two additional Cubans (Branyan Peña and Yonder Alonso) – both island-born but Miami-raised and trained – tips the scale ever-so-slightly in Cuba’s favor. A full dozen MLB clubs currently employ native Cubans (the Chicago White Sox boast a pair) while the Japanese Leaguers are spread among nine different teams. The most notable difference, however, is that the Cuban list contains only a pair of pitchers (Chapman and Raúl Valdés) while eight of the eleven Japanese imports happen to be hurlers. (The latter fact is yet another evidence that Japan owns a pitchers’ league while Cuba remains a hitters’ paradise.)
Japanese on April 2013 Opening Day MLB Rosters
(11 Japanese players ranked here by 2013 MLB Salaries)
Non-pitchers in Boldface
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP (New York Yankees) $15,000,000 (Japanese League Team: Hiroshima Carp)
Yu Darvish, RHP (Texas Rangers) $9,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Nippon-Ham Fighters)
Ichiro Suzuki, OF (New York Yankees) $6,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Orix Blue Wave)
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP (Seattle Mariners) $6,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Kintetsu Buffaloes)
Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP (Chicago Cubs) $4,500,000 (Japanese League Team: Hanshin Tigers)
Koji Uehara, RHP (Boston Red Sox) $4,250,000 (Japanese League Team: Yomiuri Giants)
Tsuyoshi Wada, LHP (Baltimore Orioles) $4,200,000 (Japanese League Team: Softbank Hawks)
Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS (Oakland Athletics) $2,875,000 (Japanese League Team: Seibu Lions)
Norichika Aoki, OF (Milwaukee Brewers) $1,712,500 (Japanese League Team: Yakult Swallows)
Hisanori Takahashi, LHP (Chicago Cubs) $1,000,000 (Japanese League Team: Yomiuri Giants)
Junici Tazawa, RHP (Boston Red Sox) $815,000 (Japanese League Team: None)
Only twice in the past decade has an ex-Cuban Leaguer made his MLB debut on Opening Day, and that list has not been expanded this spring. Yoennis Céspedes pulled the trick last March, and before that we have to go back to 2003 and José Contreras to find a parallel occurrence. But the inventory of Cuban big leaguers is almost certain to grow early in the current season, perhaps before the month of April is out. The most likely candidates are Mustilier, Soler, or perhaps even Leslie Anderson (who might at long last get at least a “cup-of-coffee” taste of his long-coveted big league dream). Other longshots to break through this spring might be pitcher Noel Arguelles with Kansas City or outfielder Yasiel Puig with the Dodgers. It is almost certain that slugger Mustilier and five-tool prospect Puig will both remain on the scene for lengthy big league tenures before too many more months have passed us by.
Nonetheless, for all the recent North American media hype about Cuban imports, the actual number of islanders reaching baseball’s highest level has remained relatively stable. A handful of top prospects like José Julio Ruíz, Yasser Gómez, Yadel Martí, Leslie Anderson and Juan Carlos Linares, among others, have never managed to work their way out of AA-level or AAA-level status. Until the imagined day when a seemingly endless political standoff between Washington and Havana finally grinds to an inevitable halt – with the an equally inevitable collapse of the Cuban League as we have now known it for over half a century – there is little reason to expect that the flow of Cubans into the big leagues will alter significantly from its current slow trickle to anything like a long-desired (at least for some) dam-bursting flood.
The 2013 season will almost certainly mark the end of the road for two of the most successful Cuban big league imports from the current generation. The brief Contreras comeback effort with Pittsburgh’s Pirates seems to have met with little success and it is reasonable to assume that the occasionally brilliant decade-long pro sojourn of the one-time Cuban national team ace has now finally run its course. After splitting last season between Atlanta and Milwaukee, two-decade big league veteran Liván Hernández has also been widely rumored to be seeking yet another shot at extending his fading career. But no teams were willing to extend a contract offer as spring training came and went. With his four wins last summer Liván was finally able to push his career mark back over the break-even level at 178-177) and he has slowly climbed the ladder to a rank among the most successful Cuban big league hurlers from either the pre-revolution or post-revolution eras. Among his countrymen, only Luis Tiant (3,486) pitched more big league innings than Liván (3,189); again only Tiant can boast more starts (484 to 474); Liván (355) ranks third on the all-time list in pitching decisions (behind Tiant with 401 and Dolf Luque with 373); and no Cuban big league hurler can match Liván’s 177 defeats. But the ledger will now apparently end here, since there seems little likelihood that Liván Hernández at age 38 will make it back on the scene for a remarkable eighteenth major league campaign.
