I have recently received a tip from reliable sources at MLB that the venues have now been fixed for games of the second World Baseball Classic, to be staged in March 2009. All first round contests will reportedly be played outside of the United States (thus avoiding any eroding of fan attendance at MLB spring training games in both Florida and Arizona), while all second round and third round action (semifinals-finals) will be staged on American soil. The tentative schedule has opening round action pegged for the following four venues: Toronto (Rogers Center), Mexico City, Tokyo (Tokyo Dome), and San Juan (Hiram Bithorn Stadium). While no specific pairings have yet been announced, it is being reported that Team USA and Team Canada will both appear in opening round action in Toronto; the four Asian teams would logically be based in Tokyo; Puerto and the Dominican Republic (probably along with Italy and Holland) would perform in San Juan; and Mexico and Cuba (perhaps also Venezuela) would be housed in Mexico City. Sending the Cuban squad to Mexico would avoid two potential first round negatives: the move would clearly avoid an undesirable USA-Cuba matchup in the opening round (rather than gambling on a marketing bonanza with a dream Cuba-USA TV match-up during the "final four" weekend) and would also block the likely efforts of the Obama or McCain administrations to deny visas to the Cuban delegation (if they were slated to play on USA soil in San Juan). The current plan also has all second round action staged in North American MLB ballparks–at San Diego and Anaheim. The finals (including semifinals) will then be played at Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles). The primary thrust of this dollar-conscious schedule is to avoid any unwanted competition for fan attendance between WBC contests and spring training exhibitions in Florida and Arizona (as happened in March 2006). An official announcement of these tentative plans (along with the final team assignments/matchups) is scheduled for the middle of next month.
This winter’s Cuban League pennant race has to date featured some of the most exciting newcomers in decades and is so far a testament to the remarkable regenerative powers of Cuban baseball. Relative newcomers Yosvany Pereza (Pinar del Rio) and Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) have been engaged in a thrilling battle for the league home run crown (Peraza now has 19 round trippers and Bell 18) and both are on a pace to eclipse Joan Carlos Pedroso’s single-season record of 28 set back in 2003 (National Series #42). An additional pair of slugging youngsters, Granma’s Yoennis Cespedes (also with 18) and Alfredo Despaigne (with 15) remain on the heals of Peraza and Bell and may also have a legitimate shot at surpassing Pedroso’s record. In the individual batting race another newcomer, infielder Leonys Martin of Villa Clara, is leading the pack with a .440 mark, and for the first time in nearly a decade career BA record holder Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) is not a factor in the current batting average derby. Another newcomer to the national team scene, second baseman Hector Olivera of Santiago, is the present pacesetter in total bases (105) and also in runs scored (55), while teammate Jose Julio Ruiz (heir apparent to the national team first base slot now held down by Alex Mayeta of Industriales) stands atop the field in both base hits (82) and stolen bases (with 24, a rare feat for an oversized first baseman). In the pitching department, Habana’s Jonder Martinez (9-0, league-best 1.08) has also emerged from several years of obscurity as the island’s most talented pitcher.
Yet in the midst of all this infusion of new talent, two proud veteran pitchers remain the biggest stories of National Series #47 as they approach two of the most cherished and significant career records in the annals of the island national sport. Pinar’s Pedro Luis Lazo (long familiar to fans of international baseball as the invincible Team Cuba workhorse closer) now stands within three victories of the all-time career mark held for the past decade plus by former Henequeneros southpaw ace Jorge Luis Valdes. Lazo’s pursuit of Valdes’s milepost has received considerable coverage in the Cuban sporting press, and with a 5-3 mark after last Sunday’s win over Sancti Spiritus, Lazo seems a sure bet to write his name permanently into the record books before season’s end. The eventual career wins record will do much to establish Lazo as the greatest pitcher of the half-century post-revolution era. While the island nation watches Lazo’s much-celebrated march into the record books, another island ace has also been zeroing in on perhaps an even more remarkable career winning feat, and he has been doing so with almost no fanfare and little if any notice from the Cuban baseball press. Santiago’s Norge Luis Vera (pictured here)–long this writer’s own personal choice as Cuba’s best year-in and year-out pitcher of the past several decades–is now within striking distance of overhauling the career winning-percentage mark set in the 1980s and early 1990s by one-time Industriales hero Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. (Vera’s first name comes from the popular 1950s North American refrigerator brand and is pronounced to rhyme with Porge and not with forge.) At 7-0 this season, the veteran Santiago right-hander (born August 3, 1971) has reached the mid-point of his 14th National Series with a remarkable 146-55 (.726) career victory ledger. Two more wins without a defeat and Vera’s W-L record will edge out that of El Duque (10 seasons, 126-47, .728) as the most efficient winning ledger in Cuban annuals. Although Vera has stood above the .700 victory plateau for most of the past decade, it long seemed unlikely (if not impossible) for the aging fast-baller to keep winning in the latter years of his career at a clip that would allow him eventually to overhaul the .728 mark posted by the current major leaguer.
