A summary of 2009 international competition in this year’s Baseball America 2010 Almanac concludes with the following sour assessment of the September IBAF-sponsored Baseball World Cup: “While competition wavered from excellent to inept, the bigger story was the poor attendance…Maybe that makes it easier to see why European nations, which dominate the IOC, were quick to get baseball out of the Olympics.” The BA article bases this critical dismissal on an observation that “the overall World Cup total of 126,799 for 106 games breaks down to a 1,196 average, but taking away the German games, the average dips to 888.” To be entirely “fair and balanced” here, it should be pointed out that the BA article also admits in its much longer opening section devoted to the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic that a semi-final finish by Team USA in the earlier March event “failed to capture the interest of the many North American baseball fans.” The article surprisingly fails to discuss the overall poor attendance of most WBC games yet does stress the Classic-record 54,846 fans in Dodger Stadium to witness the tournament finale. The author does so, however, without mentioning that the impressive LA crowd was swelled significantly by that city’s huge Japanese and Korean ex-patriot populations and not by North American baseball partisans.
There seem to be a number of implied criticisms of the showcase IBAF world championship event inherent in the BA report, and all of them are either distortions or at best misrepresentations. It is of course ludicrous to suggest that the European-based World Cup event was any easy explanation for baseball’s recent failures within the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The Europe-based IBAF (International Baseball Federation) lobbied laboriously for the reinstatement of Olympic Baseball, as did the national federations of baseball-playing European nations like Italy, Holland, Spain and Great Britain. The truth of the matter is that the bulk of the world’s sporting nations (most located in Africa and Asia and not in Europe) have no stake or interest in the sport of baseball, which they themselves do not celebrate or even understand. The killing of Olympic baseball was hardly some European plot as seems to be implied by the Baseball America editorial.
Leaving the whole Olympic issue aside, BA seems here to falsely apprehend the nature as well as the successes of the IBAF World Cup, which remains (despite the recent intrusion of the WBC) the sport’s most legitimate world championship event. MLB’s “Classic” was from the first designed as a commercial venture–a staged exhibition supposedly showcasing “the world’s most accomplished players in the uniforms of their home nations” and designed to sell tickets and garner television and advertising revenues. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s not intentionally confuse apples with oranges or softballs with volleyballs. Since the WBC showcases MLB stars, it features ball clubs representing only that small group of approximately a dozen nations where the sport is already long established as a top-drawing professional (and thus revenue-producing) sport. The WBC does nothing to spread the growth of the bat and ball game to the numerous nations which have only recently adopted the game and where the local IBAF federations are trying against large odds to grow public interest in the sport. These would be European nations like, say, Croatia and Sweden, or Asian nations like Thailand or the Philippines. As a commercial venture the WBC can be fairly measured by the number of tickets sold. And so far, on that count alone, its own two maiden outings have hardly been much more than very tentative successes.
The IBAF World Cup (called the Amateur World Series from its origins in the late 1930s until 1988) has always had a very different mission. Its purpose is to provide a legitimate world championship venue open to all active ball-playing nations and not just those boasting MLB stars (or in Cuba’s case, the equivalent of MLB stars). An auxiliary goal is to spread and encourage the international growth of baseball as a recreational competition to be enjoyed at many levels, and thus as something far more valued than simply a revenue-producing exhibition showcasing top professional performers. Because of its nature the IBAF event indeed does produce many imbalanced matches (games between Cuba and South Africa, or between Japan and Croatia) that might be quickly labeled from the MLB perspective (or that of the writers at Baseball America) as being “inept competitions.” It also produces small crowds in sometimes less than state-of-the-art ballparks to witness games sometimes played in dreadful weather conditions (such as some of this year’s World Cup games staged in late-season soggy conditions on Dutch and Italian fields featuring poor drainage and little grandstand fan protection).
