You probably have to know Spanish to appreciate this one, but it is one of the better linguistic errors of recent times. An article on yesterday’s Radio COCO website from Havana carried the following headline : “Cuba da no hit no rum a Indonesia”
The article refers to a no-hitter tossed by the Cuban team vs Indonesia in the current juvenile (15-16 year old) baseball championships occurring in Mexico. It is of course supposed to say “Cuba gives no hit no run game to Indonesia” but you see the obvious typo/misspelling here, not unusual in Spanish speech where there is sometimes m/n confusion in final position. So we get here “Cuba gives no hits and no rum to Indonesia” which is especially funny because this was a youth tournament game. The Spanish word for rum of course is “ron “ (pronounced “rhone” like the region in France). The reporter meant to write the expression “No hit, no run” which is regularly used in Cuba (like so many baseball terms) in its English form and not in a Spanish translation (“juego sin hit y sin carreras”). (I wonder if the Cuban kids simply kept all the rum for their own post-game celebration.)
Over most of the past quarter-century the Cuban National Series season has remained a fairly stable affair, a definite contrast with the opening two-plus decades in which league sizes and ballclub identities shifted with painful regularity. The current two-division (eight teams in each) regional structure dates back only a couple of seasons (introduced for National Series #49, replacing the long-standing four-group league format). A current post-season playoff structure has now existed for fully half the life span of the island’s post-revolutionary baseball. The present 90-game season was the last major innovation, launched in 1998 (National Series #37), and the last half-dozen years have witnessed a single campaign without any early summer extra play in the form of a Selective Series or Super League. We have to reach back to 1992 (National Series #31) to locate the disappearance of a league team (in that case with the simultaneous demise of Forestales and Citricultores) or the renaming of a Cuban ballclub (the adoptions by Henequeneros and Vegueros of the traditional provincial names of Matanzas and Pinar del Río).
But now on the heels of an historical Gold Anniversary National Series the winds of change are in the air. And this time around it is mainly politics and governmental reformation that will impact squarely on the face of Cuban League baseball. The creation of two new provinces last spring – with the division of the old Habana Province into the new entities known as Mayabeque and Artemisa – means a shifting in the inventory of league teams. One of the new squads will represent Mayabeque, playing its games at Nelson Fernández Stadium in San José de las Lajas, the former longtime home of the Habana Province Cowboys. The second newly created team representing Artemisa will operate from the provincial capital of the same name. Artemisa is set to inherit the entire stellar pitching staff of the defunct Habana Province nine, as well as manager Estebán Lombillo. To accommodate the change without any imbalance in league scheduling, the original plan also called for the dropping of a “poor-cousin” Metropolitanos Warriors team, the capital city’s second-fiddle and largely ignored league entry
But now the whole affair seems to have taken on a new and rather messy aspect. Reports out of Havana (where the issue is being sparsely covered in the press but widely debated on street corners) suggest the Metros team has not yet in fact been dropped from the league alignment. Maintaining a current 16-team, two-division league format was definitely the preferred plan of league boss Higinio Vélez and his technical commission, as well as a notion favored throughout INDER, the national sports ministry. But then the central party committee in Havana apparently intervened in the debate and the best laid plans of baseball administrators may be on the verge of going awry. The chairwoman of the central party recently revealed her opinion that having only one team in Havana would likely cause even further departures (“defections”) of young players from the capital and thus would only further embarrass the government and the revolution. The idea was briefly floated of using former Metros players on the Mayabeque squad but it seems the technical commission was not in favor of this latter solution since it would break down the long standing policy of having squads composed strictly of local provincial players.
The issue is now very much up in the air and with little time remaining for timely resolution. With less than three months remaining on the calendar until opening day of a new season, no firm decision has yet been made. One can only speculate that when a resolution is finally proposed it will almost certainly come from government officials and not from the baseball commission, which wants Metros out. The release of the new schedule in early November may well be delayed longer than usual by this messy conflict. One clear signal of behind-the-scenes preparations for the possible last-minute resurrection of Metros arose when the summer Developmental League (Cuba’s version of the minor leagues) began play last week with 17 rather than 16 teams, one club being a farm team for Metros.
