In a May 5 posting which summarized the National Series 2007 season I remarked on the phenomenal hitting of Cuban national team star Osmani Urrutia, suggesting that Urrutia was a batting nonpareil who was liking unmatched in any of baseball’s several distinct universes (including the major league version of the sport that preoccupies most Stateside fanatics). Cuba’s all-time career batting average leader (.371 after 14 seasons) may indeed not face major league level pitching on home soil or in international tournaments, and it may well be difficult to argue that his stratospheic hitting marks should be compared with those of sluggers in "The Show." Yet the brief glimpse of Urrutia in the WBC (where he hit .345) and the overall performance of the Cubans in that venue do certainly raise some serious questions about just how far behind the majors the Cuban brand of play actually is. Certainly anyone smacking the ball at a .422-clip for any five-season span at any level of play has to possess a good dose of raw hitting talent. And as one who has watched Urrutia for more than half a decade, I must add my voice to the growing chorus attesting that Urrutia’s swing is one of the sweetest anywhere on the planet.
The Las Tunas slugger is enough of a hitting rarity that he certainly rates further exposure to North American fans. So let me merely repeat here what I wrote about him in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, immediately after the close of his sensational five-season plus-.400 hitting string. To quote my earlier tribute:
"Pudgy right-handed hitting machine Osmani Urrutia, a 29-year-old veteran (now 31) of a dozen National Series campaigns with Las Tunas, seems a prime example of the ability to generate almost endless supplies of big-level-talent on an island boasting a population barely equivalent to New York City. Across the first five seasons of the new century Urrutia has generated the biggest headlines in National Series play with a multi-season batting streak that has no parallel in organized baseball history. Grabbing four straight batting titles between 2001 and 2004, the chucky righty with a picture-perfect compact swing strung together four seasons of plus-.400 hitting, a feat never accomplished in the majors and to my knowledge also never duplicated at any level of legitimate organized baseball. ‘The streak’ began with a .431 mark in 2001 that was the third highest in National Series history. Urrutia’s .469 average three years later would easily outdistance Pedro Luis Rodriguez’s .446 ledger (1988) as the all-time league mark. In 2003 Urrutia became the first National Series slugger to take home the league batting title three years running; his sensational 2004 season would next extend the record to four uninterrupted batting crowns."
"Urrutia’s improbable effort to run the string of .400-plus seasons to five fell painfully short during the recent 2005 campaign when a late-year slump left him with .385 at season’s end. In mid-February, with but five weeks remaining, Urrutia had surged to .414 but couldn’t maintain the momentum, though he did walk away once more as league batting champion. Batting .400-plus for Cuban League seasons of only 90 games is not the same thing, of course, as pulling off the feat over a much longer big league campaign; yet Urrutia’s recent five-series string does nonetheless represent the 450-game equivalent of two and two-thirds major league years. While no claim comparing Cuban League and big league competition would rest on very solid ground, there is only one near-equivalent feat (in mere raw numbers at least) that can be culled from big league history. Hall-of-famer Rogers Hornsby (for many the best right-handed swinger in big league history) surpassed the .400 barrier in three of five campaigns (1921-1925) during his own phenomenal run of six consecutive National League batting championships. The St. Louis Cardinals slugging wonder averaged .402 over his five stellar campaigns (compared with Urrutia’s .422 in five shorter campaigns) yet strung together only two back-to-back .400 outings (1921=.397, 1922=.401, 1923=.384, 1924=.424, 1925=.403). Urrutia thus remains the only four-time-consecutive .400-plus slugger at any level of organized baseball or anything approaching the stature of organized baseball."
Osmani Urrutia’s Unparalled Five Seasons (plus the two following years)
Year (*=Batting Champion)
2000-2001, .431* BA, 290 AB, 125 H, 16 HR, .645 Slg. Ave.
2001-2002, .408* BA, 240 AB, 98 H, 6 HR, .508 Slg. Ave.
2002-2003, .421* BA, 292 AB, 123 H, 13 HR, .616 Slg. Ave.