But for all those drawbacks, first-round World Cup matches attracting twenty nations this past September to such locations as Zagreb (Croatia), Regensburg (Germany), Sundbyberg (Sweden), Barcelona (Spain) and Prague (Czech Republic) did far more to spread the growth and popularity of the sport (and thus to increase its Olympic appeal) than might any televised showcase MLB matches beamed into those locales from distant San Diego or San Juan. IBAF events give emerging baseball nations a chance to compete on an equal basis. They bring high-level exhibitions of the sport to fans that are often experiencing it for the first time. They do not boast the MLB goal of creating larger TV markets for American and National League teams or selling larger amounts of high-priced Yankees caps or Red Sox jerseys. IBAF events are the grass roots of the game and not the polished marketing arms of the sport’s lofty professional levels. And more power to them for that.
All this said, there remains a great irony in Baseball America‘s editorial lambasting of poor September World Cup attendance. It must be remembered here that not only did IBAF officials not share the same MLB marketing aims while staging the European World Cup event, but they also did not enjoy either the same huge advertising and promotional budget to work with, or the same built-in MLB and Latin American fan base to plug into. And the format for competition also worked against drawing large crowds in Europe. Fans did not know from one round to the next which teams would be playing where. For example, Dutch fans gambling that powerhouse Cuba and defending champ Team USA might face off in an attractive second round clash in Rotterdam were disappointed (after the Americans first-round slip in Germany) to find Cuba matched instead with Venezuela in the game they had planned to attend. The venues spread out around Italy for the final round were located in off-the-beaten-path locales such as Grosseto, Nettuno and Messina (in distant Sicily) and fans following a particular ballclub faced the near impossible task of racing from one part of the country to another in less than 24 hours (often to a destination that was not finalized until the previous day’s results were in).
Despite all those obstacles to fan participation, World Cup attendance actually held up quite well when compared to this year’s MLB Classic. What was not mentioned in the BA citation of attendance figures was the matter of stadium capacity. While many games did draw less than 1,000 in-house spectators, those games where often being played in venues like Amsterdam’s 3,000-seat bandbox ballpark or Grosseto’s quaint but limited 4,000-seat facility. By contrast, several second-round MLB Classic games in Toronto and Miami witnessed turnouts where security personnel, souvenir vendors, and concourse ushers nearly outnumbered the paying customers. An Italy-Venezuela match at Rogers Centre (50,516 capacity) drew 10,450 fans (21% capacity) while the first Netherlands-Venezuela game in Miami’s Dolphins Stadium (42,531) packed in 17,345 (40% capacity). Cuba and Puerto Rico drew a mere 1600 fans to Amsterdam’s Sportpark Ookmeer, but that venue can barely hold 3000 (counting standees). Yes, admittedly the WBC drew far better and the World Cup games of September could only claim dismal attendance figures. But the contrasts are not that stark when one considers the venues, the weather and the travel conditions–especially when one is comparing baseball-hotbed Miami to soccer-mad Amsterdam. And more especially when the IBAF measures its successes by something far different from gate revenues.
No one would suggest that baseball is at the top of the list of spectator sports in Europe, but then again it doesn’t hold that rank here in the USA either (despite boasts about the reputed North American home of a game that evolved in the early 19th century from European bat and ball contests). Europe is soccer territory and North America is NFL and NASCAR territory. By no measure is the IBAF World Cup tournament the kind of thriving commercial enterprise that organized baseball (MLB) is. It doesn’t appeal to fans expected the best-known and highest salaried celebrity ballplayers, and it does not provide games either enriched or overshadowed by luxury venue full-scale entertain “spectaculars” featuring tons of electronics and the equivalent of a three-hour rock concert. World Cup baseball is barebones and often enjoyed by only a scattered handful of true aficionados in the most primitive of functional ballpark facilities. But for some of us that is precisely its priceless charm and its deeply important value. IBAF World Cup events may not yet do much to increase revenue-producing spectators. But they serve an immense value in growing the sport in some of baseball’s most distant outposts, and therein resides the largest possible contribution to the sport’s true international future.
Recent interest surrounding the signing of 22-year-old former Cuban national team hurler Aroldis Chapman has sparked considerable internet debate (especially in Cincinnati) and in the process has also refocused attention on the phenomenon of Cuban “defectors”–ballplayers who leave the island in search of possible lucrative futures in the high-paying world of professional North American baseball. I have already weighed in several times in the last 24-hours with my own assessments of Chapman’s big league prospects–assessment based on my 15 years of experience with Cuban league baseball, my numerous opportunities to watch Chapman pitch (both on the island and in international venues), and my own first-hand knowledge of Cuban League play and especially native Cuban pitching talent.