The continued existence of the Metros ballclub has been an issue for heavy debate for several seasons now. Havana’s “second” team claims few fans, is usually a lame cellar dweller, and now plays its games in the league’s worst facility (dilapidated Changa Mederos Stadium located in the Havana Sports City complex). But more troubling of late has been the regular utilization of the Metros squad by Havana INDER officials as a virtual farm club for the city’s popular Industriales Blue Lions. The only regular shuffling of Cuban League players takes place when promising second and third year athletes are regularly shifted from the Metros lineup to the Industriales roster. Alex Mayeta, Rudy Reyes, Carlos Tabares, Frank Camilo Morejón and Yoandry Urgellés are only a handful of recent Industriales stalwarts who received their needed seasoning for one or two winters in Metros uniforms – an advantage which none of the fourteen other provincial teams enjoys. When Industriales captured yet another championship crown two years back I wrote a somewhat ironic piece on this website asking whether the true champion was actually Industriales or perhaps the Metros club in disguise.
The appearance of new squads in Mayabeque and Artemis seemed to finally offer a neat solution to the longstanding problem of two teams in the city of Havana. The time had finally come to give the Metropolitanos Warriors an overdue and honorable burial. But suddenly chaos has reemerged in the always entertaining Cuban League. Havana fans are no longer preoccupied with debating the merits of Metros as a thinly disguised and illegitimate Industriales farm team. The question now on everyone’s lips in the Parque Central debating societies is much simpler if equally perplexing – “Is Metros actually coming or going?”
Below is the text of my lecture for the upcoming Fordham University Cuban Baseball History Conference, the lecture I won’t actually be there in person to present.
On Saturday, August 20, Fordham University and the Cuban Cultural Center of New York will host a one-day event billed as a serious academic conference and advertised under the all-inclusive title of “The History of Cuban Baseball: From its Origins to the Present.” Kicking off the affair will be keynote speaker (and apparent conference moving force) Roberto González Echevarría, Yale University Distinguished Professor of Spanish Literature and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford 1999), one of the seminal works on the subject of the Caribbean national pastime.
Also scheduled for the Fordham campus are appearances by such household-name former big leaguers as Orestes Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Cookie Rojas, Tony Pérez, Orlando Peña, and Bert Campaneris. If that were not enough of a drawing card, also on the bill of fare is Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Fame manager, cup of coffee pitcher, and outspoken critic of everything associated with Fidel Castro’s mid-century revolutionary triumphs. And to round out the day’s nostalgic look at pre-revolutionary diamond action of six decades past, there will be historic newsreel footage of the island’s long-lost professional winter league, a sale of books and CDs, and academic lectures by reputed experts on Cuba’s blackball stars of pre-integration days, Cuban women in baseball, and the rarely explored pre-Castro Cuban amateur league.
But something indeed seems to be amiss here. Is this Fordham event designed to be a serious academic convocation of “experts” and scholars dedicated to excavating the riddles of Cuban baseball history with all its complications, mysteries and controversies? Or is it instead a rather thinly veiled excuse for nostalgic celebration of “those good old days before Castro ruined Cuba” – a reunion of aging ex-patriots joining forces to preach to the choir and thus reaffirm a so-familiar theme of the death of legitimate island baseball after the social upheavals of the late-fifties and early-sixties. There is certainly sufficient reason for serious doubt. The conference title advertises a program devoted to the Cuban national pastime “from its origins to the present.” But is this a legitimate claim or rather an egregious case of highly unscholarly false advertising?
Where is the false advertising? Of course there would be none had this conference been more appropriately billed as “The History of Cuban Baseball: From its Origins to the Death of the MLB-Affiliated Cuban Winter League” (or some such rough approximate). That there is some element of distortion in the actual conference billing should be obvious enough. Case one in point: the scope. The “origins” will assuredly be well enough covered as that is the subject of a full quarter of Professor González’s own 1999 book. But of the five remaining presentations, four are devoted to the pre-1959 era. The only exception (Rogério Manzano, “Post-Revolutionry (sic) Overhaul: From Professionals to Amateurs”) is being offered by a Univision television commentator who appears to have earlier written nothing either extensive or significant about baseball in the modern-era Cuban League, and about Cuba’s impelling record over the past half-century in international tournament competitions.
I don’t want to pre-judge Mr. Manzano’s presentation, which may turn out in the end to be a valuable enough contribution. But where is the balance here? Cuba’s highly successful post-revolutionary baseball epoch has just celebrated its Golden Anniversary fiftieth National Series season and thus extends out nearly as far as the often chaotic (and Havana-restricted) pre-1961 professional league? Where are the presentations about unknown 1970s-1990s-era island stars like Muñoz, Marquetti, Vinent, Kindelán and Omar Linares, playing as much in the big league shadows as did those 1930s-era Negro leaguers? Where is the story of Cuba’s shocking impact on the international scene at the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic, or about such current MLB-coveted stars-in-waiting as Freddie Cepeda or Ariel Pestano or Alfredo Despaigne? Where is any exploration of significant historical developments over the past half-century that allowed Cuba’s still-thriving baseball enterprise to convert itself from a withering four-team professional circuit by the late-1950s into a highly popular and truly island-wide league — one that today provides the world’s only alternative baseball universe operating entirely outside the influence of corporate Major League Baseball? Why has at least half the story of Cuban baseball (some might even dare say the more significant half) been expunged or ignored by the Fordham program?
