Cuban League 2014 National Series Award Winners

On the eve of the final stage of the National Series playoffs unfolding in Matanzas, the Cuban Baseball Federation has announced this year’s individual ballplayer award winners, and prime pennant challenger Pinar del Río has already proven to be the biggest winner. A top tandem of star Vegueros hurlers have walked off with the two most impressive trophies, and with the Green Tsunami club now one victory away from garnering their tenth league title (Industriales still leads the pack with twelve), recently returned veteran manager Alfonso Urquiola may soon be adding to the clean sweep with highly likely Manager of the Year plaudits. Coming off a brilliant 15-3 (1.78 ERA) performance, ten-year veteran right-hander Yosvani Torres edged transplanted Industriales third sacker Yulieski Gourriel and Matanzas outfielder Yadiel Hernández for the prestigious Most Valuable Player trophy. And by posting a strong showing out of Urquiola’s bullpen (5-5, with 24 relief appearances and 5 saves), Vladimir Gutierrez also walked off with Rookie of the Year honors.

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Also announced yesterday in Havana were the top offensive and defensive all-star squads, with four ballplayers (indicated in boldface type below) being tapped on both honorary squads. The position-by-position defensive nominees stand as the equivalent to Major League Baseball’s designated Gold Glove winners.

National Series #53 Offensive All-Stars

 Catcher: Yulexis La Rosa (Villa Clara); First Base: William Saavedra (Pinar del Río); Second Base: José Miguel Fernández (Matanzas); Third Base: Yulieski Gourriel (Industriales); Shortstop: Alexander Ayala (Camagüey, Artemisa); Outfielders: Maikel Cáceres (Holguín), Roel Santos (Granma, Pinar del Río), Yadiel Hernández (Matanzas); Designated Hitter: Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus, Artemisa); Utility Player: Raúl González (Ciego de Avila); RHP: Yosvani Torres (Pinar del Rio); LHP: Yoanni Yera (Matanzas); Relief Pitcher: José Angel García (Artemisa)

National Series #53 Defensive All-Stars (Gold Gloves)

 Catcher: Frank Camilo Morejón (Industriales); First Base: Ramón Lunar (Villa Clara); Second Base: Andy Sarduy (Villa Clara); Third Base: Yulieski Gourriel (Industriales); Shortstop: Angel Miguel Fernández (Isla de la Juventud); Outfielders: Maikel Cáceres (Holguín), Victor Victor Mesa (Matanzas), Yadiel Hernández (Matanzas); Pitcher: Yoanni Yera (Matanzas)

There are several interesting footnotes to this year’s league individual awards. By running second for the top MVP honor, Yulieski Gourriel narrowly missed out on the chance to join Omar Linares, Wilfredo Sánchez and Alfredo Despaigne as the only trio of three-time winners. Transfered to the Havana Industriales squad only this season, Gourriel also stood to become the first ever to garner MVP distinctions with two different ball clubs, a phenomenon made possible only last year with a new split-season format that allows for reinforcement players during the campaign’s second half championship round. Also noteworthy is the fact that a pitcher has garnered the honor for the second year running, the first time this has happened in more than a decade. ROY honors have now also been awarded to hurlers for four straight campaigns. This seems something of an intriguing anomaly, given a widespread view that the Cuban League has been evolving over the past decade into an acknowledged “hitters’ circuit” stripped of young pitching talent. The current MVP and ROY trends seem to undercut so much moaning on the island concerning the overall quality of league pitching (and thus national team hurling) and to run counter to a universal accord that the pitching art has been very much on the decline of late.

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES MVPs (1962-2014)

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1962­­­­-62 (NS#1) Edwin Walters (Occidentales) Outfielder

1962-63 (NS#2) Modesto Verdura (Azucareros) Pitcher

1963-64 (NS#3) Pedro Cháves (Occidentales) Outfielder (First Baseman)

1964-65 (NS#4) Urbano González (Industriales) Second Baseman

1965-66 (NS#5) Lino Betancourt (Henequeneros) First Baseman

1966-67 (NS#6) Pedro Cháves (Industriales) Outfielder (First Baseman)

1967-68 (NS#7) Eulogio Osorio (Habana) Outfielder

1968-69 (NS#8) Wilfredo Sanchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder

1969-70 (NS#9) Wilfredo Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder

1970-71 (NS#10) Antonio Jiménez (Industriales) Pitcher

1971-72 (NS#11) Agustín Marquetti (Industriales) First Baseman

1972-73 (NS#12) Armando Capiró (Habana) Outfielder

1973-74 (NS#13) Antonio Múñoz (Azucareros) First Baseman

1974-75 (NS#14) Wilfredo Ruíz (Agricultores) Pitcher

1975-76 (NS#15) Omar Carrero (Ganaderos) Pitcher

1976-77 (NS#16) Isídro Pérez (Azucareros) Pitcher

1977-78 (NS#17) Fernando Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder

1978-79 (NS#18) Wilfredo Sánchez (Citricultores) Outfielder

1979-80 (NS#19) Pedro José Rodríguez (Cienfuegos) Third Baseman

1980-81 (NS#20) Rogelio García (Vegueros) Pitcher

1981-82 (NS#21) Fernando Hernández (Vegueros) Outfielder

1982-83 (NS#22) Lázaro Junco (Citricultores) Outfielder

1983-84 (NS#23) Luis Giraldo Casanova (Vegueros) Outfielder

1984-85 (NS#24) Omar Linares (Vegueros) Third Baseman

1985-86 (NS#25) Lázaro Vargas (Industriales) Third Baseman

1986-87 (NS#26) Javier Méndez (Industriales) Outfielder

1987-88 (NS#27) Pedro Luis Rodríguez (Habana) Catcher

1988-89 (NS#28) Orestes Kindelán (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder (Catcher)

1989-90 (NS#29) Omar Linares (Vegueros) Third Baseman

1990-91 (NS#30) Lázaro Madera (Vegueros) Outfielder

1991-92 (NS#31) Jorge Luis Valdés (Henequeneros) Pitcher

1992-93 (NS#32) Omar Linares (Pinar del Río) Third Baseman

1993-94 (NS#33) Lourdes Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) First Baseman (Outfielder)

1994-95 (NS#34) Amado Zamora (Villa Clara) Outfielder

1995-96 (NS#35) Jorge Fumero (Industriales) Pitcher

1996-97 (NS#36) José Estrada (Matanzas) Outfielder

1997-98 (NS#37) Oscar Machado (Villa Clara) Outfielder

1998-99 (NS#38) Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Juventud) Third Baseman