Note:1 There were two interesting side notes regarding Cuban players on Opening Day of the 2013 big league season. Padres first sacker Yonder Alfonso blasted a sixth inning solo shot off Mets left-hander Jon Niese in New York to become the first Cuban-born big leaguer in recent memory to homer in his team’s season’s opener (Yoennis Céspedes homered in Game 2 for Oakland one year ago). Also light-sticking shortstop José Iglesias collected three singles at Yankee Stadium during Boston’s inaugural game. Since such feats are not well documented, it is not clear when and if any Cuban-born big leaguer earlier achieved either an Opening Day round tripper or a season-opening three-hit performance. If one of my readers has an answer to this particular piece of Opening Day baseball trivia I would most certainly welcome the details.
Note 2: Ray Otero has supplied the answer concerning Cuban-natives homering on Opening Day and it turns out that it has happened more recently than I thought. Kendry Morales had a dinger in the Los Angeles Angles 6-3 victory over Minnesota on Opening Day (April 5) 2010, only three years back. So I stand corrected here.
For the complete historical listing of Cuba’s 169 major leaguers (1871-2013) see the complete version of this article posted on www.BaseballdeCuba.com (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsite/newsContainer.asp?id=3156)
My recent reminiscences (on my Facebook page) regarding the remarkable 1952 season of the recently deceased Virgil “Fire” Trucks drew some interesting responses that perhaps merit repeating here (for those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook). One of my childhood favorites, Trucks pitched a pair of no-hit, no-run games for the Detroit Tigers during the 1952 American League season; the first came on May 15 versus the Washington Senators and the second on August 25 against the New York Yankees (both by 1-0 scores). The truly remarkable feat here is that the Detroit Tigers managed to lose 104 games that season and Trucks posted a mere 5-19 record for the campaign. This raises the intriguing question: what other pitcher in baseball history (chose your league and era) can boast 40% of his season’s victories as no-hit masterpieces?
Moving on to only slightly greener pastures the following season (splitting the year between the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox), Trucks posted a 20-10 mark and finished fifth in the league’s MVP balloting. Thus we have a double whammy of true oddities. In 1952 Fire Trucks became only the third pitcher in MLB history to claim two no-hitters in the same campaign (preceded by Johnny Vander Meer and Allie Reynolds); there has since been one more to join the club (Nolan Ryan in 1973). Jim Maloney of Cincinnati also tossed a pair of masterpieces in 1965 but both were extra-inning affairs and one was a loss in which he surrendered a home run in the eleventh frame; by current MLB rules that first game was not therefore “officially” a No-No. Roy Halladay also authored a pair of gems in 2010 with the Philadelphia Phillies but one was a post-season affair. The second oddity for Trucks was that in 1953 he became one of the very few hurlers ever traded in the middle of a 20-win season.
The 40% No-No’s/wins ratio of Virgil Trucks was nearly matched only one season later by St. Louis Browns teammate Bobo Holloman, who managed to reach perfection in his first-ever big league start (May 6, 1953 versus the Philadelphia Athletics). Holloman lasted a single season in the “Bigs” and won but three total games. His ratio is therefore 33% and it perhaps tops Trucks only in the sense that his tally was one No-No versus three victories for an entire big league career.
But when it comes to such oddities we repeatedly have to turn to the post-1962 Cuban League. There in 1966 right-hander Aquino Abreu (laboring for the Centrales ball club) matched Johnny Vander Meer with consecutive gems in January 16 and January 25. Abreu actually did Vander Meer one better since in the outing immediately preceding his two gems he authored a 20-inning complete game (which he actually managed to lose, but only after 19.1 innings of unparalleled shutout hurling). No big leaguers has ever tossed 19-plus scoreless inning in a single game. And Abreu also outstripped both Trucks and Holloman since his record for that 1966 season (his team played only 63 games) was a mere 3-2. For Abreu that year his no-hitters comprised 66% of his total victories!