Unfortunately some of the recent debate posted on several Cincinnati-based websites has turned a bit contentious in the past 24 hours and at times has involved views and assessments (of both Chapman’s raw talents and my own readings of Chapman’s potential) that smack more of political diatribe than friendly baseball banter. To put it bluntly, some of the old assumptions seem again to be rearing their ugly heads: (1) i.e. that Cuba is a socialist nation and thus automatically some kind of “evil empire,” (2) that Cuban ballplayers always leave the island because they are striking a blow at its political system or at its government philosophy, and (3) that the Cuban baseball media itself is inherited interested in advancing some government-sponsored thinking and therefore has no ability to write objectively about their own shared national pastime).
All these unfortunate false notions again came to the fore yesterday when a couple of representatives of the Cincinnati media jumped to the conclusion that, because my own published assessments of Chapman (which were hardly all negative, by the way) did not quite match those of Cincinnati team officials, or those of some scouts and player agents–and also because I was writing for a website called BaseballdeCuba.com–I must be an ignorant member of the Cuban media with some pre-programmed party line to voice. I have no interest in carrying that debate any further, given that I already had my say yesterday in a published response posted on the Havana Times website. My only interest in the end is in sharing my knowledge of (and passion for) Cuban League baseball with those true fans interested in expanding their own understanding of Cuban ballplayers and the Cuban baseball scene. Anyone who sees Chapman or any other Cuban ballplayer differently than I do is certainly entitled to his/her opinion (well informed or not). My only objections have been to (1) observations about the Cuban League and its players based on hearsay and falsehoods rather than any actual facts or firsthand knowledge, and (2) knee-jerk assumptions about my affiliations and interests in Cuban baseball that are made without any proper investigation of my identity or background. Enough said on that topic; it is time to get back to baseball.
Since the issue of Cuban “defectors” (I explained yesterday why I am not comfortable with this term and its usual connotations) is now again a burning topic in “Hot Stove League” circles, I should point out that Marvin Moore has recently published (www.ibaf.com) the first part of a useful summary account of Cuban ballplayers (approximately 200 since 1980 and 21 of note in 2009 alone) who have left the island for (often unrealistic) professional prospects. For those interested in tracking the phenomenon, Moore (who writes for BaseballdeWorld.com, which is NOT affiliated with BaseballdeCuba.com) has provided a complete listing of these athletes. Moore’s list brings up to speed a now quite-dated inventory originally published in my own 2006 book (A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006).
While the first part of Moore’s article (http://baseballdeworld.com/2010/01/15/chasing-dreams-cuban-baseball-defectors-part-1/) is not a very detailed analysis of the phenomenon, it is a useful overview, and it does make a number of points which are right on target. Those points are all of the following:
1 – Cuban ballplayers choose to leave their homeland “in pursuit of fame and fortune” in the major leagues, and not for any other reasons. Worsening economic conditions on the island are thus enough to explain the recent upsurge in the phenomenon. (And it might be added–by me and not Moore–that Cuban players therefore leave home for the very same economic reasons that ballplayers from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or Puerto Rico also regularly depart their original native shores.)
2- While Aroldis Chapman has garnered the most recent attention he might not be the best prospect to leave the island. (I have gone further than Moore in my view that Chapman is definitely not the best prospect to depart Cuba–not even the best pitching prospect.)
3- Only a relatively small number of Cuba’s refugee ballplayers (José Contreras, Alexei Ramírez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Danys Báez and the brothers Orlando and Liván Hernández are perhaps the most obvious exceptions) have so far struck it rich with coveted MLB contracts, or even enjoyed minimal big league success and productivity.
4- The best of the lot (with the brightest MLB prospects) among recent island baseball refugees is Pinar del Río and national team ace right-hander Yunieski Maya, currently showcasing his wares for MLB scouts in the Dominican Republic. Maya was a league ERA champ in 2005 (1.61), paced the circuit in numerous categories last season, and likely would have been the country’s number two starter (behind veteran Norge Vera) at the recent European World Cup had it not departed a few months earlier. Maya is a bigger overall talent than Chapman. But just as home run hitters (not singles hitters) drive the Cadillacs (to quote an old saw usually attributed to Ralph Kiner), it is 100-mph fastballs and not true pitching savvy that generally garners the most headlines.
