The baseball playoff season is also a time for individual post-season honors, and Cuba is certainly no exception. It is, however, a little more difficult to find comprehensive lists of past-season winners, and that is due largely to a strange gap in the Cuban League record books. The annual guides (perhaps due to severe space restrictions and printing costs) do not carry any season MVP or Rookie-of-the-Year lists for bygone campaigns, although both these distinctions are annually announced in the Cuban sporting press. Cuba has no other major individual awards–such as a Cy Young Award for pitchers–and there is no “official” designation of a playoff MVP. The top post-season performer has, however, been “unofficially” recognized for the past dozen seasons by Havana’s Radio COCO, one of the top Cuban media outlets for coverage of the national game.
Since I have received numerous requests over the past several years for a list of Cuban MVPs (or for winners of the honor in this season or that season) it would seem most appropriate to publish such a list. I did not provide one in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2007 (published in 2007). So I will now offer an up-to-date listing (it will appear later this week on the Playoffs Page of www.baseballdecuba.com), along with a handful of related editorial comments touching on trivial curiosities pertaining to past selections, plus the prospects for the certain-to-be-controversial current season MVP selection.
In reviewing lists of past winners, a number of historical oddities are worth noting. Only a small handful of ballplayers have tacked together multiple MVP seasons, and fewer still have captured the top rookie designation and then later taken MVP honors. The only three-time winner of the MVP laurels is Omar Linares, but with Yulieski Gourriel only now reaching his peak years this may soon change. Gourriel might well have been in the running for this year’s coveted honor (it would have been his third) had he not dropped the batting title to Michel Enríquez during his final season’s at-bat, or had his Sancti Spíritus club performed better (drawing more attention to his own torrid slugging) during early weeks of the past National Series campaign.
In nearly a half century there have been but six players who have repeated as National Series league MVP, with Omar Linares the only three-time honoree. Yulieski Gourriel and earlier Wilfredo Sánchez are the only pair to wear the MVP crown in consecutive years, while the trio of Lourdes Gourriel (Yulieski’s father), Cheito Rodríguez, and Michel Abreu (later in North American professional baseball) were Rookie-of-the-Year selections who later also earned the MVP distinction. Outfielders make up the largest proportion of MVPs, with Havana’s Industriales not surprisingly having produced more winners of the honor than any other single ball club. Players from Pinar del Río (including that club’s several appearances under the name Vegueros) can claim seven MVPs and thus Pinar stands a close second in the team category.
The current year’s honoree will not be announced until the end of post-season play and this time around will likely represent a most difficult MVP decision. Alfredo Despaigne essentially matched Alexei Bell’s sensational season of a year ago (when Bell was the consensus selection) and was indisputably the outstanding performer, at least on offense–setting a new league home run mark, becoming the first player to reach 100 homers in his first five National Series seasons, and also pacing the circuit in both RBIs and slugging average. But does that necessarily mean he was the MVP–as opposed to the league’s most visible star, which is quite another thing? This is the same debate that occurs often with big league selections. Should a player from a last-place club be considered all that valuable, since his teammates would have finished in the same tail-ender position with or without his output? The question always is whether the candidate’s performances had the same impact on his team’s achievements as they did on the record book? I am of the school (the majority of MVP voters, I suspect) that still believes this award should say as much about a player’s value in the lineup as it does about his hefty personal stats.
My own vote would probably go to either Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Río), Maikel Folich (Ciego de Avila) or Yadier Pedroso (Habana Pedroso). These three outstanding pitchers have done the lion’s share of the work in putting their teams into the playoffs, and one of them may yet carry his teammates to a league championship during the playoff round. There is also some prejudice against pitchers, of course, since some would argue that the MVP should go to a ballplayer from the everyday lineup and not one who appears but once or twice a week (that is, a pitcher). In the major leagues, this line of thinking is also supported by the existence of a special pitcher’s award; the CY Young Award is designed for the American League and National League MVP pitchers. But in the Cuban League there is no equivalent Cy Young Award; perhaps we should have a José Huelga Trophy for the year’s top pitcher, but we do not. Thus in the past Cuban League pitchers have faired comparatively well in MVP voting, claiming ten (a little more than one-fifth) of the previous 47 crowns. Maels Rodríguez was the last hurler to walk off with the honor, during the year (2001) when he smashed a celebrated single-season strikeout mark and thus also bagged most of the winter’s top headlines.
My own vote for MVP, then, goes to league ERA champ Yadier Pedroso (pictured above) of Habana Province. But if pushed to predict the actual winner I would guess that it will in the end be either batting champion Enríquez (his team at least made the playoffs, even if they were crushed in the opening round) or home run record setter Despaigne. Just like in the “grand” leagues, in Cuba it is the sluggers and not pitchers “that drive the Cadillacs.” Well not exactly, of course, because almost no one in Cuba drives a Cadillac–or at least not one built during the last five decades. But the point here is that in modern-era baseball it is the run-producing sluggers who garner the bulk of media attention–even in more baseball-pure Cuba.