1999-00 (NS#39) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher

2000-01 (NS#40) Maels Rodríguez (Sancti Spíritus) Pitcher

2001-02 (NS#41) Michel Abreu (Matanzas) First Baseman

2002-03 (NS#42) Javier Méndez (Industriales) Outfielder

2003-04 (NS#43) Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) Outfielder

2004-05 (NS#44) Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Infielder

2005-06 (NS#45) Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Infielder

2006-07 (NS#46) Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) Outfielder

2007-08 (NS#47) Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder

2008-09 (NS#48) Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) Outfielder

2009-10 (NS#49) Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) Outfielder

2010-11 (NS#50) José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos) First Baseman

2011-12 (NS#51) Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) Outfielder

2012-13 (NS#52) Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara) Pitcher

2013-14 (NS#53) Yosvani Torres (Pinar del Río) Pitcher

MVP Data Summary

Multiple Year MVP Winners: Alfredo Despaigne 3 (2009, 2010, 2012); Omar Linares 3 (1985, 1990, 1993); Wilfredo Sánchez 3 (1969, 1970, 1979); Yulieski Gourriel 2 (2005, 2006); Osmani Urrutia 2 (2004, 2007); Javier Méndez 2 (1987, 2003); Pedro Chávez 2 (1964, 1967)

Consecutive-Year MVP Winners: Alfredo Despaigne (2009, 2010); Yulieski Gourriel (2005, 2006); Wilfredo Sánchez (1969, 1970)

MVP Winners by Playing Position: Outfielders (25), Infielders (15), Pitchers (12), Catchers (1) (#Main position only considered)

MVP Winners by Ball Club: Industriales (8), Vegueros (6), Henequeneros (5), Sancti Spíritus (4), Santiago de Cuba (3), Azucareros (3), Habana Province (3), Villa Clara (3), Granma (3), Las Tunas (2), Matanzas (2), Occidentales (2), Citricultores (2), Pinar del Río (2), Cienfuegos (2), Agricultores (1), Ganaderos (1), Isla de la Juventud (1)

Double Winners of MVP and Rookie-of-the-Year Honors: Lourdes Gourriel (1977 ROY, 1994 MVP); Pedro José Rodríguez (1974 ROY, 1980 MVP); Michel Abreu (1997 ROY, 2002 MVP)

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES ROYs (1967-2014)

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1962-62 (NS#1) Not Awarded

1962-63 (NS#2) Not Awarded

1963-64 (NS#3) Not Awarded

1964-65 (NS#4) Not Awarded

1965-66 (NS#5) Not Awarded

1966-67 (NS#6) Arturo Linares (Habana) Outfielder

1967-68 (NS#7) Rodolfo Puentes (Habana) Infielder

1968-69 (NS#8) Armando Sánchez (Henequeneros) Outfielder

1969-70 (NS#9) None Selected

1970-71 (NS#10) Heriberto Arboláez (Las Villas) Infielder

1971-72 (NS#11) Pedro Jova (Azucareros) Infielder

1972-73 (NS#12) Roberto Ramos (Azucareros) Pitcher

1973-74 (NS#13) Pedro José Rodríguez (Azucareros) Third Baseman

1974-75 (NS#14) Eduardo Terry (Citricultores) Pitcher

1975-76 (NS#15) Eladio Iglesias (Pitcher)

1976-77 (NS#16) Lourdes Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) Outfielder

1977-78 (NS#17) José Riveira (Villa Clara) Pitcher

1978-79 (NS#18) Alejo O’Reilly (Villa Clara) Outfielder

1979-80 (NS#19) Reinaldo López (Pitcher)

1980-81 (NS#20) Rolando Verde (Industriales) Third Baseman

1981-82 (NS#21) Jorge Millan (Habana) First Baseman

1982-83 (NS#22) Rafael Gómez Mena (Metropolitanos) Pitcher

1983-84 (NS#23) Rolando Arrojo (Villa Clara) Pitcher

1984-85 (NS#24) Eddy Rojas (Villa Clara) First Baseman (Outfielder)

1985-86 (NS#25) Buenafé Nápoles (Camagüey) Pitcher

1986-87 (NS#26) Alexis Cabrejas (Industriales) Outfielder

(T) 1987-88 (NS#27) Alexander Ramos (Isla de la Juventud) Infielder

(T) 1987-88 (NS#27) Teofilo Pérez (Camagüey) Pitcher

(T) 1988-89 (NS#28) Idalberto Castillo (Granma) Pitcher

(T) 1988-89 (NS#28) Deisy Lomba (Cienfuegos) Pitcher

1989-90 (NS#29) Rubén Rodríguez (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher

1990-91 (NS#30) José Lamarque (Holguín) Outfielder

(T) 1991-92 (NS#31) René Espin (Metropolitanos) Pitcher

(T) 1991-92 (NS#31) Jorge Díaz Olano (Villa Clara) Infielder

1992-93 (NS#32) Vaisel Acosta (Matanzas) Outfielder

1993-94 (NS#33) Reinier Capote (Pinar del Río) Shortstop

1994-95 (NS#34) Larry Rodríguez (Habana Province) Pitcher

1995-96 (NS#35) Eriel Sanchez (Sancti Spíritus) Catcher

(T) 1996-97 (NS#36) Maikel Quintero (Industriales) Pitcher

(T) 1996-97 (NS#36) Michel Abreu (Matanzas) First Baseman

(T) 1997-98 (NS#37) Yasser Gómez (Metros) Outfielder)

(T) 1997-98 (NS#37) Ismael Cortina (Pinar del Río) Pitcher

1998-99 (NS#38) Norlis Concepción (Pinar del Río)

1999-00 (NS#39) Yoandry Urgellés (Industriales) Outfielder

2000-01 (NS#40) Pedro José Rodríguez, Jr. (Cienfuegos)

2001-02 (NS#41) Kendry Morales (Industriales) Infielder

2002-03 (NS#42) Yordanis Samón (Granma)

2003-04 (NS#43) Frank Montieth (Industriales) Pitcher

2004-05 (NS#44) Yadier Pedroso (Habana Province) Pitcher

2005-06 (NS#45) Alberto Soto (Granma) Pitcher

2006-07 (NS#46) Raiko Olivares (Industriales) Infielder

2007-08 (NS#47) Yosvany Pérez (Villa Clara) Pitcher

2008-09 (NS#48) Michel Gorgüet (Guantánamo) Infielder

2009-10 (NS#49) Yusef Amado (Metropolitanos) Outfielder

2010-11 (NS#50) Gerardo Concepción (Industriales) Pitcher

2011-12 (NS#51) Carlos Juan Viera (Las Tunas) Pitcher

2012-13 (NS#52) Norge Luis Ruiz (Camagüey, Sancti Spíritus) Pitcher

2013-14 (NS#53) Vladimir Gutierrez (Pinar del Río) Pitcher

Cuban NATIONAL SERIES Post-Season MVPs (1998-2014)

While the Cuban Baseball Federation has never published any “official” list of MVP Awards for post-season play, Havana’s Radio COCO has in more recent years provided its own “unofficial” listing of MVPs for all post-season series since 1998 (National Series #37). Cuba did not hold round-robin post-season playoffs until 1986 (National Series #25).