It is widely known by most of my readers that since I cherish the Cuban League with its throwback aura and true non-commercial ambience, I do not at all share the enthusiasm of many others about Cuban ballplayers leaving the island. If the phenomenon continues to expand, Cuban fans will eventually be left with little quality baseball on their home shores (as the Dominicans and Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans now already are, and the Japanese may well soon be). Most here will disagree with my view that Cuban League play is the best spectacle remaining in the shrinking baseball universe. Fair enough, but I have never tried to hide my support of or passion for Cuban baseball in its present form. Call me crazy but never accuse me of being hypocritical on this issue.
While I am not enthusiastic about the phenomenon of Cuban League “defectors” I nonetheless heartily recommend Moore’s recent article and research as a valuable contribution for those wishing to follow or document the phenomenon of former Cuban Leaguers now performing in the professional leagues.
Note: There is one error to be pointed out in Moore’s list of 2009 Cuban League defectors. Outfielder Reinier León has not left Cuba but is currently the starting center fielder and lead-off batter for Pinar del Río.
Observations on the big league prospects of Aroldis Chapman that I originally published on our Cuban League website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com, then later also posted on my MLB blog (see the January 11 posting), were also republished earlier this week by the internet journal Havana Times (http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=18064), an additional on-line outlet for which I occasionally offer commentary on Cuban national baseball. Two Cincinnati sportswriters have recently picked up on the Havana Times posting (although not on the original www.BaseballdeCuba.com story) and have subsequently added links to my Chapman story. Those links were accompanied with their own editorial observations on the legitimacy of my opinions about the $30-million Cuban fastball hurler.
In one sense I welcome the attention lent by these two professional Cincinnati Reds bloggers–John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Trent Rosecrans of cnati.com–since they bring some further notice to my own brief story on Chapman. Nonetheless, I was rather surprised by both their assumptions about my “naïve Cuban’s perspective” on Chapman, as well as their immediate knee-jerk reaction to my alleged clouding of Chapman’s talents with what they seemingly read as some kind of underlying political motivation (whatever they think that motivation might actually be).
Mr. Fay merely (and not unreasonably) reports that “the writer isn’t sold on Chapman”; however, Fay further observes that “The Times bills itself as ‘open-minded writing from Cuba’”–as though that website banner somehow explains, colors or discredits an article which I actually wrote not for The Havana Times, at all, but rather for my normal affiliation with USA-based www.BaseballdeCuba.com. Does Mr. Fay believe this piece was penned by some Cuban journalist residing in Havana, and with a particular axe (some kind of political axe) to grind? It would seem so. My ego is not so large to expect that I am universally known in the baseball community, or that Fay should thus immediately recognize my name. But that is why we have such a modern technical marvel as “Googling.” If I were going to cast aspersions about a writer’s nationalistic biases I would certainly take the precaution of checking out what his nationality might actually be.
Rosecrans is far less subtle in his own posting. His entire commentary is as follows:
“The Havana Times is less enthused about Chapman, but it is the Cuban media, so it’s hard to tell. They’ve seen him more, but there’s also something about putting “defected” in quotes that makes me question the impartiality of the writer.”
Very clever observation on Mr. Rosecrans’s part, I suppose, but he might have been better served by getting his facts straight before shooting from the hip. “Impartiality” about what? Is any writer’s or scout’s assessment of a ballplayer’s talent or potential for immediate success/impact in the majors entirely “impartial?” Do we not all have our built-in prejudices about what the pulses and minuses of a pitching prospect might be? Or is it possible that Rosecrans also somehow thinks that author of the Chapman piece is a Cuban-born sportswriter, and (worse still) thus a biased commentator who can not possibly judge baseball talent on its own merit but must (as an arm of the Cuban press) express some kind of sour grapes that some young prospect has turned his back on the island and on Cuban baseball.