Several features of Norge Vera’s achievement seem to outstrip the records of both Pedro Lazo (born April 15, 1973 and thus a year and a half younger than Vera) and El Duque Hernandez. Unlike the career winning mark of Hernandez (who left Cuba for the New York Yankees in 1998)–or the career ERA record of Jose Antonio Huelga (1.50 for 7 seasons before his tragic death in an auto accident)–Vera’s mark has not been aided by a shortened career of ten National Series or less. It is highly unlikely that either El Duque or Jose Contreras (the only other Cuban League hurler with a lifetime .700 mark, at 117-50, .701 for 10 seasons) would have continued above the .700 plateau had they both remained in Cuba and suffered an inevitable dip in winning efficiency once age and time caught up with them at career’s end. While Pedro Lazo’s own winning percentage is nearly as impressive as his victories total (18 seasons, 231-125, .649), it still does not come close to rivaling that of Vera. Both have pitched with year-in and year-out support from two of the league’s top three teams, and both have pitched a fair percentage of their team’s toughest games as the ranking staff ace. But Lazo has won more total games largely by benefiting from four additional seasons and by laboring for a Pinar staff (which included Contreras and Faustino Corrales for much of his career) a bit thinner than the talented and deep Santiago contingents led by Vera. Norge Vera (with 154 fewer career starts entering this current season, at 226 compared to Lazo’s 380) has never been relied upon as the single staff workhorse for his club as has Lazo in Pinar, and while he has many fewer starts and wins, Vera does boast other achievements that Lazo does not.
Vera’s resume contains a rare no-hitter (January 21, 2001 versus Habana Province) while Lazo’s does not. Vera’s sterling 2.60 career ERA (one of the best of the past decade) far outstrips Lazo’s 3.24; the strikeout-to-walks ratios are about the same for the two aces (Vera has 1019 Ks and 397 BB, Lazo has 2157 Ks, 855 BB); Vera boasts 32 career shutouts which is one more than Lazo. And no individual mound effort in recent Cuban League seasons (including Maels Rodriquez’s 263 strikeouts in 2001) surpasses Vera’s 0.97 season-long ERA of 2000, the first National Series after the return to wooded bats. It is of course most likely that even if Vera does overhaul El Duque’s current career standard in the course of the current season, it will be difficult at best for him to remain above the .728 percentage mark if he continues to pitch another several seasons. Age is bound to eventually take its toll. But it is not such a bad bet at this point that Norge Vera will retire with a career mark well above .700 and thus well beyond that of Lazo. Lazo’s victory total (remarkable as it is) is a tribute to longevity as much as to any other factor. Like Pete Rose’s base hits standard in the majors, Lazo reached his plateau simply by outlasting all other rivals. Vera’s record, on the other hand, has been increasingly threatened and not at all aided by the march of time. The more he lasts the harder (not easier, as in Lazo’s case) it is for him to maintain a record-setting pace. On this basis alone one could build a good argument that Norge Vera (a more efficient winner than anyone outside of El Duque who ever came before him) has been the best pitcher (Lazo included) ever the grace to forty-seven seasons of Cuba’s revolutionary baseball.