For the complete story of Aquino Abreu – one of baseball’s most remarkable unknown figures – the reader can turn to my SABR Biography Project essay found on-line at: http://mlb.mlb.com/cutfour/#contentId=43280748
And then there is one more interesting footnote to the Virgil Trucks saga – this one more directly related to his passing earlier this week at the remarkable age of 95. In an essay recently posted on MLB.com, historian Chris Jaffe is quoted as pointing out that the single remaining living ball player (now that Trucks is gone) to “play” against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series is 89-year old former Tigers outfielder Ed Mierkowicz. The point of Jaffe’s observation (http://mlb.mlb.com/cutfour/#contentId=43280748) is of course to yet again underscore the “dead horse” involving the length of time since the last Fall Classic staged in Chicago’s North End.
And the observation is correct enough, but only because of a semantic technicality involving the verb “played”. There was another still-very-much-alive member of that 1945 Detroit Tigers World Series entrant who was indeed on the club’s active World Series roster; unfortunately, however, he never made it out of the bull pen and into the Detroit lineup. The great irony here is that this other player was 18-year-old rookie phenomenon Billy Pierce, who would eventually make three appearances the next time the Windy City hosted a World Series in 1959 (of course with the Go-Go White Sox and not the downtrodden Cubbies).
The World Baseball Classic has now crowned a novel champion, with the Dominican Republic recovering from its 2009 first-round ouster to become the first country to sweep through the WBC field undefeated. Japan has finally relinquished its iron grip on the MLB Classic title for the first time in the brief three-session span of the tournament. And Cuba, despite the stark disappointment of not reach the final round in San Francisco, has surprisingly also held onto its top world ranking and actually stretched its slim lead over the runner-up Americans by 21 points. These are the realities reflected in the latest 2013 (Post-WBC) men’s world baseball rankings released this morning on the official website of the IBAF (International Baseball Federation), the sport’s ruling international body.
While few Americans pay any heed to these IBAF polls (or are even aware of their existence), the bi-yearly rankings have been long trumpeted by the Cuban Baseball Federation as a badge of honor and as one important measure of the successes of an exclusively domestic (no foreign players) and non-capitalist baseball system. It was widely speculated that by failing to reach the exclusive “final four” group in this year’s Classic Cuba would finally be toppled from its long-held top slot and thus suffer a double-whammy to its slipping international baseball prestige. Such a tumble might well have been the case had the MLB-packed USA lineup not stumbled at the identical juncture in the tournament, also failing to get out of the WBC second round for the second time in three tries. A Cuban slip in the polls might also have been the result had Japan captured a third crown in San Francisco, or had it been Chinese Taipei and not The Netherlands that ambushed the Cuban forces in Tokyo. What finally played in the islander’s favor was the fact that three countries advancing to the finals all came from much further down the ladder in last fall’s most recent IBAF polling.
The current IBAF tally has now replaced the points earned at the 2009 WBC with those amassed from this year’s third edition. The biggest gainers were the Dominicans under manager Tony Peña who substituted the 55.02 points earned via the 2009 first-round debacle with 300.00 points won as this year’s champions. The upshot was a huge leap from thirteenth to seventh – the country’s first appearance in the Top Ten since polling began back in 2008. WBC III sub-champion Puerto Rico also bounced upward from twelfth to eighth, while The Netherlands (with a first Classic final-round appearance) and Chinese Taipei (winner of the November 2012 Asian WBC Qualifier) both edged into the prestigious Top Five for the first time.
Other noteworthy team movements in the recent poll involved Italy, South Korea and Brazil. The latter country finally cracked the Top 20 (despite a first-round WBC ouster) on the strength of a November victory in the Caribbean Classic Qualifier. A perennial fixture near the top of the rankings (fourth last time and third a year earlier), the Koreans tumbled five slots after failing to make it out of WBC Pool B in Taichung. And despite a dramatic underdog showing by the game Italians that lifted the surprising Europeans into this year’s WBC second round, nonetheless Italy actually slipped a few notches in stature (and was bumped out of the Top Ten) largely because both the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans charged past them by reaching the San Francisco finals.