It might help Fay and Rosecrans to know that the author of the Chapman article was not at all a member of the “Cuban media” but rather an American-based baseball historian, specializing in Cuban League and Latin American baseball; perhaps they would have responded differently if they knew he was writing his assessment only a few miles away from them from his home office in Indiana. Yes, it is absolutely true that I am a strong advocate of the spectacle of Cuban League baseball. Admittedly I prefer the Cuban-style game (with its non-professional aura and small stadiums) to the current MLB product; I do so because I believe Cuba’s game constitutes a better sporting spectacle, pure and simple–baseball as a sporting ritual and not a commercial spectacle. I admire Cuban baseball for aesthetic and not political reasons. And I evaluate players like Chapman as a baseball devotee and not a political hack.
I have watched hundreds of Cuban League games on the island over the past 15 years, have written two books on the history of the island sport, have followed the Cuban national team to dozens of IBAF international tournaments, and also write regularly (including on-the-scene reports filed directly from international tournaments) for www.BaseballdeCuba.com. That my work for this website is based here in the USA and not in Havana should be obvious enough from our .com (not .cu) address. I am widely known and recognized within the community of MLB international scouts–many of whom regularly follow www.BaseballdeCuba.com as their main source of accurate information on Cuban League prospects–as being a competent and well-informed judge of Cuban League and Cuban national team talent. I mention all this only because I wish to stress the obvious: having a passion for Cuban baseball and devoting my attention to the island version of the sport does not in any way automatically make me a mouthpiece of the Cuban political system (or its opponent either), anymore than being a fan of the American League, or a devotee of the Cincinnati Reds, makes one somehow a mouthpiece for an American political system, or a spokesperson for USA domestic or foreign policy. I write about the game of baseball and not about any kind of political proselytizing, and those following my work likely already know that.
Regarding my use of the term “defector” in quotes, this is a deliberate decision on my part that I have consistently followed for years. Disagree if you will, but I find the term “defector” an anathema, charged with the most unfortunate of connotations. One can never know the entire motivations of any individual ballplayer (or non-ballplayer) who abandons his family and native homeland in order to seek economic improvement on North America shores. But I have been around Cuban ballplayers enough over the last dozen-plus years (having even developed close personal friendships with some who have left the island) to know that in most if not all cases their motivations for “defecting” have been economic and not at all political. They have left home at great sacrifice to seek material rewards for their talents from the world of professional baseball; they have not taken these risks to cast any kind of vote for one political system or societal system over another. Young baseball talents flee the depressing economic realities of the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela, or Mexico for the promised riches of a big league career even more frequently than do the Cubans, but the North American press never labels them as “defectors” from their homelands. Why? Because all too often any such case of a Cuban ballplayer seeking to better his economic condition is (for good or evil) conveniently spun by the North American press into a flag-waving drama signaling some kind of moral victory over a paper tiger Cuban socialist government. I prefer not to buy into that propaganda game, but rather to stick strictly to baseball–a sport equally enjoyed and celebrated in both rival nations. Disagree with that stance all you want, but at least understand my reasons.
I would have informed these two Cincinnati sportswriters directly about the true identity of the “Cuban media” spokesman who questioned Chapman’s big-league readiness, perhaps by personal email if that had been possible. But in order to post comment on their blog sites, or send them emails, one has to be a paid subscriber to either the digital Cincinnati Enquirer or to cnati.com. So I am left with setting the record straight here. And also with making one final observation. I can only hope that Mr. Fay and Mr. Rosecrans do their homework a bit better when they report on Cincinnati sport events than when they judge the sources of internet commentary.
Postscript: This rampant distortion of information about Cuban League baseball is an endemic problem hardly restricted to writers in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York, or anywhere in the United States. The IBAF (International Baseball Federation) website this very morning carried a link to a story published on European-based www.baseballdeworld.com and reporting on a recent showcasing for MLB scouts in the Dominican Republic by former Cuban League ace right-hander Yunieski Maya. That article reported in its opening paragraph that “The veteran right-hander defected last November at the IBAF Baseball World Cup in Europe.”