Let’s give a generous benefit-of-the doubt here. Perhaps the organizers at Fordham genuinely believed that no one with competence to talk about the present Cuban baseball scene could be found outside of the island of Cuba itself. But how could that be? Our North American-based website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com has been not only built over the past half-decade into the most comprehensive source for contemporary Cuban baseball anywhere on the planet (inside of Cuba or out), but it reaches a devoted audience of Cuban baseball followers spread across Asia and Europe as well as North America and the Caribbean. The site itself is comprehensive proof that the Cuban sport does indeed hold widespread interest reaching far beyond Havana, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, San Juan or the isolated and aging ex-patriot communities of South Florida. So the question then becomes whether or not we were we excluded from the Fordham campus simply by oversight, because we were actually invisible, or if we might instead have been eliminated by intention, because we threatened to disrupt the “choir-preaching” with our alternative stance on how one should read the evolution of Cuban baseball. Were we unwanted simply because we were likely to suggest something rather politically incorrect – that Cuban baseball experienced an explosive growth and not death-throes after the mid-century Castro upheaval? Were we personas non grata largely because we might stimulate the kind of open debate, free exchange of informed ideas, and diversity of opinion that are true hallmark of any legitimate academic conference?
Sour grapes here on my part? I hardly think so. If I am disappointed at this exclusion it is only because of the lost opportunity to finally begin advancement of a serious dialogue about what may actually have been the true evolution of Cuban baseball history. And I am disturbed that those attending will not be able to hear at least something of “the other side of the story” of how baseball thrived and even exploded in popularity in Cuba once the island’s national pastime evolved for the first time into a true nation-wide competitive circuit and not just an MLB-directed outpost limited to the capital city of Havana.
Unfortunately neither I nor my colleague Ray Otero will be attending the Fordham conference this weekend. If we were both perhaps understandably left off the formal program, we were even more surprisingly left off the circulating announcement list and thus only learned of the event when we started receiving inquiries about it via email from faithful www.BaseballdeCuba.com readers. Maybe some of the explanation for exclusion lies in an apparent animosity toward our work held by one of the conferences’ leading figures. I hold the greatest respect for the Cuban baseball scholarship by Professor Roberto González Echevarría and I have learned much from what he has contributed. Of course I disagree with him about the status of modern-era Cuban baseball and my opinions are also somewhat different from those of most (but not all) native-born Cubans now residing in North America. Nonetheless, because I chose to speak positively and enthusiastically (on the whole at least) about the level of the modern Cuban game, Professor González Echevarría has little tolerance in return for my own work. When the Wall Street Journal (November 9, 2010) published a feature story on my efforts in Cuba last November, reporter Christopher Rhoads attempted to solicit González Echevarría’s own his candid opinions. But all the esteemed professor would offer was the following: “Bjarkman echoes the propaganda of the Cuban government and I have nothing to say about him.” This was indeed an unfortunate position for him to take. It suggests nothing of collegial debate, valuable dialogue or legitimate disagreement; by raising the specter of political motive or government interference the dismissal only exposes the professor’s own deeply opinionated prejudices about Cuban baseball.
Of course the issue of Cuban baseball (after six decades of bitter and often downright silly USA-Cuba Cold War stalemate) remains a highly controversial one, and thus politics and personal experiences often get in the way. But the bulk of my readers at www.BaseballdeCuba.com know the following things to all be true. First, I have seen hundreds of games both on the island and with the national team over the last fifteen years and I have watched and written more about the island sport than any other living American. I also know most of the top Cuban ballplayers personally and have enjoyed extensive discussions with them about their lives and conditions in Cuba. (That is to say, I am aware of the individual Cuban ballplayer’s daily trials as well as his many cherished triumphs.) I have had hundreds of hours of discussions with top MLB scouts at international tournaments and shared information and opinions with those professional scouts about top Cuban players like Cepeda, Gourriel, Lazo, Miguel Alfredo González, Chapman, Vera, Bell, etc. etc. Those MLB scouts are constantly contacting me and seeking my input on the skills, shortcomings, and personal make-ups of those Cuban players. I may indeed see Cuban baseball differently from many in Miami, but I have also seen it more up-close and personal than most observers now living off the island. And if some Miami readers do not take me seriously, dozens of MLB scouts still do. And it should also be underscored here that while I have often disagreed with the fans in Miami, I have just as frequently chastised boosters in Havana for not properly apprehending the many achievements or hidden shortcomings of their revered national team.