Post-Classic IBAF World Rankings (March 2013)
Country – 2013 Points – 2012 Rank (Points)
1. Cuba – 772.98 – 1 (766.01) same
2. USA – 719.27 – 2 (733.25) same
3. Japan – 544.42 – 3 (564.42) same
4. Chinese Taipei – 541.79 – 8 (384.79) up 4 slots
5. The Netherlands – 497.76 – 6 (476.76) up 1 slot
6. Canada – 492.02 – 5 (485.0) down 1 slot)
7. Dominican Republic – 449.18 – 13 (204.20) up 6 slots)
8. Puerto Rico – 361.25 – 9 (241.73) up 1 slot
9. South Korea – 333.22 – 4 (488.20) down 5 slots
10. Venezuela – 318.13 – 7 (459.63) down 3 slots
11. Italy – 235.80 – 11 (214.80) same
12. Mexico – 187.95 – 10 (231.48) down 2 slots
13. Australia – 183.95 – 12 (211.97) down 1 slot
14. Panama – 128.97 – 15 (109.74) up one slot
15. Nicaragua – 125.01 – 14 (140.01) down 1 slot
16. Spain – 122.53 – 16 (109.51) same
17. Germany – 96.83 – 17 (96.83) same
18. Brazil – 96.21 – Not in Top 20
19. Colombia – 86.25 – 20 (58.75) up 1 slot
20. China – 80.50 – 18 (79.48) down 2 slots
While both the Cubans and Americans escaped further loss of prestige by hanging on to the top IBAF slots, those leads now stand very much in jeopardy. The next poll will be released in mid-fall, and for that next ranking all tournament results from 2009 will be scrubbed. The upshot is that both Cuba and the USA (finalists in the 2009 World Cup in Europe) will see 250 points erased from their current totals, enough of a loss to likely lift Japan into the driver’s seat for the first time. The downside at the moment for Cuba is that no top level (and thus potential point-producing) tournament events remain on this year’s IBAF calendar.
The formulas for determining these rankings are quite complex since they involve not only a given team’s finish in a sanctioned event, but also a multiplier factor based on the prestige of an individual tournament and the quality (rankings) of the various countries entered in that particular event. Cuba’s increased margin over the Americans in this latest rankings came about largely because last fall’s Asian tour (Thunder Series with the Taiwan national squad and Samurai Japan competitions with the Nippon all-star squad) were both IBAF sanctioned point-earning events. For a detailed explanation of how this system actually works one should turn to the IBAF website found at http://www.ibaf.org.
The third edition of the World Baseball Classic – MLB’s slowly-growing attempt at providing a diamond equivalent for FIFA’s celebrated soccer World Cup – is now in the history books. The cheering and speculation and endless debate are now all put to rest in the wake of the most polished, successful and entertaining WBC to date; and perhaps it is now time for some final thoughts and perspectives from a writer who has witnessed each of Team Cuba’s twenty Classic games from a front row press box seat. For the second consecutive time millions of Cuban fans were deeply disappointed by the failure of the current Red Machine squad to duplicate the miracle run of 2006 and thus reach the tournament’s final round. That stinging disappointment was perhaps especially bitter this time around since the final crucial second-round setback came not at the hands of the celebrated Japanese but rather against the undervalued Dutch – a rival that Cuban squads once beat up with almost boring regularity.
This dismay at the final Cuban loss in Tokyo and the consequent failure to reach San Francisco is perhaps understandable enough, but it also serves to obscure two essential facts surrounding the islanders’ WBC resume: first and foremost, that this year’s ouster came at the hands of a big-league-studded Dutch roster the equal of any Japanese squads from earlier Classics, and secondly that this year’s Cuban edition played far better in Fukuoka and Tokyo than did the earlier Cuban clubs sent to San Juan, Mexico City and San Diego. In March 2009 Cuba was never close in its pair of round-two defeats at the hands of superior Nippon pitching. This time both games with the Dutch might have gone either way in the end; both were lost on late-inning home runs served up in each case by a single bad offering from two of Cuba’s most reliable bullpen aces.
I have been accused time and again by my critics in Havana and Miami of overhyping Cuba’s Classic teams simply because of what some see as my blind love for Cuban baseball. The irony here, of course, is that it is the same blind love that also repeatedly keeps Cuban partisans back in Havana and across the rest of the island from themselves seeing their favorites objectively; it is their own provincial blindness that thus leads to the full deluge of criticisms and second guessing that is always flowing from Cuba’s enthusiastic population of “eleven-million managers” back home. But one advantage I hold over those who watch the games only on television and thus from afar is the rare privilege of sitting game after game alongside members of the international baseball press and also with the large community of major league scouts (many of them former big league or minor league players); both camps regularly and openly share their far more expert opinions with me about what they see in the way of plusses and minuses from the current Cuban teams performing on the field. It is those insights from other knowledge experts that often sustain and underpin my own carefully formed (and not at all emotionally charged) assessments.