The complete listing of Cuban League MVP, Rookie-of-the-Year, and Post-Season MVP award winners will be available this week on the Playoff Page of our website at www.baseballdecuba.com. The list can also be accessed at http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=8591.
Habana Province today became the first club to earn a Cuban League post-season semifinals berth by convincingly grabbing four of five matches from outmanned Isla de la Juventud. The brief series was punctuated with a Monday afternoon 19-5 seven-inning “mercy rule” romp in the loser’s Cristóbal Labra Stadium (Nueva Gerona). The Cowboys must now await the victor of a Pinar del Río and Sancti Spíritus quarterfinal showdown that could end as early as tonight (with Pinar currently maintaining a 3-1 lead in that second best-of-seven series). A Pinar trip to the semis would mean a desired paring of first-place (Habana) and second place finishers for the Occidental League crown. In the eastern sector of the country, first place Ciego de Avila currently holds a 2-0 lead over scrappy Holguín, while defeading champion Santiago de Cuba is now trailing upset-minded Villa Clara 2-1 in the second Oriental League quarterfinal.
The biggest story in Habana Province’s lopsided knockout win was the rare hitting feat authored by Cowboys second baseman Ernest Molinet, a sold slugger boasting 12 homers, a .330 BA and a .515 slugging average during regular-season action. In the fifth inning of today’s romp Molinet blasted two homers, the first a two-run shot and the second a game-capping grand slam. Molinet also doubled home a seventh run earlier in the same contest. While a single player has crushed two homers during a single inning on 51 different occasions in the North American major leagues, this feat has never been accomplished during big league post-season action. It is currently thought (I am still searching the Cuban record books) that such an event has also never happened during any previous Cuban League playoff match. It is also apparently the case that on the 51 occasions of a player stroking two homers in a single frame in the majors, only light-hitting infielder Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals (April 23, 1999) can claim a grand slam as part of the endeavor. Tatis actually blasted two grand slams in the same frame in Dodger Stadium, thus collecting eight RBIs (two more than Molinet). For the record, Molinet also clubbed the game-winning round tripper in the eighth frame of the opener of this short-lived Habana Province-Isla series.
When Alexei Bell smashed 31 homers and knocked in 111 runs in National Series #47 he obliterated two long-standing Cuban League slugging records. But one of Bell’s new marks didn’t hold up for long. Twenty-three year old Granma phenom Alfredo Despaigne has feasted on weak league pitching throughout the current campaign and roared down the stretch run following the World Baseball Classic recess to quickly erase Bell’s short-lived home run standard. The new record came in dramatic fashion on one of the most chaotic final days (and final weekends) of Cuban National Series history. On Friday evening (May 1) Cuba’s lifetime batting average leader Osmani Urrutia announced his surprise early retirement from the game after but 16 seasons; Urrutia, who will not turn 33 until mid-June, now walks away from the sport with an unmatched .369 lifetime hitting mark. But Urrutia’s premature departure was buried by the on-the-field drama of the campaign’s final tense hours. On Sunday afternoon (May 3) Michel Enríquez (Isla) and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) entered the last day of league action in a virtual dead heat for this season’s coveted individual batting title. And the biggest piece of drama was provided by Despaigne, who had been sitting on 31 homers all week long since matching Bell’s 2008 output eight days earlier.
Batting in the unusual leadoff spot on Sunday (in an effort to increase his possible at-bat opportunities) Despaigne was zero for one (plus one walk) entering the fifth frame when he finally exploded for his landmark homer with two aboard, as part of an 11-run Granma uprising versus four Villa Clara hurlers. Six RBIs in the contest also left the slugger only three short of becoming the second Cuban league to reach 100-plus in a National Series campaign (Bell became the first last season). The historic homer not only established a new single-season standard but also left the rising national team star as the first Cuban slugger to reach the century mark for round trippers during his first five National Series seasons. The closest to achieving that distinction were Yulieski Gourriel with 99 and Despaigne’s Granma teammate Yoennis Céspedes, who had recorded 96 by the close of his own fifth campaign during National Series #47 (2007-2008).
Despaigne has also now teamed with Céspedes (who has blasted 24 this winter) to write a new standard for a single-team slugging tandem. Last winter Despaigne (24) and Céspedes (26) became the first pair of teammates to reach the combined figure of fifty round trippers in a National Series campaign. They have now extended last year’s achievement by a half-dozen, thus rubber-stamping their ranking as the greatest single one-two home run punch in the nearly half-century annals of Cuba’s revolutionary baseball.