1997-98 (NS#37) José Contreras (Pinar del Río) Pitcher

1998-99 (NS#38) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher

1999-00 (NS#39) Fausto Alvarez (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder

2000-01 (NS#40) Norge Luis Vera (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher

2001-02 (NS#41) Oscar Gil (Holguín) Pitcher

2002-03 (NS#42) Antonio Scull (Industriales) First Baseman

2003-04 (NS#43) Enríque Díaz (Industriales) Second Baseman

2004-05 (NS#44) Ormari Romero (Santiago de Cuba) Pitcher

2005-06 (NS#45) Alexander Mayeta (Industriales) First Baseman

2006-07 (NS#46) Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) Outfielder

2007-08 (NS#47) Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba) Catcher

2008-09 (NS#48) Miguel Alfredo González (Habana Province) Pitcher

2009-10 (NS#49) Alexander Malleta (Industriales) First Baseman

2010-11 (NS#50) Yosvani Torres (Pinar del Rio) Pitcher

2011-12 (NS#51) Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila) Pitcher

2012-13 (NS#52) Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara) Pitcher

2013-14 (NS#53) Not Yet Announced

Abreu’s Chicago Big-League Debut Proves Success

There was no game-ending rifle-shot double-play throw from right field, and there was little over-the-top LA-style media hype to ramp up the headliner Opening Day Chicago scene. But in the end the long-awaited White Sox debut of José Dariel Abreu was every bit as eye-popping as last summer’s delayed first bow by flashy Yasiel Puig at Dodger Stadium. Two important base knocks, the season’s first run scored, and a first career RBI were all enough to confirm this writer’s earlier predictions that Abreu would launch big numbers and quickly prove the heaviest-slugging Cuban import yet to arrive in the Big Show during the modern baseball era. With his $8.6 million contract (compared to Puig’s $3.7 million 2014 paycheck) Abreu already has one leg up on his former Cuban League teammate (both starred for the Cienfuegos Elefantes) and it is likely only a mere matter of time until the power-packed first sacker also is posting loftier numbers in the box score categories where it really matters.

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Debuting as Cuba’s big leaguer number 179 (a small numerical irony in itself, given Abreu’s unorthodox uniform #79) the giant infielder smacked the very first delivery he saw from Minnesota righty Ricky Nolasco (a teammate of Puig’s last summer) over the head of right fielder Oswaldo Arcia for a ringing double that launched the home club’s go-ahead rally in the bottom of the second. Moments later he would trot home with the season’s first tally thanks to a two-run shot into the bullpen by normally light-sticking Alejandro De Aza. In his second trip to the plate one inning later Abreu drilled another Nolasco sinker (the same pitch that had fooled him on the previous delivery) into left field to plate Adam Eaton and pick up his first career RBI.

Two final Abreu trips to the plate during the 5-3 White Sox victory produced a pair of line-drives “loud” outs, both squarely hit and the second smacked into the teeth of a 30 mph wind in the eighth, sending center fielder Aaron Hicks to the edge of the warning track. The end result for the day was four quality at-bats, a run scored, another knocked home, and a club-best perfect one-for-one ledger with base runners in scoring position. For good measure, an historical oddity was also to be found in the fact that Abreu completed his first half-inning on a big league diamond by recording all three put outs (two second-to-first rollers sandwiched around a foul-territory pop fly off the bat of Minnesota catcher Kurt Suzuki).

Yasiel Puig as well smacked two safeties during his own Los Angeles debut last June – and also unleashed a spectacular game-closing throw from deep right field for good measure, but the Puig lid-lifter was not staged in a colorful Opening Day setting, nor did it provide the same level of offensive fireworks. Admittedly Puig continued his onslaught throughout the following month, knocking out a near-record 44 safeties before June came to a close. Only Hall-of-Fame legend Joe DiMaggio amassed a loftier total (48 in May 1936) during a first 30-day span in the majors. It is highly unlikely that Abreu or anyone else in the near future will equal Puig’s torrid early onslaught streak, but what happens over the longer course of a full season or even a full career is another matter entirely. Puig’s rookie totals of 19 homers, 42 RBIs, and a .319 BA all seem rather easy targets for the heavy bat now swung by Abreu. The first-year numbers posted by Yoenis Céspedes (23, 82, .292) in Oakland back in 2012 are also likely reasonable targets for the most muscular among Cuban big-league “defectors” yet to arrive on the North American scene.

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Abreu’s two-hit debut was not the only fireworks provided on the day by the noteworthy Chisox Cuban arsenal. Batting out of the eighth slot in the order, shortstop Alexei Ramirez (“The Cuban Missile”) wacked out singles in the second and sixth frames, the second base knock ending in an unfortunate put out when Alexei unwisely attempted to stretch the safety into a double and was gunned down by a perfect toss from right fielder Arcia to shortstop Pedro Florimon. Ramirez would finish two-for-three to record the team’s most efficiency offensive ledger on the day.

Yesterday’s Chicago opener played before an announced sellout crowd of 37,422 also quietly featured a rare bit of Cuban-related baseball trivia. For the first time since 1969 an MLB Opening Day roster featured four Cubans, in this case Cuban League “defectors” Abreu, Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, plus Havana-born and Hialeah-raised reserve catcher Adrian Nieto (who left the island with his parents when a mere four years old). The last big league club to claim four Cubans on Opening Day was the Cleveland Indians who debuted at Tiger Stadium in Detroit (April 8, 1969) with Luis Tiant on the mound, José Azcue behind the plate, and Zoilo Versalles and José Cardenal in the infield. This afternoon only two of the four Chisox imports saw game-time action, but Nieto now stands poised to become Cuban big leaguer number 180 in the coming days while Viciedo still figures strong in this year’s Chicago outfield plans.