One opinion was nearly universal among big league scouts sent to Japan and it was that Cuba had the most talented roster of any of the four clubs in Fukuoka or any of the four that reached Tokyo. Of the individual players on display in the Tokyo Dome two weeks ago none stirred more interest among pro scouts than Yasmani Tomás, José Fernández, José Dariel Abreu, Bárbaro Arruebarruena, Guillermo Heredia and (although he saw little action) 19-year-old Andy Ibáñez. More than three dozen bird dogs expressed the strong opinion that the Cuban squad should have reached San Francisco and in fact would likely have fared far better in California than either Japan or The Netherlands.
Then why did Cuba lose its final vital match? Was it a subpar fielding performance by third sacker Yulieski Gourriel that held the key to last-minute ninth-inning defeat, was it faulty managerial tactics by chaotic skipper Victor Mesa who stumbled in juggling his bullpen corps, was it one fatal pitch from a tired Norberto González with only four outs remaining before ultimate victory – was it even more likely the clutch hitting of Dutch big leaguers Jonathan Schoop and Andrelton Simmons? Or was it simply that the baseball often bounces in odd ways and (especially in such short pressure-packed tournaments) the best club does not always win out night after night. These are points that can be debated endlessly and I don’t claim to have any expert answers here, or any insights more valid than those of many ill-informed debaters in Havana’s Central Park. Baseball is an unpredictable game and victory and defeat are always settled “en el terreno” (a favorite Cuban expression) and never in the pages of journalistic analysis.
I fully admit that Cuba’s final game loss in the Tokyo Dome was somewhat unexpected and largely disappointing. But I totally reject the idea that one such loss represents a failure of Cuba’s current baseball system, or stands as a signal (according to so many) that Cuban baseball now has to be completely revamped and restructured. If Cuba’s three WBC performances signal some flaw in the Cuban League, than what do Cuban fans make of the apparent sad state of the national pastime in the United States – three American squads crammed with big league all-stars like Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodríguez, David Wright, R.A. Dickey and so many more – have amassed an overall Classic record far inferior to the one Cuba boasts. The vaunted Americans have played at a mere .500 clip in their three outings, have reached the final round the same number of times as the Cubans, were eliminated at the same level as Team Cuban this time around, and have failed to match Cuba’s one trip to the tournament’s gold medal game. But is this because of a total collapse of American baseball? Do we hear anyone screaming that because of American WBC failures we should now be considering a total revamping in the structure of major league baseball?
Yes, the object of any tournament is to reach the finals and ultimate to walk away as champions. But there is never only one champion and 15 other complete failures. There are many measures of success and many proud performances. Let’s step back for a moment and look at the total record. Of the 18 national teams that have performed in the three editions of the Classic there are five who have consistently performed extremely well and those five are (despite some temporary dips along the way over the years) Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and, yes, certainly Cuba. These are the five that have each reached the final championship game on at least one occasion and also the five who have posted overall winning percentages above the .600 mark – a degree of success that usually represents championship standing in the big leagues. Japan is the only club to win the title twice, Korea is the only other team to reach multiple finals, and the Dominicans are the only squad (this year) ever to roll through the tournament field undefeated. Look at the list of three-year records (below) and one finds that Cuba boasts the fourth best winning percentage – trailing only the Dominicans, Koreans, and Japanese and slightly edging out this year’s sub-champions from Puerto Rico. The proud baseball nations of Venezuela (perhaps today’s richest big league talent font) and the United States (boaster of a false claim that the sport is its own exclusive national pastime) are nowhere to be found of this list.
True the Cuban winning percentage of .650 pales beside an overall international mark of better than .900 in international matches between 1962 and 2005 (the year before the first Classic finally opened top international tournaments to major leaguers). But come on folks, this is comparing platens to pickles – Cuba once won nine of every ten matches because it was squaring off with college ball clubs and industrial league all-stars and not with major leaguers. But to win 13 of 20 games against seasoned pros – to defeat Albert Pujols and company in 2006 in the semis, or even to ease past the crack Japanese League all-star squad this year in Fukuoka – this is a bat rack of a far different color.