Maya of course did not “defect” at the IBAF World Cup in Europe last November. That World Cup event was actually held in September (something you might expect anyone writing for an internet site reporting on international baseball to know), while Maya had already been suspended by the Cuban Federation earlier in August, after he tried unsuccessfully to leave the country during the late summer. Maya later departed from the island of Cuba sometime in September, not from the national team in Europe. It is vital here in such reports to get the facts straight. If the writer does not know that Maya was not even on the Cuban World Cup team–or for that matter that the World Cup tournament was not played in November–then what else can we confidently believe about the content of his report?
One of today’s wire service stories (http://baseballdeworld.com/2010/01/11/aroldis-chapman-to-sign-with-cincinnati-reds/) reporting on the Cincinnati Reds signing of Cuban phenom pitcher Aroldis Chapman has questioned my own doubting of Chapman’s prospects, especially in the light of the $30 million windfall now being thrown at the 22-year-old former Holguín fast-baller. The exact final passage in that article reads as follows:
The 6-foot-4 Chapman, whose abilities have been questioned by Cuban baseball sports writer Peter Bjarkman, impressed major league officials with his front-of-the rotation “stuff” that includes a triple digit fastball, a dangerous slider, and an above-average changeup.
It would perhaps be helpful here to set the record straight with my actual assessments of Chapman’s big-league prospects. I have never claimed in the past and will not claim now that the talent and hard-throwing southpaw may not eventually succeed in the top professional arena. What I have questioned, however, is Chapman’s known work ethic, his subpar pitching “intelligence” and versatility, and also his actual status within Cuban League baseball. Is Aroldis Chapman a potential big leaguer? He may well be. Is he worth the $90 million his original agent claimed that he merited, or even the eventual $30 million he has now corralled? Probably he is not. I do not claim to have a crystal ball. I do not have the trained eye of the big league scouting director. But I do know something about the recent past history of Cuban League baseball and its many talented performers.
All the following points need to be reiterated here:
1. Chapman did not improved much during his final three Cuban League seasons–despite a sensational arm and occasional big strikeout numbers–and at the time of his departure he was neither the best pitcher on the island nor (as frequently hyped) the hottest-ever prospect to abandon his homeland for a crack at a big professional paycheck. As a complete pitcher (and not just a thrower) Chapman is not at all in the same class with current Cuban aces Pedro Lazo, Norge Vera, Maikel Folch, Yulieski González, Miguel Alfredo González, Freddy Asiel Alvarez, or a handful of others. Nor is he the second coming of either Orlando Hernández or José Ariel Contreras.
2. Chapman may well overcome his motivational problems and thus improve under MLB coaching in a way that he did not in Cuba. Kendry Morales was also a very large risk (plagued by a similar questionable work ethic) when he left the Cuban League back in 2003; but Morales has demonstrated across a half-dozen seasons in the Anaheim Angels organization that surprising transformations are indeed possible.
3. Chapman is certainly more of a genuine prospect than 20-year-old Noel Arguelles, whose slick agents recently milked a $7 million, five year contract from the risk-prone Kansas City Royals. But that speaks more to the folly in Kansas City than to any wisdom in Cincinnati. A one-time junior national team ace, Arguelles had no real success at all in the Cuban League, despite laboring with one of that circuit’s best clubs in Habana Province (last season’s league champions). There he was buried behind the top starters on one of the National Series’ top mound corps (Yulieski González, Yadier Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, and Miguel Angle González) and thus never enjoyed the same chance to impress he might get with the pitching-thin Royals. In Cuba, nonetheless, Arguelles suffered from a debilitating walks/Ks ratio (49/40 over two seasons) and was never in the picture when it came to the senior national team. At least Chapman can boast a smattering of heavy-duty international tournament experience.
4. Chapman was never actually an “ace” on the Cuban national team as has often been reported. At the time of his “defection” last July in Rotterdam he was actually a member of a “Cuba B” squad competing in that city’s World Port Tournament and would most likely not have been included in the top-echelon Cuban mound corps for the upcoming European-based World Cup event last September. He did indeed display all-too-brief brilliance at the 2007 World Cup matches in Taiwan, but one of his dominate outings there was against a watered-down and quite disappointing Japanese roster unequal to most Nippon teams. The following summer Chapman pitched himself off Cuba’s roster for the Beijing Olympics with an unimpressive series of outings at the June 2008 José Huelga Tournament in Havana (a trial run for the island’s Olympic selection). And he was also far short of overpowering during his pair of WBC II outings versus both Australia (Mexico City) and Japan (San Diego) last March.