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To make the day complete there was also a final piece of history unfolded that also involved the growing Cuban big-league connection. When the day’s hitting star Alejandro De Aza wrapped out a second homer in the sixth off Nolasco he became the first White Sox player in more than a half-century to homer twice in an Opening Day game staged on home turf. The last to turn the trick had been the original “Cuban Comet” Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, who struck two long balls against Kansas City hurlers at Comiskey Park on April 19, 1960 (in an era featuring much later dates for season’s openers). The first Miñoso blow came off Johnny Kucks in the fourth and the second – a walk-off ninth-inning game-winner – was struck against Athletics journeyman closer John Tsitouris. While Dominican-born De Aza’s two historic long balls stole the headlines from Abreu and Ramirez, they nonetheless also provided a fitting final touch for an American League debut game richly packed with Cuban baseball storylines.

Yasiel Puig Traded to Chicago Cubs

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The Aroldis Chapman Accident: A Modest Proposal

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The near-tragic and perhaps near-career-ending accident suffered last week in Arizona by Aroldis Chapman has renewed debate over the apparent dangers to defenseless pitchers from fastballs lined back through the center of the diamond. A 99 mph-plus spring training “heater” last Wednesday night was “missiled” back at Chapman off the bat of Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez, striking the vulnerable hurler in the left eye and leaving him writhing on the ground in severe pain, bleeding from the damaged socket, and suffering from a mild concussion. The Cuban fast-baller was carried from the field on a stretcher, the game was immediately cancelled, and grave concern suddenly flooded the Cincinnati clubhouse regarding Chapman’s condition, his status for the upcoming season, and possibly even the clouded prospects for his once-promising baseball future.

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Fortunately the incident culminated in as happy an ending as might have been possible. After undergoing emergence surgery to repair broken bones in both his eye socket and his nose, Chapman was able to visit teammates in the Cincinnati camp only three days later, and although he will miss the opening of the 2014 season, it is now expected that he will resume workouts in about six weeks and might even be back on a big league mound by June. What might have been big league baseball’s first on-field-injury-related death in nearly a century (the last was Ray Chapman, ironically, back in 1920, after being struck by a fatal pitch from Carl Mays) turned out to be only another stern warning about the inherent dangers surrounding one of America’s most favored national sports.

The Chapman incident unleashed a flood of renewed cries for revamping the game’s rules and altering its equipment in order to protect defenseless pitchers against liners off the high tech bats of today’s souped-up muscular batters swinging at highly charged rabbit-ball-era missiles. It is an old problem in search of a long-sought but likely elusive quick fix. Perhaps the silliest and most misguided proposal came in a high-profile front page USA Today story penned by veteran scribe Bob Nightengale. Nightengale seemed bent of casting blame for the Chapman incident on MLB club owners who are reportedly now dragging their feet concerning a recently approved plan to provide American and National League pitchers with plastic-lined protective helmets (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/03/20/mlb-pitcher-protective-caps-aroldis-chapman-alex-cobb/6672541/). This proposal for pitchers wearing extra head gear in truth remains one of baseball’s supreme modern-era red herrings. Anyone who thinks such gear might have somehow saved Chapman or any other hurler from injury probably also believes that 12-story-high, ear-splitting Diamond Vision scoreboards actually enhance a fan’s experience in the modern day major league theme-park stadium. It simply ain’t so.

I am reminded at this point of an incident I witnessed at a spring training game in Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium two decades back. As their latest piece of fan-entertainment product-promotion the Chicago White Sox (then still residents of Sarasota) had cooked up a pre-game gambit with the local Hooters Restaurant chain that involved three randomly chosen fans stationed in right field about 100 feet from a batting-practice pitching machine tilted upward to launch lazy fly balls. Each contestant represented a section of the grandstand and the hapless novice who caught all three flies aimed in his/her direction would earn free Hooters chicken wings for his designated grandstand group. What will they think of next?

The very first looping fly struck a clumsy untrained outfielder squarely on the bridge of the nose, knocking him bloodied to the turf. “Well,” we laughed from our third base box seats, “that was likely the shortest-lived promotion in ball park history!” But believe it or not the same promotion was again staged the next afternoon and this time the contestants were donning batting helmets, which of course offered absolutely no projection as they reeled under the flies, heads tilted back and batting helmets either useless or already tumbling off their heads. What these guys and gals obviously needed for protection (since they quite obviously didn’t know how to manipulate their fielder’s mitts) was a catcher’s mask not a batting helmet.

The same is true for pitchers facing oncoming line drives – almost every pitcher ever struck (and there have been quite a few cases now – takes a blow to the legs, arm, hips, or (in the worst case) either the face or the side of the head below the cap line. Pitchers are almost never struck by line drives on the top or on the back of the head. For even minimal protection Chapman required a catcher’s mask or perhaps a hockey goalie’s head gear and face-covering, not a cap with a minimal protective lining.

There may of course be a solution to this problem (one fit to solve some associated problems as well) but it is a solution that no one wants to hear. Owners don’t want to hear it because it might shave a few pennies off the bottom line profit margin. And off course MLB and its owners are mainly in the business of squeezing every possible dollar out of what were once fans but are now consumers; MLB and its owners have long since turned their backs on any efforts to actually improve the sport either aesthetically or technically. And fans don’t want to hear about it either because baseball fans are by nature arch “traditionalists” – thus any monkeying with our national pastime’s quaint nineteenth-century foundations is seen as absolutely heresy.

Excuse the brief editorial sidebar here, but I have often marveled at how old time baseball fans have so easily adjusted to and even welcomed player specialization (i.e. starters who hurl only six innings and closers who never work more than a single frame), plastic grass, night games, shortened fences, and umpire-aiding televised instant replay – and yet these same fans still rail at the idea of a designated hitter. In truth of course modern-era stadiums and night play have far more radically altered the original game than the fact that pitchers don’t any longer bat in the American League or in any international leagues or tournaments. We seem to have here a classic case of the missing the forest while sighting of the trees.

The near-universal resistance to updating a modern-era television-based sport – one often still stuck with its outworn nineteenth century traditions – comes into focus every time I tell my MLB friends about what they are now missing with the tie-breaker extra-inning rule originally introduced in 2008 for IBAF international tournaments (starting with the Beijing Olympics) and now employed for regular-season games within the Cuban League. This is the phenomenon known in Cuba as “The Schiller Rule” (after Harvey Schiller, the IBAF president at the time it was introduced) which shortens extra-inning games by starting each overtime frame with a pair of runners automatically placed on first and second base and the manager choosing where he wants to begin in his batting order. As a curmudgeonly traditionalist I originally thought I would hate such an innovation. Mention it to a big league fan and you might as well suggest robots or cameras replacing home plate umpires for calling ball and strikes, or free substitution of players as in other sports, which would ramp up managerial strategy, or – GOD FORBID! – admitting women umpires (which the Cuban League already has). Yet after watching it in action for several years I have now deemed that the innovative Schiller Rule format only adds to late-game excitement; it has produced some of the most thrilling games I have ever witnessed. And it is perfect for the Majors, where baseball is now essentially produced for television and not for the ballpark fan, and where television requires tightly-controlled broadcast schedules.