A notch below the big five from Japan, Korea, Dominicana, Puerto Rico and Cuba we find the threesome of Venezuela, The Netherlands, and Team USA – the only other trio to ever reach the tournament’s final four. Of this group only the Venezuelans boast an overall ledger on the upside of the breakeven mark. Even with their run past Cuba and into San Francisco this time around, the Dutch finished at a mere 4 and 4 ledger during the 2013 Classic; Cuba’s record this year was 4-2. And this leads to another yardstick. How many countries have posted a winning record in all three Classic outings? Only four: Japan (5-3, 7-2, 5-2), Korea (6-1, 6-3, 2-1), Puerto Rico (4-2, 4-2. 5-4) and Cuba (5-3, 4-2, 4-2). Will someone please explain to me how this exclusive fraternity of winners might demonstrate in any fashion that Cuba’s current baseball is incapable of remaining competitive in the World Baseball Classic.
Composite Records for All Classic Teams
Teams Reaching Finals
(1) Dominican Republic (Champion 2013) Record: 14-4 (.777 Pct.)
(2) Korea (Sub-Champion 2009) Record: 14-5 (.737 Pct.)
(3) Japan (Champion 2006, 2009) Record: 17-7 (.708 Pct.)
(4) Cuba (Sub-Champion 2006) Record: 13-7 (.650 Pct.)
(5) Puerto Rico (Sub-Champion 2013) Record: 13-8 (.619 Pct.)
Additional Teams Reaching Semifinals
Venezuela (2009) Record: 10-7 (.588 Pct.)
USA (2009) Record: 10-10 (.500 Pct.)
The Netherlands (2013) Record: 7-10 (.412 Pct.)
Teams Reaching Second Round Only
Mexico (2006, 2009) Record: 6-9 (.400 Pct.)
Italy (2013) Record: 4-7 (.364 Pct.)
Chinese Taipei (2013) Record: 3-7 (.300 Pct.)
Teams Playing in First Round Only
Canada (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 3-5 (.375 Pct.)
China (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 2-7 (.222 Pct.)
Australia (2006, 2009, 2013) Record: 1-8 (.111 Pct.)
Teams Claiming No Victories
South Africa (2006, 2009) Record: 0-5 (.000 Pct.)
Panama (2006, 2009) Record: 0-5 (.000 Pct.)
Brazil (2013) Record: 0-3 (.000 Pct.)
Spain (2013) Record: 0-3 (.000 Pct.)
A devoted Cuban fan from Miami posted an observation on my Facebook page last night that captured the sentiments of many – that Cuba needs to start using its exiled big league players (Céspedes, Chapman, Alexei Ramírez, Escobar, Maya, Liván etc.) if it ever hopes to have success in the Classic. I reject this idea totally. I have already commented in an earlier column on the devastatingly negative effect such a situation would have for the top players remaining in Cuba. But there are other reasons for rejecting such a solution. Playing with only its native domestic leaguers, Cuba is already (as shown above) one of the four most successful teams in the brief three-year WBC history. The earlier Cuban Classic teams that did feature Céspedes, Ramírez, Maya and Chapman – plus current minor leaguers like Leonys Martin and Leslie Anderson – were debatably not as strong as this year’s Cuban squad. Scouts in Tokyo over and again voiced the solid opinion that there were more legitimate big league prospects – especially Tomás, Fernández, Abreu and Ibáñez – on this Cuban club than on either of the two previous island entrants. There are far more reasons, then, to be proud of Cuba’s Classic performances to date than there are any reasons to doubt or dismiss them. The irony here is that it was precisely the demonstrated quality and strength of this year’s domestically produced Cuban League roster that lead to so much disappointment and letdown when the team was ousted before reaching its final goal. Lament the loss, I say, but don’t lament the approach.