Norge Vera first burst on the consciousness of North American baseball fans when he hurled 7.0 highly effective innings in relief against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in May 1999. He reached his peak in international play when he pulled off a remarkable and unprecedented double as the winner in both the semifinals (7 innings as a starter versus Chinese Taipei) and finals (7 innings of relief versus Panama) during World Cup XXXV in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano (October 2003). But Vera’s visibility outside the island has been minimal due to his sparse use on the national team during the late 1990s and early 2000s. (He did post a 1-0 record and 0.69 ERA in the Athens 2004 Olympics, plus a 1-1, 1.23 mark in the Sydney 2000 Olympics). While Lazo gained a huge international audience with his memorable closing effort versus the Dominican big leaguers at the WBC semifinals in San Diego, Vera was left off the WBC roster (mainly due to injury) and thus unfortunately missed his rare moment in the sun with North American and Asian fans. It is precisely Lazo’s visibility on the international scene–and especially his performance versus the Dominicans in Cuba’s greatest single-game victory ever–that has perhaps focused so much attention this season on the island itself on Lazo’s pursuit of the CL career record for total victories. Yet it is Vera’s pursuit of El Duque’s mark that may be in the end the more remarkable story–given the greater difficulty for a 14-season veteran to continue to win at an unprecedented record pace despite the ravages of time and the always improving level of Cuban League baseball. The Cuba press should indeed give Lazo his due, and victory number #235 should be celebrated with great fanfare everywhere on the island. But if Norge Vera eclipses El Duque in the coming weeks this special landmark achievement merits receiving equal celebration throughout Cuban baseball circles. It may only be a matter of time before some catches up with Lazo and records 250-plus career wins. But is may be a long time in coming before any future ace can match the career long winning percentage that will ultimately be the legacy of Norge Luis Vera.
In a rare bit of potential future barroom trivia, the eleventh Cuban All-Star Game of the modern era ended with an unprecedented walkoff homer from the bat of a visiting team slugger. The heroics were provided by hefty Occidentales backup catcher Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Rio), who drove a delivery from righty Jorge Luis Longa (Ciego de Avila) deep into the left field bleachers to send the visiting West squad home 6-5 winners. The rarity of a visiting team "walkoff" was provided via a unique league decision to allow the visiting all-stars to bat last in this year’s match at Santiago’s picturesque Guillermon Moncada Stadium. The final blast was the third long-ball of the tense see-saw contest–the others coming off the bats of a pair of Santiago regulars, Alexei Bell and Rolando Merino–and provided the Occidentales with a 12-11 lead in the overall series (including earlier-epoch games played strictly in Havana between 1963 and 1994). Industriales hurler Alexei Gil was the game winner (in relief) in a thrilling contest played before a packed house and a nation-wide television audience. It was the second time in recent seasons that a Cuban all-star game has ended in sudden-death fashion, with Danel Castro (Las Tunas) providing a similar walk-off ending to the 2004 affair staged in Santa Clara.
Peraza’s memorable shot (pictured here) provided a perfect ending to a weekend of thrills which included a hard-fought (and seriously played) Veterans Game and a showcase home run hitting contest, both on Saturday evening. The old-timers match fell to the Orientales 11-7 and was decided by a dramatic grandslam homer off the bat of career base-hits leader and current Santiago manager Antonio Pacheco. The popular long-ball contest was captured by WBC star Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spiritus) who smashed eight; Gourriel was trailed in the contest by Juan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas, 7), Yoennis Cespedes (Granma, 4), and Yosvany Peraza and Jose Julio Ruiz (Santiago) with three apiece. The remaining seven competitors in the showcase contest included veterans (i.e., old-timers) Pacheco and Villa Clara manager Victor Mesa (who actually won this event back in 2000). Full details of the Cuban all-star weekend (including video clips of Peraza’s dramatic homer and other highlights) can be found on the USA-based Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. That site also contains my own detailed essay on the past history and special features of Cuba’s mid-season all-star classic.
I will be back in Cuba during the coming week, visiting Havana (for the Industriales-Metros inter-city rivalry series) and Sancti Spiritus (for games between Pinar del Rio and the host Gallos) and checking out the opening days of the second half of league play. I will be blogging further about the developing National Series #47 after my return from the island in mid-February.