Enough talk perhaps about tradition breaking innovation. But that is precisely what is needed (not helmet liners) to protect pitchers properly in modern-day baseball. It has increasingly been recognized that today’s supersized and super-athletic NBA players have already rendered archaic the arenas in which they play. Basketball in the future will simply either have to expand court size and rim height in order to remain the game it once was – or else perhaps alter its appearance as a three-on-three game of the type popular on the nation’s playgrounds. Precisely the same size restrictions now afflict the game of big league baseball. My Modest Proposal (with a tip of the old ball cap to Jonathan Swift) to protect pitchers and reclaim the game we once knew is an altogether simple and yet also altogether heretical one. Move the pitcher’s mound 75 feet away from home plate. At the same time extend the diamond to feature 100-foot-long base paths. And normalize outfield fences to a new more realistic dimension of 500 feet to the foul poles and 650 feet to dead center field. Now we would have a baseball diamond designed to accommodate today’s bigger, faster, more athletic and harder swinging and throwing ballplayers. And while we are at it, why not reintroduce a much heavier and “deader” baseball like the one used in the pre-1920 era, and also eliminate light whip-like bats. Let’s get back to a plethora of 1-0 final scores.

“Oh No!” the owners cry. This would cost way too much money (and also diminish gate take by keeping away ticket buying fans raised on Home Run Derby ballgames). But let’s remember here that MLB is one of the nation’s most thriving corporations with an annual cash flow that tops the gross national product of many of the world’s other industrialized nations. And MLB ballplayers are among the best compensated entertainers on the planet. Isn’t some belt tightening by all but a small sacrifice to improve the quality of the sport? And was baseball ever meant to be merely a batting practice demonstration?

And “Oh No!” cries the SABR-metrics buff. How can we preserve historically level playing fields for record keeping and record comparison if we monkey with the game’s dimensions? And I retaliate here that such record comparisons are already a mere myth and a fantasy. How can one talk of record comparisons with today’s hyper-sized athletes compared to those of yore, or with the changes in bats and balls and gloves that have transpired over the decades, or with a sport that didn’t include Blacks or Latinos before the mid-point of the past century. The era of Babe Ruth and the era of Barry Bonds are incapable of reasonable comparison, no matter what we might now do to ballpark dimensions.

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Okay, perhaps the expansion of the size of the field is indeed too radical. Perhaps we indeed want a game where the main entertainment for most fans as a string of endless home run derby highlights on nightly ESPN; perhaps we need to be entertained by pitchers who throw more than 100 mph and with hitters weighting 170 pounds yet regularly lofting fly balls over 450 feet into the upper grandstands. Good enough. But it is the same issue faced today by the nation’s even more popular sport of NFL football. If what fans truly want is bone crushing hits and non-stop violence then the price will always be devastating injury and crippled athletes. Correspondingly, if we want the baseball field to look the same as it has always looked and yet if we also demand 100 mph flamethrowers like Aroldis Chapman and muscle bound-bashers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, then we must live with the possibility of occasional injury and often shortened careers. Get over it – it is an inherently dangerous sport. We simply cannot have it both ways.

Cuba’s All-Time Big League Player List Expands to 178

It was a most unlikely debut staged in a most unlikely venue, but with his brief appearance in the ninth inning of Saturday night’s big league season opener between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona D-Backs, former Las Tunas shortstop Alex Guerrero entered the record books as the 178th Cuban native to appear in a major league uniform. The odd debut carried rather exotic overtones since the former Cuban Leaguer became only the second among his countrymen to first taste big league action during a game staged away from North American spoil – this time on the Sidney (Australia) Cricket Grounds recently revamped to host an historic two-game set that introduced big league baseball to fans in the Land Down Under. Yoenis Céspedes also enjoy his own big league debut two seasons back (March 28, 2012) on far-distant Asian soil during a similar “traveling” MLB season opener staged between the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners at Japan’s Tokyo Dome. Céspedes doubled and stuck out twice during his own history-making lid-lifter as Cuban big league number 170.

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Guerrero’s own maiden appearance in a Dodger uniform was a rather unorthodox one for a second and more prominent reason since the Cuban managed to achieve “immortality” as an official big leaguer in a game where he never actually entered the field of play, while at the same time earning big league distinction by appearing in an official box score. Having lost the tight battle for a starting second base slot to highly touted prospects Dee Gordon and Justin Turner (opening night starter at the position), Guerrero nonetheless was at least temporarily included in the club’s season-opening roster for the extended Australian road trip. He was called off the bench in the visitor’s ninth frame as an “announced” pinch hitter for LA reliever Brian Wilson, but when Arizona manager Kirk Gibson replaced lefty Oliver Perez with right-hander J.J. Putz, Guerrero was immediately recalled from the on-deck circle and replaced by lefty-swinging Mike Baxter, who promptly flied out to right field. Thus Guerrero’s current big league line shows one game appearance without any visits to the batter’s box, to the base paths, or to the defense infield alignment.

Alex Guerrero might well be headed toward a brief minor league apprenticeship when the Dodgers return stateside for their native-soil opening series with the San Diego Padres a week from this coming Tuesday. But it is almost certain that the Cuban roster of Major Leaguers will quickly expanding again in Chicago on March 31 with the much anticipated debut of slugger José Dariel Abreu, still currently penciled in as the White Sox opening day first baseman. A burgeoning list of recent high profile “defectors” in big league spring training camps suggests that this coming season might witness the biggest Cuban influx of recent decades. Five Cuban natives debuted on the Major League scene in 2010, three in 2011, and four in each of the past two campaigns. This year’s cropped of touted prospects recently inked to eye-popping contracts and thus likely near-future big leaguers is topped by right-hander Miguel Alfredo González (Phillies), flashy shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena (Dodgers), infielder Aledmys Díaz (Cardinals) and hurler Dalier Hinojosa (Red Sox). Also in big league spring training camps this year and still nursing at least slim hopes of big league promotion are outfielder Jorge Soler (Cubs), southpaw hurler Noel Aruelles (Royals), outfielder Adonis García (Yankees), and outfielder Rubi Silva (Cubs).