5. In Chapman’s defense, on the other hand, it is we’ll worth remembering that over the past decade-plus the most successful refugee Cuban pitchers in the big leagues have never been the island’s true top performers. A large part of the reason is simply that Cuba’s true aces–like Lázaro Valle, Norge Vera, Pedro Lazo and company have rarely if ever left their homeland. But the cases of MLB head-turners Liván Hernández, Orlando Hernández and José Contreras are also instructive here. Liván (perhaps the most successful Cuban Leaguer once he reached the majors) departed the island as a youngster with only three National Series campaigns under his belt and only a brief national team trial. Contreras was admittedly a brilliant national team ace (with an unblemished 13-0 international record), but he was not in turn the top workhorse for his own league team in Pinar del Río (that was Pedro Lazo). “El Duque” Hernández, for his part, was occasionally brilliant as a big leaguer and does admittedly own the best lifetime won-lost percentage in Cuban League annals (if largely because he left after but ten seasons; Norge Luis Vera has since maintained a nearly identical mark through 15 campaigns). But most Cuban observers contend that Lázaro Valle was the true Cuban ace of the same era. El Duque was never one of the top three national team starters, rarely started big international games against the likes of Japan, Korea or Taipei, and never again took the hill against a major international rival after a disastrous outing versus Team USA during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. My only point here is precisely that some marquee pitchers with less than brilliant Cuban resumes after achieved considerable success on MLB clubs. That fact alone may give hope to Chapman’s ardent supporters.
For the sake of truth in advertising, then, let me quote here exactly what I wrote about Chapman last July at the time of his “escape” from the Cuban contingent in Rotterdam. These two paragraphs were written during my coverage of the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam for www.BaseballdeCuba.com. Readers desiring to return to that entire original article will find it available at the following link: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/RotterdamnewsContainer2009.asp?id=1677
Chapman remains a considerable mystery and his future in North American professional baseball is not easy to predict. The 21-year-old Holguín lefty has opted to trade potential gold medals for designer golden neck bracelets and a huge bank account–that much is certain. But will he become the next José Contreras or the next Maels Rodríguez? Contreras, of course, had accomplished far more in both international and domestic play by the time he abandoned the island back in 2003 while touring in Mexico. Rodríguez broke every imaginable strikeout record on the island before suffering an unfortunate arm injury that ruined his pro prospects even before his own departure later that same year. Chapman definitely has his negatives, foremost among them a demonstrated lack of strike-zone control, a one-pitch arsenal, and an inconsistent Cuban League performance over four National Series campaigns. Hurling for a Holguín club that made this year’s post-season and has been largely a middle-of-the-pack outfit during Chapman’s tenure, the southpaw flame thrower has won only slightly more than half his decisions (24-21), though he did enjoy his best season (11-4 and a league-best 130 Ks in 118 innings) this past winter. He has twice topped the 100 K mark but never approached Maels’s record-setting standards. Chapman is definitely more a raw “thrower” than a savvy “pitcher” and numerous questions surround his abilities to master the finer details of his craft. But Aroldis Chapman has definitely already displayed one easily definable characteristic of a true major leaguer: by abandoning his teammates on the eve of an important international tournament (and thus leaving the squad short of starting pitchers) he has dramatically signaled that personal career advancement for him far outweighs any ball club loyalties. He is only the most recent poster child for rampant baseball free agency.