Bell, for his part, last winter became the first National Series batsman to reach the 30-homer plateau when he overhauled the previous record of 28 clubbed by Joan Carlos Pedroso in National Series #42 (2002-2003). Orestes Kindelán (Cuba’s career leader with 487 before his retirement in 2001) had originally reached the 30-homer plateau during 1986 Selective Series play (the now-discontinued “second season” which at the time was 63 games in length). Bell’s breakout 2008 campaign also featured the only 100-plus RBI season, a mark which Despaigne has now missed equaling by the narrowest of margins.
Previous Top Cuban League Home Run Seasons
32 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2009 National Series #48 (90-game season)
31 Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), 2008 National Series #47 (90-game season)
30 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1986 Selective Series #12 (63-game season)
28 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1988 Selective Series #14 (63-game season)
28 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2003 National Series #42 (90-game season)
27 Joan Carlos Pedrsos (Las Tunas), 2005 National Series #44 (90-game season)
27 Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), 2006 National Series #45 (90-game season)
27 Lázaro Junco (Matanzas), 1993 National Series #32 (65-game season)
Cuban League home run records (unlike the tainted productions of a recent generation of major leaguers) are assuredly not the product of any chemical assistance, as one can easily gather by looking at photos of the undersized Despaigne and Bell, or the muscular yet slender Gourriel. Nor are they ever accompanied by (or diminished by) a qualifying footnote like the infamous Roger Maris asterisk. Since both the current National Series and now defunct Selective Series (Cuba’s “second season” from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s) have regularly varied in length-of-season over recent decades, the number of games played to achieve record production has never been a point of serious discussion. Looking at that factor of games played (such a preoccupation of number-crunching MLB fans), Kindelán’s two top seasons in the Selective Series would appear to stand as the more legitimate Cuban League record, challenged most closely by Junco’s output in 1993 (NS #32). But there is a mitigating factor here and that is the non-level playing field produced by the usage of aluminum bats. The dividing line between metal “rocket launchers” and legitimate baseball lumber is 1999 (National Series #38) and only Bell, Despaigne, Pedroso and Yulieski Gourriel have posted record or near-record numbers for long balls in the more recent “wooden bat” epoch.
Despaigne’s 2008-09 Home Run Log
#32 (May 3, 2009) versus Villa Clara (Augusto César Sandino Stadium, Villa Clara) Game #90
#31 (April 25, 2009) versus Isla de La Juventud (Cauto Cristo Stadium, Granma) Game #83
#30 (April 22, 2009) versus Pinar del Río (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #80
#29 (April 17, 2009) versus Villa Clara (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76
#28 (April 17, 2009) versus Villa Clara (Mártres de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76
#27 (April 15, 2009) versus Ciego de Avila (Mártires de Bardados Stadium, Granma) Game #74
#26 (April 14, 2009) versus Ciego de Avila (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #73
#25 (April 12, 2009) versus Pinar del Río (Capitan San Luis Stadium, Pinar del Río) Game #72
#24 (April 8, 2009) versus Isla de la Juventud (Cristobal Labra Stadium, Nueva Gerona) Game #68
#23 (April 5, 2009) versus Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #66
#22 (April 3, 2009) versus Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #64
#21 (March 31, 2009) versus Cienfuegos (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #61
#20 (March 29, 2009) versus Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) Game #60
#19 (March 28, 2009) versus Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59
#18 (March 28, 2009) versus Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59
#17 (March 27, 2009) versus Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) #58
Six-Week Break for World Baseball Classic
#16 (February 8, 2009) versus Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57
#15 (February 8, 2009) versus Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57
#14 (February 7, 2009) versus Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium) Game #56
#13 (February 5, 2009) versus Guantánamo (Nguyen Van Troi Stadium, Guantánamo) Game #54
#12 (January 30, 2009)) versus Camagüey (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #49
#11 (January 20, 2009) versus Habana Province (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #40
#10 (January 18, 2009) versus Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #39
#9 (January 17, 2009) versus Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #38
#8 (January 16, 2009) versus Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #37
#7 (January 15, 2009) versus Matanzas (Victoria de Girón Stadium, Matanzas) Game #36
#6 (December 28, 2008) versus Holguín (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #24
#5 (December 23, 2008) versus Guantánamo (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #19
#4 (December 16, 2008) versus Las Tunas (Julio Antonio Mella Stadium, Las Tunas) Game #13
#3 (December 7, 2008) versus Cienfuegos (5 de Septiembre Stadium, Cienfuegos) Game #6
#2 (December 4, 2008) versus Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4
#1 (December 4, 2008) versus Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4
Several noteworthy facts about Despaigne’s lengthy string of long balls might also be recorded here. Foremost is the fact that the Granma slugger has bunched his homers in a number of clusters throughout the season, including one string of five straight games in January, a second of six consecutive home run games overlapping the World Baseball Classic recess, and then a third cluster of four games out of five (with five total homers in those five contests) in mid-April. Half of his total (16) was achieved in the 57 games before the WBC hiatus and an equal number (16) in the mere 33 games that followed the shutdown. Thirteen of the homers have come in home ball parks with 19 stroked on the road. Despaigne’s favorite park as expected was Granma’s main venue at Mártires de Barbados Stadium in the provincial capital of Bayamo, where he bashed ten NS #48 dingers, but he also whaled three in both Guillermón Moncada (Santiago de Cuba) and Latinoamericano (all versus Metros, with surprisingly none against shaky Industriales pitching).