While the Cuban big league presence is likely to bloom extensively this summer, two recent headliners are now are least temporarily sidelined. It was announced early last week that multiple stress fractures in both legs will keep talented Detroit Tigers glove man José Iglesias out of action for the entire 2014 season. And a tragic accident Wednesday night in Surprise, Arizona, has now postponed 2014 action for Cincinnati flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman for at least several months. Stuck in the face by a line-drive off the bat of Kansas catcher Salvador Perez, Chapman received several facial fractures but fortunately escaped either life-threatening or career-ending injury. After successful surgery on Thursday which included insertion of a steel plate in the pitcher’s forehead, it was announced by the Reds that their ace closer might resume throwing from the mound in as little as six weeks but would not likely see season regularly action with the parent club until early or mid-June.

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A complete listing of Cuban big leaguers is found at the following link:

http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsite/newsContainer.asp?id=3539

Luis Felipe Diaz (1971-2014): Cuba Loses Another Hero

Sad news from Havana this morning reports the unexpected and shockingly premature passing of veteran National Series lefthander and current Industriales pitching coach Luis Felipe Díaz. The towering southpaw – a veteran of 16 National Series seasons with the Havana Metros ball club – was struck down by a massive heart attack early Thursday morning at the young age of only 42 years. The loss was especially felt by capital city ball fans and was also a severe personal blow for this author, who had maintained a close friendship with Felipe over the past decade and had enjoyed a reunion visit with the bulky southpaw only last Friday evening in the Industriales clubhouse at Capitan San Luis Stadium in Pinar del Río.

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Felipe Díaz debuted with the Metropolitanos team in National Series XXX (1990-91) and made his single national team appearance seven years later during the 1998 World University Games staged in Havana’s Latin American Stadium. Over his 16-season pitching career he won 86 games and dropped 103 for a Metros outfit that was often an also-ran and league cellar dweller. His career stats also featured a 4.93 ERA, 278 games pitched (231 starts), 50 complete games, 47 relief appearances (with 5 saves), 15 shutouts, 1444 innings pitched, a .291 BA by opponents, 720 strikeouts, and 655 walks.

Perhaps his most memorable individual season came in 1998 (National Series XXXVII) as the acknowledged ace (8-6 record and a team-best 20 starts) for a Metros club that enjoyed a rare post-season appearance. That spring Díaz claimed one of the two Metros quarter-finals wins, besting Habana Province southpaw Yulieski González (by an 8-1 count) to temporarily deadlock the series at two games apiece. His swan song campaign was National Series XLV (2005-06) where he won three and lost six, posting an elevated 9.50 ERA and striking out only 26 while issuing 34 free passes for a weak Metros club that posted a league-worst 19-69 ledger.

A natural teacher of pitching techniques and a master of hurling psychology, Díaz served as pitching mentor for his old ball club during the final several seasons of that team’s existence (Metros was disbanded after the National Series LI in 2012). After spending last year working with Developmental League prospects in Havana City, Díaz this year joined the Havana Industriales team as an assistant pitching coach under manager Lázaro Vargas. During those recent months he played a significant role in resurrecting the career of veteran right-hander Frank Montieth, league ERA pacesetter during the first half of the current season before being sidelined by injury.

Luis Felipe Díaz will be sorely missed on the Havana baseball scene. Despite a less than stellar career ledger, he built a reputation as a tireless worker, a dedicated student of the game, and an inspiration to young ballplayers throughout the city. Gregarious and always smiling, Felipe was also a charismatic ambassador of the Cuban national sport to which he devoted the majority of his tragically short life span.

Cepeda and Despaigne Head Cuban Replacement Draft

Thursday night’s nationally televised Cuban League replacement player selection draft followed a five-round format and found most of the league’s eight surviving second-round ball clubs opting to fill out their expanded rosters with available pitching talent. Twenty-two of the forty selections were spent on hurlers and manager Lázaro Vargas of first-half pacesetter Industriales spent all five of his team’s selections on much-needed mound reinforcements. Runner-up Matanzas also grabbed four available pitchers from the eight eliminated league ball clubs.

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Despite the preference for mound replacements, the first two individual ball players selected were slugging veteran outfielder Freddie Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus) nabbed by Artemisa, and league home run record holder Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) who will now shift his services to Santiago de Cuba. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the selection process was the total bypassing of first-half circuit home run leader Dary Bartolome (Camagüey) who failed to find an assignment for the Round Two 42-game championship schedule which begins next week.

The entire Supplemental Player Draft results were as follows:

Industriales Blue Lions (Manager: Lázaro Vargas)

Round 1: Noelvis Entenza (Pitcher, Cienfuegos)

Round 2: Vicyohandri Odelín (Pitcher, Camagüey)

Round 3: Leorisbel Sánchez (Pitcher, Cienfuegos)

Round 4: Alexander Rodríguez (Pitcher, Guantánamo)

Round 5: Elián Leyva Delgado (Pitcher, Mayabeque)

Matanzas Crocodiles (Manager: Victor Mesa)

Round 1: Yoelkis Cruz (Pitcher, Las Tunas)

Round 2: Carlos Juan Viera (Pitcher, Las Tunas)

Round 3: Lázaro Blanco (Pitcher, Granmas)

Round 4: Eriel Sánchez (Catcher: Sancti Spíritus)

Round 5: Mario Batista Hernández (Pitcher, Mayabeque)

Villa Clara Orangemen (Manager: Ramón More)

Round 1: Ismel Jiménez (Pitcher, Sancti Spíritus)

Round 2: Alaín Tamayo (Pit her, Granma)

Round 3: Yorbis Borroto (Shortstop, Ciego de Avila)

Round 4: Rudelis García (Catcher, Ciego de Avila)

Round 5: William Luis Campillo (Outfielder, Camagüey)

Isla de la Juventud Pirates (Manager: Armando Johnson)

Round 1: Ariel Miranda (Pitcher, Mayabeque)

Round 2: Yudiel Rodríguez (Pitcher, Las Tunas)

Round 3: Frank Navarro (Pitcher, Guantánamo)

Round 4: Yoelvis Fiss (Outfielder, Ciego de Avila)

Round 5: Marino Luis Márquez (Indielder, Camagüey)

Pinar del Río Vegueros (Manager: Alfonso Urquiola)

Round 1: Vladimir García (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)

Round 2: Giorvis Duvergel (Outfielder, Guantánamo)

Round 3: Dennis Laza (Outfielder, Mayabeque)

Round 4: Yormani Socorrás (Pitcher, Camagüey)

Round 5: Roel Santos (Outfielder, Granma)

Holguín Cachorros (Manager: Orochis Bartutis)

Round 1: Norge Luis Ruiz (Pitcher, Camagüey) (Third Overall Selection)

Round 2: Yordanis Samón (Outfielder, Granma)

Round 3: Lenier Rodríguez (Pitcher, Mayabeque)

Round 4: Danel Castro (Infielder, Las Tunas)

Round 5: Guillermo Avilés Difurnó (Outfielder, Granma)