On Saturday night in Artemisa – a small provincial capital to the west of Havana – the Cuban baseball community sadly lost one of its top stars of the past decade. Jovial and talented Artemisa right-handed pitcher Yadier Pedroso was killed when the car in which he was riding with two friends collided with a cargo truck at approximately 10:30 pm. Details are slim but it is known that all three occupants of the automobile perished; earliest reports do not specify who was actually driving the vehicle. The collision, which occurred at a crossroads known as Magna Central on the rural highway leading into the provincial capital of Artemisa, came only two days after the Cuban national team had returned home from the World Baseball Classic event in Japan. An ace starter with the Cuban League Artemisa Cazadores (“Hunters”) ball club, Pedroso’s oversized portrait is one of four that currently hang from the light towers in Artemisa’s picturesque 26 de Julio ballpark (the other three belonging to teammates and one-time fellow national team members Yulieski González, Jonder Martínez and Miguel Lahera). A veteran of eight-plus National Series seasons, Yadier Pedroso would have turned 27 in June of this year.
Cuban baseball boasts a rich and glorious history, but one of its less welcomed legacies is the ironic concurrence of devastating fatal automobile accidents that have cut short in mid-stream several of the island’s most lustrous post-revolution baseball careers. José Antonio Huelga might have been the greatest post-revolution pitcher ever had his life not been snuffed out after only seven league campaigns; Huelga’s demise occurred on July 4, 1974, on a highway near Mariel, a dozen miles west of Havana. José Huelga remains Cuba’s career ERA leader (1.50) and the league stadium in his hometown of Sancti Spíritus – ironically the site of next weekend’s schedule league All-Star Game – today bears his name. Hard-throwing left-hander Santiago “Changa” Mederos rang up league-record strikeout totals (since eclipsed by Maels Rodríguez) in both the 1969 and 1970 seasons; ten years later (December 15, 1979), at the outset of his fifteenth league outing, Mederos also perished in a spectacular auto crash along a desolate country roadway only miles outside the capital city. The long-time Sports City Havana ball park that served for league play until last season when the Havana Metros ball club was finally abandoned is today known as Changa Mederos Stadium. In December 2000, only weeks after the opening of a new league season, Camagüey outfielder Miguel Caldés was similarly killed in his home city by a wreck that also injured several of his Camagüey teammates. Caldés had been the 1995 league home run champion and also the starting right fielder on the 1996 gold medal team at the Atlanta Olympics. Long-time national team ace Norge Vera also saw his lengthy career terminated by a crash last year in Santiago, although Vera was fortunate to survive the incident. Now Pedroso’s name has been added to this list of inexplicable Cuban League highway tragedies.
Yadier Pedroso enjoyed a substantial if truncated Cuban League career, highlighted by an ERA championship in 2009, the same year his Habana Province team claimed its only National Series title. One of the several renowned starters on a now-defunct Habana Province Cowboys club that in the late 2000s featured five national team pitching stalwarts (Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, Yulieski González, Miguel Lahera and Angel García), Yadier flashed brilliance in both the 2009 and 2010 post-season playoffs, winning two playoff games both years and not allowing a single run over his 14 innings of work on the latter occasion. He also paced the circuit in strikeouts last season (2012) while laboring for tail-ender Artemisa (one of two new league teams established with the breakup of Habana Province); his 128 Ks over 129 innings actually left him tied with Odrisamer Despaigne (Industriales), but the latter hurler toiled in the playoffs and thus posted both more games and more innings than Pedroso. Yadier’s final career 878-353 strikeouts-to-walks ratio remains one of the best in the Cuban League over the past dozen or so seasons.
Pedroso’s international presence was also substantial over the past several summers. He was one of a handful of Cuban stars to appear on multiple World Baseball Classic teams, having debuted as a mere 19-year old in the inaugural 2006 Classic, on the heels of his stellar rookie National Series season with Habana Province. The previous fall, Yadier had worn the Cuban colors for the first time during the Gold Medal triumph at the 2005 IBAF World Cup staged in The Netherlands, winning his only decision. He also performed on the 2008 silver-medal winning Beijing Olympic team (one appearance and no decisions) and the 2009 and 2011 IBAF World Cup squads. For this year’s MLB Classic event in Japan Pedroso was a last-minute roster addition due to a shoulder injury that had plagued him in the early going of the current domestic season. He was used only sparing by manager Victor Mesa, first appearing in relief in the first-round 12-0 drubbing of China in the Fukuoka Yahoo Dome; he worked 1.1 innings in relief of starter Danny Betancourt, yielding a single hit and a single walk. A second outing during round two in Tokyo was less successful. During his final career appearance Yadier worked a shaky one-third of an inning, surrendering three hits, including a two-out two-run round-tripper by big leaguer Jonathan Schoop that was in the end the game-deciding base hit.