2003-2004, .469* BA, 258 AB, 121 H, 8 HR, .760 Slg. Ave.
2004-2005, .385* BA, 291 AB, 112 H, 16 HR, .636 Slg. Ave.
2005-2006, .425 BA, 318 AB, 135 H, 13 HR, .616 Slg. Ave.
2006-2007, .371* BA, 326 AB, 121 H, 8 HR, —–
Note: In the two seasons following his sensational five-year run, Urrutia again batted .425 in 2006 although he lost the hitting crown to Michel Enriquez, then bounced back to hit .371 in 2007 and thus capture his sixth title in seven seasons.
"One remarkable footnote to Osmani Urrutia’s ongoing string of batting titles is the fact that he has remained an unknown on the international scene, overshadowed on the current national team by younger sluggers like Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enriquez. Urrutia has not been the same dominant basher in his Olympic and World Cup outings, though he did post a respectable .333 hitting mark in Athens as the starting right fielder and delivered a number of clutch hits in the recent Holland World Cup of 2005 (where his .417 BA trailed only Eduardo Paret’s .632 and Enriquez’s .455). Part of the reason may be his positioning deep in the power-laden Cuban batting order. The line-up featured by manager Higinio Velez’s team in Holland in September 2005 likely represented the only occasion in baseball’s long history (at any level, in any epoch) which witnessed a batter with a five-year string of .400-plus occupying the seventh slot in his own team’s batting order."
For those fans of international leagues (or for anyone interested in staying abreast of what is going on in Cuba, baseball-wise) there are currently three excellent websites emanating from the island. The official league website is located at www.beisbolcubano.cu and labelled as the "Federation Cubana de Beisbol Aficionado" webpage. It contains current stories on league happenings from a number of Cuban media outlets, as well as links to other Cuban sites carrying baseball news (e.g. the government newspaper Granma, or other Cuban newspaper sportspages such as those of the daily Juventud Rebelde). This site is maintained by the government sports ministry (INDER) and the league commissioner’s office. It is also a good source for stats from the current Cuban League National Series season, as well as a wealth of historical material and photographs.
RADIO COCO (one of Havana’s leading radio stations) maintains two excellent Cuban League sites as well, the first (www.baseballdecuba.com) being billed as the "Official Website of the National Sport" and maintained in cooperation with INDER. This site currently features numerous stories and updates on the coming Summer 2007 appearances of the Cuban National Team in three important international tournaments: the July Pan American Games in Brasil, the August World Port Tournament in Rotterdam, and the World Cup XXXVII matches scheduled for Taiwan in mid-November.
Radio COCO’s second site (www.radiococo.cu/pelota/cocobeisbol.htm) is a new addition still under construction (but you can open the home page). It replaces the now defunct INDUSTRIALES team website earlier maintained by the same media outlet. This third site will be the most elaborate of the three and will carry numerous items on Cuban baseball that reach far beyond the Cuban League National Series. In addition to national team coverage, there are also stories and stats on the lower level provincial tournaments, the developmental league (Cuba’s version of the minor leagues), and the various national youth leagues and national junior teams. You can also get to this site by entering my own webpage (www.bjarkman.com) and clicking the first QUICK LINK in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page.
Together these sites provide a wealth of current information. All that is required is an ability to read Spanish–not a very large obstacle for most "aficionados" of Latino baseball. There is one necessary warning here, however. In this land of "freedom" and supposed unlimited access here Stateside, the Cuban websites are unfortunately jammed in much of the State of Florida and therefore unavailable to fans of Cuban baseball. (The exception in the www.baseballdecuba.com site, since its .com adress seems to trick the righteous Miami Cuban jammers. But these sites are easily accessible elsewhere throughout the USA.
I can’t resist commenting here that those Cubans who have internet access on the island–which is far more an economic than a political restriction–have no difficulty in accessing major league baseball websites. It all makes one wonder who is living under information tyranny–the citizens of Havana or the residents of Miami. But enough of politics. Access the Cuban sites and discover a novel and exciting world of diamond information beamed directly from a long-mysterious corner of the baseball universe.