Santiago de Cuba Wasps (Manager: Luis Danilo Larduet)

Round 1: Alfredo Despaigne (Outfielder, Granma) (Second Overall Selection)

Round 2: Yander Guevara (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)

Round 3: Alberto Soto la O (Pitcher, Granma)

Round 4: Yadir Rabi (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)

Round 5: Yunier Mendoza (First Baseman, Sancti Spíritus)

Artemisa Hunters (Manager: Dany Valdespino)

Round 1: Frederich Cepeda (Outfielder, Sancti Spíritus) (First Overall Selection)

Round 2: Yosvani Alarcón (Catcher, Las Tunas)

Round 3: Jorge Jhonson (Outfielder, Las Tunas)

Round 4: Alexander Ayala (Shortstop, Camagüey)

Round 5: Dachel Duquesne (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)

Alvarez and Holguín Stalwarts Pace Cuban All-Stars

Fresh off an early season no-hitter (the campaign’s only pitching masterpiece to date), Villa Clara ace right-hander Freddy Asiel Alvarez stands near the top of the polling among pitchers for this year’s league All-Star contest. The showcase game (number 27 in league annals) will be played this coming Sunday afternoon at Nueva Gerona’s Cristobal Labra Stadium (home to the Isla de la Juventud Pirates) and can be viewed worldwide via the internet feed from Cubavision International. The winning squad will be rewarded with an international tournament appearance later in the year, most likely at this summer’s Haarlem Honkbal Tournament in The Netherlands.

Alvarez picked up 12,659 fan ballots to trail only a pair of Holguín stalwarts (reliever Pablo M. Fernández, (14,879) and shortstop Yordan Manduley (14,249) in the overall internet and print press polling.  Other popular stars at the ballot box were veteran catcher Yulexis LaRosa (Villa Clara, 11,946), Pinar del Río righty Yosvani Torres (first half league leader with 7 victories, 10,151), and batting pacesetter Maikel Cáceres (Holguín, 10,586). Heavy fan voting in Holguín Province also pushed infielder Yunior Paumier (10,079) into the 10,000-plus leaders grouping. More than 20,000 fans cast ballots during the open selection process which is distinguished from MLB polling by its one fan/one ballot policy. In addition to the leading vote getters, league officials also named two invited “wild card” selections: Isla hurler Héctor Manuel Mendoza (Occidentales) and promising second-year Camagüey mound phenom Norge Luis Ruiz. The complete All-Star rosters announced yesterday (21 players on each team) are as follows:

OCCIDENTALES

Lorenzo Quinata, Catcher (Pinar del Río) 7,431

Luis A. Castro, Catcher (Isla de la Juventud) 4,003

William Saavedra, Infield/1B (Pinar del Río) 6,874

Alexander Mayeta, Infield/1B (Industriales) 6,086

José Miguel Fernández, Infield (Matanzas) 7,602

Dainer Moreira, Infield (Matanzas) 7,758

Yulieski Gourriel, Infield (Industriales) 6,376

Michel Enríquez, Infield (Isla de la Juventud) 6,301

Yasmani Tomás, Outfield (Industriales) 7,132

Reinier León, Outfield (Pinar del Río) 6,206

Yadiel Hernández, Outfield (Matanzas) 5,697

Frederich Cepeda, Outfield (Sancti Spíritus) 5,644

Yosvani Pereza, Designated Hitter (Pinar del Río) 8,288

Yosvani Torres, RHP (Pinar del Río) 10,151

Julio A. Martínez, LHP (Pinar del Río) 9,245

Ariel Miranda, LHP (Mayabeque), 8,467

Frank Montieth, RHP (Industriales) 7,768

Wilber Pérez, LHP (Isla de la Juventud) 6,719

José Angel García, RHP/Relief (Artemisa) 9,391

Leinier Rodríguez, RHP/Relief (Mayabeque) 5,746

Héctor Manuel Mendoza, RHP (Isla de la Juventud), Invited

Coaching Staff

Lázaro Vargas, Manager (Industriales)

Alexander Ramos, First Base Coach (Isla de la Juventud)

Primitivo Díaz, Third Base Coach (Matanzas)

Raciel Sánchez, Pitching Coach (Pinar del Río)

ORIENTALES

Yulexis LaRosa, Catcher (Villa Clara) 11,946

Franklin Aballe, Catcher (Holguín) 6,788

Ariel Borrero, Infield/1B (Villa Clara) 9,422

Lerys Aguilera, Infield (Holguín) 5,453

Yunior Paumier, Infield (Holguín) 10,079

Yordan Manduley, Infield/SS (Holguín) 14,249

Luis Y. La O, Infield (Santiago de Cuba) 4,901

Maikel Cáceres, Outfield (Holguín) 10,587

Andy Zamora, Outfield (Villa Clara) 8,631

Alfredo Despaigne, Outfield (Granma) 5,118

Reutilio Hurtado, Outfield (Santiago de Cuba) 4,627

Ramón Lunar, Designated Hitter (Villa Clara) 9,099

Freddy Asiel Alvarez, RHP (Villa Clara) 12,659

Danny Betancourt, RHP (Santiago de Cuba) 9,942

Oriolbis Cobas, RHP (Guantánamo) 6,002

Vicyohandri Odelín, RHP (Camagüey) 5,710

Vladimir García, RHP (Ciego de Avila) 5,695

Pablo M. Fernández, RHP/Relief (Holguín) 14,879

Carlos Viera, RHP/Relief (La Tunas) 8,563

Norge Luis Ruiz, RHP (Camagüey) Invited

Coaching Staff

Ramón More, Manager (Villa Clara)

Ernest Gainza , First Base Coach (Santiago de Cuba)

Leonardo Paris Jonhson, Third Base Coach (Holguín)

Roidel Enríquez, Pitching Coach (Villa Clara)

Cuban League Wraps Up NS#53 First-Half Campaign

For the second straight winter the Cuban League is hosting an odd “divided” season that involves the traditional 16 provincial teams fighting through a first-half 45 game slate to qualify for a 42-game championship round involving only the top eight qualifying clubs. First half play wrapped up on Sunday with the eight qualifiers now officially determined, but also with a handful of suspended contests still to be completed. The make-up games (scheduled to be played during the weekend of January 4-7) will not alter the list of championship qualifiers but will likely impact on the precise order of finish between the top five or six ball clubs. Those final standings hold considerable significance since they will determine the selection order when the second-round teams select five reinforcement players each from the league’s eliminated also-rans, a selection process scheduled for national television on Thursday, January 9, eve of the league’s All-Star Game Weekend.