Yadir will long be remembered by this writer for two gutsy performances in particular. The first came with the Cuba B squad in Rotterdam during the summer 2011 edition of the World Port tournament. The Cubans managed by Roger Machado had fallen into a deep hole with three early losses, yet had nonetheless managed to reach the finals largely on the strength of a brilliant eight-inning mound effort by Pedroso, highlighting a clutch 2-0 victory over the host Dutch club. In the finals only two days later, Pedroso was again called upon (this time in relief) and held an undefeated Taiwan team in check for eight more innings; Cuba finally lost the title game only in the “Schiller Rule” tie-breaker-format tenth frame when an exhausted Pedroso was unable to cleanly field a high bouncer back to the box and the deciding tally scampered home from third. The second truly memorable outing came with three late-game relief innings against Team USA during a hard-fought World Cup quarterfinal-round match in Santiago, Panama. With Cuba clinging to a late 8-6 lead in the see-saw affair, Pedroso earned the save after working the final three frames, surrendering a single run (on two hits), but striking out seven of the 11 batters faced. With his forkball as devastating as at any time in his career, Yadier struck out the side in the final dramatic inning to preserve the tense victory.
Pedroso was scheduled to return to action later this month for the second half of this year’s experimental split-form National Series season – wearing the unaccustomed uniform of the Sancti Spíritus Gallos. This year’s unique split season format will have only eight squads moving on to pennant race Stage 2. Those surviving clubs have already drafted stars from the eight eliminated squads to fill out their own rosters for the final segments of the championship chase. As the first-half league leader, Sancti Spíritus owned the final pick in last month’s nationally televised draft session, and manager Yovani Aragón was surprised to find Pedroso (the ace of last-place Artemisa) still available; the earliest picks had all featured star sluggers like Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell, Joan Carlos Pedroso, William Luis Campillo, Yordan Mandulay and Ernesto Molinet. It seemed at the time of last month’s dispersal draft that the windfall selection of Yadier by the already pitching-rich Gallos was most likely enough to clinch this season’s championship banner for Sancti Spíritus. That scenario has now been severely altered.
There is a special personal sadness about this loss that impacts especially on this writer. Put bluntly and directly, Yadier Pedroso has for the past five years been a close personal friend and not merely one of the numerous Cuban ballplayers I have been privileged to write about. Last Tuesday afternoon (only hours before the team returned to Havana) I spent several hours in a Tokyo Dome hotel room shared by Freddie Cepeda and Yosvani Peraza, and Yadier was in that room with us. The four of us talked at length about the players’ collective and personal pain over once again failing in the final round-two game (similar to four years ago in San Diego) and therefore once again coming up short after such a dedicated and lengthy effort to get back into the WBC finals. At the moment that loss to the Dutch the previous evening was all consuming and it was difficult for them and for me to put the disappointing event behind us. But in the end we all agreed there was much baseball still to be played back on the island, also that baseball is still only baseball, and that life indeed would now go on. But for Yadier, tragically, it would not. And therein lies a most profound lesson.
There was much sadness spread across Cuba by a recent Monday night loss to the Dutch ball club – an on-field defeat that sabotaged a World Baseball Classic “dream” and thus robbed Team Cuba of a chance to play this weekend in San Francisco. But now the final days in Tokyo have forever taken on another far more deep and sad irony. Had this year’s WBC Cuban club managed to win that crucial final match it would have meant among other things that Yadier Pedroso and his teammates would have been safely lodged in San Francisco last night; Yadier would not have been on the highway outside Artemisa and such a promising young life would not have been snuffed out in its prime. Such are the mysterious twists and turns of the lives we all live. Once again we must all pause, and refocus, and remember that the loss last night in Artemisa was far greater and far more significant than that momentary defeat earlier in the week in Tokyo. Our prayers today can only be with Yadier, and with his family teammates. Baseball defeats sometimes linger but they eventually fade with the presence of inevitable new challenges on the field of play. But the loss suffered last night is one that will remain with some of us forever.