Despaigne’s longest homer-less string was 11 games during the first two weeks of January, followed by the eight just before season’s end. His favorite victims have been Holguín (5) and Sancti Spíritus (4), but he also had three each versus the Metros, Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Santiago clubs, and has thus homered against every team in the circuit except Havana’s proud Industriales (with a pair each against Pinar del Río, Guantánamo, and Isla de La Juventud, plus single homers off of Matanzas, Las Tunas, Habana, and Camagüey). But unlike Alexei Bell a year earlier, Despaigne’s slugging will not carry over as a main storyline during the upcoming Cuban post-season, as his last-place Granma ball club trailed the entire eight-team pack in the Oriental League, barely edging out Havana’s Metropolitans (tail ender in the Occidental League) to avoid an ignoble distinction of owning this winter’s worst overall league record.
For those of you who can’t make it down to Havana, the visual “taste” of Cuban baseball will soon be available in upstate New York, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. That institution is about to launch in its Third Floor Gallery a wonderful photographic exhibit drawn from the work of Byron Motley. As a regular traveler on the Cuban baseball scene, I can verify first-hand that Motley has done a marvelous job of visually capturing the spirit and the feel of the island national game. For those of you who are in the area, this is definitely a don’t-miss experience.
The Motley exhibit, entitled “Viva Cuba Béisbol“ and debuting on May 23, will run through January 2010. For a small taste of Motley’s unparalleled work, visit his website at http://www.byronmotley.com/Photographer/ and click on the Viva Cuba Béisbol icon at the top of the left-hand column. Motley’s work is just about the best visual record of the island’s sporting passion that I myself have so far witnessed.
For only the fourth time in the past quarter-century the capital city of Havana will have neither of its league teams (fan-favorite Industriales or usual also-ran Metropolitanos) represented in the post-season playoffs that open on the island this coming Wednesday. With only a final weekend of action remaining in National Series #48, all four post-season slots in both leagues have now been determined and little drama remains to regular season competition outside of a few marquee individual statistical races. The foremost of those sidebar stories is the tight three-man battle for the individual batting crown between Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila) and Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Javentud), with all three still hovering a fraction below the .400 mark. Gourriel, seeking his first hitting title (although a few years back he was the first ever to pace the circuit in both homers and triples in the same campaign) is currently in the lead at .399 (with Enríquez at .398 and Charles standing at .395). A second important sidebar is Alfredo Despaigne’s last ditch effort to overhaul Alexei Bell’s single-season home run mark of 31 set only last winter. Despaigne tied the record earlier in the week but has been homer-less in the past four contests and now faces the pressures of a final three-game series on the road against tough Villa Clara pitching.
Match-ups for the first round (quarterfinals) of “best-of-seven” post-season action are as follows:
Occidental League (West)
Habana Province (1st place) versus Isla de la Juventud (4th place)
Pinar del Río (2nd place) versus Sancti Spíritus (3rd place)
(Habana Province and Pinar del Río enjoy the extra home game in these two series)
Ciego de Avila (1st place) versus Holguín (4th place)
Santiago de Cuba (2nd place) versus Villa Clara (3rd place)
(Ciego de Avila and Santiago de Cuba enjoy the extra home game in these two series)
Last winter’s playoffs concluded with Pinar del Río suffering an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of Santiago, which will now be seeking its third straight league crown during this year’s post-season dance. The power-laden Wasps have to be considered a consensus favorite to three-peat, despite a slow early-season start that ultimately left them trailing surprising Ciego de Avila by a half-dozen games in the eastern division. Ciego, owner of the top league record this winter at 62-25 (three games remaining), will be seeking its first-ever league title and has never made it out of the first round in its handful of previous post-season appearances.
All the playoff action can be followed in detail (including radio and television Spanish-language broadcasts) on www.baseballdecuba.com, which will feature a special post-season page complete with game reports and day-by-day statistics. This author will also be reporting directly from the scene in Cuba during a two-week-span of the playoff saga that opens on May 6 and will extend possibly as late as June 11 (depending on the length of the final series).