Chapman’s record–more so than that of Maels Rodríguez a few years back–was largely one of brief moments of brilliant potential rather than one of any truly noteworthy record-book feats. Chapman enjoyed one great game in international play as a 19-year-old (during the 2007 World Cup semifinals versus Japan) but never quite returned to that stellar form. His Cuban League record had some noteworthy features (379 Ks in 341 innings) but was on the whole disappointing (210 walks over the same span, only one career shutout, a lofty 3.72 ERA, an 0-2 post-season record, only one winning season in four tries). Chapman pitched badly enough in last summer’s José Huelga Tournament in Havana to play himself off the Cuban Olympic roster, and while his fastball drew attention in two outings at the recent WBC, he was hardly dominant against either the Australians or the Japanese. The bottom line is that Chapman has great potential and could well end up in a major league uniform. Certainly he will hold up some big league franchise for millions in signing bonuses and thus enrich both himself and some opportunistic player agent. But the jury is still out (and likely will be until at least September) regarding how badly this departure might actually damage Cuban national team prospects. The full impact of Chapman’s loss is especially open to question given what has transpired on the playing field at Neptunus Family Stadium in slightly more than 48 hours since his departure.
Little more needs be said at this point. As they say so often in Cuba, “el terreno va a decidir el juego.” MLB spring training lies only around the corner. Then and only then will be begin to see who is right and who is wrong on this one.
This week on the pages of www.BaseballdeCuba.com I am offering readers my list of 2009 memorable moments in the world of Cuban baseball, as well as my predictions for the calendar year to come, and some hopes and wishes for the next twelve months of Cuban League action. As a teaser, here are the dozen highlight moments, along with the dozen predictions and dozen wishes. Full commentary on each item will be available this coming week on the pages of Cuban baseball’s leading website.
Bjarkman’s Top Dozen 2009 Highlights in Cuban Baseball
1. Team Cuba’s World Cup Silver Medal in Nettuno
2. Alexei Bell’s Two Single-Inning Grand Slams on Opening Day
3. Alfredo Despaigne’s World Cup Record Home Run Performance
4. Alfredo Despaigne’s National Series Home Run Record
5. Pedro Lazo’s Career Victory Number 250
6. Team Cuba’s World Cup Win Over Canada in Florence
7. Yosvani Peraza’s Unprecedented World Cup Pinch-Hit Homer Against Spain
8. Yosvani Peraza’s Dramatic Pinch-Hit WBC Homer Versus Australia
9. Freddie Cepeda’s Unanimous WBC All-Star Selection
10. Habana Province’s First-Ever League Championship
11. Dramatic Final-Day Batting Race Between Michel Enriquez and Yulieski Gourriel
12. Team Cuba’s Second Impressive WBC Tournament Showing
Bjarkman’s Fearless Predictions for the 2010 Calendar Year
1. Alexei Bell Wins NS#49 Batting Crown in Biggest Comeback of the Year
2. New Cuban Baseball Commissioner Named for National Series #50
3. Entire National Series #49 Passes Without a Single No-Hit and No-Run Game
4. New Home Run Champion and New Home Run Record During National Series #49
5. Sancti Spiritus Reigns as Champion of National Series #49
6. Pedro Lazo Breaks Rogelio Garcia’s Career Strikeout Mark
7. German Mesa Replaced as Industriales Manager After Only Two Seasons
8. Norge Vera Successfully Returns for Second Half of National Series #49
9. Havana Metropolitanos Again Posts Worst Record of National Series #49
10. Esteban Lombillo Replaced as National Team Manager
11. Aroldis Chapman Eventually Signs with the Toronto Blue Jays (or Somebody)
12. Noel Arguelles Proves Biggest “Bust” Among Recent “Defectors” to MLB
Bjarkman’s Dozen Wishes for a New Year in Cuban Baseball
1. Slowdown in Departure of Young Cuban League Talent
2. Return of Night Games in Havana
3. Cuban Managers Finally Cured of Sacrifice Bunt Disease
4. Colorful Victor Mesa Returns to Manage in National Series #50
5. Roger Machado Gets His Shot at Managing Team Cuba
6. Jorge Fuentes Finally Named Cuban Baseball Commissioner
7. Current National Series Two-League Structure Remains Stable
8. Carlos Yanes Continues His Marathon Career
9. Cuban Federation “Retires” Uniform Numbers 10, 46 and 99
10. More Internet Viewers Experience Televised Cuban League Games
11. Expanded Knowledge Counteracts MLB Agents’ Overhyping of Cuban Talent
12. Cuban Baseball Remains Free of MLB Influence for Still Another Year