Cuba’s novel split-season format has not been without its share of controversy since it seems to have alleviated one long-standing league weakness while at the same time striking a severe blow against one of the circuit’s traditional boasting points. There is little doubt anywhere that concentration of the league’s top stars on a smaller contingent of clubs has strengthened the quality of league play during the second “etapa” 42-game run to the championship. At the same time, elimination of eight teams at mid-season (and also the transfer of some of the island’s top stars from those losing outfits over to the contenders) has left half the country without local games and without a rooting interest for much of the year. It is a system that now undercuts the longstanding concept of a true national sport and also undermines a unique format featuring local stars playing only for hometown teams throughout an entire career.

This year’s first-half qualifying round remained extreme tight during the two months of league action with less than five games ultimately separating the eight qualifiers and with the final two positions in the top-half standings not determined until the final day of play. Artemisa, Santiago and Ciego de Avila limped to the wire with identical 24-21 ledgers, but the Ciego Tigers where the odd-team out as a result of dropping the head-to-head season series to both Artemisa and Santiago (the latter club also gaining the seventh slot by virtue of its head-to-head superiority over Artemisa).

Early-season elimination play provided a number of small surprises, topped by the strong performances of normal also-rans Isla de la Juventud and Artemisa, the latter club having occupied the league basement in its recent maiden two seasons of league play. Perhaps equally unexpected were the rather dramatic slides experienced by two of the league’s perennial powers, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila. The SSP Gallos fell into an early tailspin with the pre-season loss of the three Gourriel brothers (especially star third sacker Yulieski, long-time national team stalwart); all three were transferred to Industriales in late August in a highly controversial move related to the health and relocation of father and former league star Lourdes Gourriel. Ciego (under manager Roger Machado) had captured the league title only two years back and with a strong pitching corps headed by national team luminaries Vladimir García, Yander Guevara and Yadir Rabi had been originally tabbed by most savvy prognosticators as a top pennant challenger.

Holguin's Maikel Caceres paced the league's hitters with an even .400 average.

Holguin’s Maikel Caceres paced the league’s hitters with an even .400 batting average.

Final First Half-Season Standings (Minus Suspended Games)

Team (W-L, GB)

Industriales Leones Azules (27-15, —)

Villa Clara Naranjas (26-16, 1.0)

Matanzas Cocodrillos (27-17, 1.0)

Isla de la Juventud Piratas (27-18, 1.5)

Pinar del Río Vegueros (26-18, 2.0)

Holguín Cachorros (25-20, 3.5)

Santiago de Cuba Avispas (24-21, 4.5)

Artemisa Cazadores (24-21, 4.5)

Suspended games pending: Industriales 3 (vs. Las Tunas (2), Granma), Villa Clara 3 (vs. Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Mayabeque), Matanzas 1 (vs. Villa Clara), Pinar del Río 1 (vs. Villa Clara)

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A number of noteworthy achievements and eye-popping collapses on the individual front also marked the first half of the current National Series schedule. On the penultimate day of play in Havana’s Latin American Stadium Yulieski Gourriel equaled the career home run total (247) established two decades earlier by his legendary father Lourdes; one day later teammate Alexander Malleta (now playing in his 16th National Series season) crossed a milestone of his own by becoming only the 36th player in league annals to reach the 200 career home run plateau. Early-season action was highlighted by the circuit’s 53rd no-hit, no-run game (matching precisely the number of years of league play) tossed by Villa Clara ace Freddy Asiel Alvarez. The Alvarez masterpiece took the form of a 1-0 whitewashing of Sancti Spíritus on home turf at César Sandino Stadium. Also on the pitching front, the current season saw Sancti Spíritus ace Ismel Jiménez suffer through a dismal career-worst 2-6 campaign (largely the result of non-existent offensive support from his dispirited teammates). Less than a year ago Jiménez had briefly edged ahead of long-departed El Duque Hernández to briefly claim the league all-time career winning percentage standard. Additional noteworthy performances over the past two months have been Maikel Caceres’s breakout leading-leading .400 batting mark for Holguín and the surprising resurrection of one-time Industriales ace Frank Montieth, who paced the circuit in ERA (1.17) and also posted an unblemished 4-0 winning mark as the league’s most effective starter. Home runs were down across the entire league and some of the league’s top sluggers posted surprisingly slim numbers: especially Alfredo Despaigne (7), Yulieski Gourriel (5), and Yosvany Peraza (4).

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First-Half Season Batting/Pitching Leaders (Minus Suspended Games)

Batting

Average: Maikel Caceres (Holguín) .400

Hits: Maikel Caceres (Holguín) 70

Runs: Héctor Hernández (Camagüey) 37

Home Runs: Dary Bartolome (Camagüey) 8

RBI: Yadiel Hernández (Matanzas) 38

Steals: Luis la O (Santiago) 17

Slugging: Ariel Sánchez (Matanzas) .538

Pitching

ERA: Frank Montieth (Industriales) 1.17 (46.0 Innings)

Percentage: Frank Montieth (Industriales) 4-0 (1.000)

Wins: Yosvani Torres (Pinar del Río) 7

Strikeouts: Ariel Miranda (Mayabeque) 73

Saves: José Angel García (Artemisa) 15

Innings: Norge Luis Ruiz (Camagüey) 79.0

Appearances: Yadir Rabi (Ciego de Avila) 24

The league now enjoys a brief hiatus (with the exception of the half-dozen make-up games) before championship-round games are launched on January 14. The second-half schedule (matching each team against all seven rivals in three-game home and away series) will continue through mid-March, with a two-week suspension of play (January 25-February 11) to accommodate the visit of 2013 league champion Villa Clara to this year’s Caribbean Series winter league professional championships in Venezuela. Mid-season holidays will also feature the league All-Star contest on January 12, staged for the first time in Isla’s Cristobal Labra Stadium (Nueva Gerona).

Given the tight competition witnessed during the season’s first half, this year’s supplemental player draft (January 9) will likely be highly significant in tipping the second-half balance of power between the contending ball clubs. Available during the draft will be such hitting stalwarts as Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Freddy Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus), and first-half home run leader Dany Bartolome (Camagüey). More important still will be the reassignment of some of the league’s top pitching talent represented by southpaw strikeout leader Ariel Miranda (Mayabeque) and workhorse reliever Yadir Rabi (Ciego de Avila), as well as Norge Luis Ruiz (Camagüey), Valdimir García and Yander Guevara (Ciego de Avila), and Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos). For some if not most surviving ball clubs, supplemental draft day in early January may well prove to be the most crucial date of this year’s entire league campaign.

Fidel Castro’s Baseball Biography

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.

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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.

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Read the full story here:

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/1a0bb6af

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