So many Miami-Cubans hold deeply felt opinions about their cherished national sport and they are entitled to hold them; but few have the degree of first-hand experience with Cuban baseball over the past fifteen years that I have enjoyed. So when I write about the island pastime, some of the things I say are at least worth considering, even if one disagrees with them. What I write is not “political opinion” but rather baseball evaluation, even if that evaluation has its own personal biases. I have never been a spokesperson for Cuban government propaganda. (It is simply too easy to evoke that excuse, just because we might disagree about the big-league tools of an Ariel Pestano, or the professional qualifications of a Cuban national team roster.) There are many “bad” things in today’s Cuba but there are also some “good” things there worthy of celebration. The current-era Cuban baseball is one of them – even if it is not perfect. Cuban baseball has its many social and economic problems, also its many scars and warts (such as limited economic freedom for its players). And so does Major League Baseball (with its excessive economic freedom for its players, to say nothing of its owners).
I believe the Fordham Conference would have been much stronger – much more legitimate an event – if those of us with a different take on today’s Cuban baseball had been invited to contribute and share our contrary opinions. It would have been much more of a legitimate academic conference and true exchange of competing legitimate ideas. That style of colloquium would perhaps have truly advanced the understanding of Cuban baseball for all of us who are so passionately interested in the topic. Instead, the event will – because of its notable exclusions and stacked program – now seem much more like a nostalgic reunion (or even a political rally) than a true academic exchange and debate. That it now appears more like the former than the later is, I believe, a true loss for Fordham University, for the organizers, and for the conference itself.
Please do not misunderstand me. I have no criticism at all of anything that is on the program for this weekend. No one speaks more brilliantly and with more insights about the origins of the island sport than does Roberto González Echevarría. Each of his essays teaches me something new and valuable. Especially attractive to me are the announced presentations by Professor Heaphy (women in Cuban baseball) and Mr. Ashwill (Cuban blackball). What I do lament about the conference is not what WILL be there, but instead what will NOT be there. Some day perhaps we will begin having a true dialogue where all opinions (at least all those based on solid experience and information) will be listened too with a degree tolerance, respect and even compromise. Only then we will actually begin to move forward on this most important topic about which we are all so truly passionate.
Former Cuban Leaguer (Villa Clara) Yuniesky Betancourt earned a small piece of major league fame on August 15, 2011 simply by being the right man at the right place at the right time. Betancourt, now in the middle stages of a rather mediocre big league career that began in Seattle, was the fortunate middle man (literally) in a rare Milwaukee Brewers triple play keyed by some rather sloppy Los Angeles base running. The play unfolded as follows:
James Looney (Los Angeles) lined a Randy Wolf delivery back up the middle where second baseman Josh Wilson gloved it, then tossed to shortstop Betancourt, who began a routine double play (Betancourt stepped on second for a force out and relayed to Prince Fielder at first for the twin killing). Unfortunately for the already victimized Dodgers, base runner Matt Kemp (originally on second) unaccountably kept on chugging toward home plate where he was gunned down by a second relay from Fielder to catcher George Kottaras. A rare 4-to-6-to-3-to-2 scoring play, thanks mainly to the current edition of the Dodgers looking more and more like their infamous sad sack Brooklyn forerunners of the 1930s.
The involvement of Betancourt in this base-running-goof-turned-into-history has led to some unwarranted speculation and false reports about the vagabond Cuban perhaps being the first of his countrymen involved in a triple-killing. Of course he was not. In fact, a half century back a whole trio of Cubanos were all involved at the same time in what has often been written about as the first and so far only “All-Cuban” triple play.
The setting was Washington’s Griffith Stadium, the teams involved were the home town Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, and the date was July 23, 1960. Here are the details.
In the top of the third frame with Washington holding a 3-1 lead and Kansas City threatening to cut the gap, outfielder Whitey Herzog stood at the plate with a full count, Jerry Lumpe rested on first, and Bill Tuttle was anchored as the base runner at second. Herzog lined the next pitch straight into the glove of pitcher Pedro Ramos (one out); Ramos whirled and heaved to first baseman Julio Becquer (doubling up Lumpe for out number two); Becquer then tossed down to second where shortstop José Valdivielso tripled up the slow-footed Tuttle. Presto, an improbable all-Cuban triple play.
“Pistol Pete” Ramos threw a dizzying record number of home run balls during his colorful big league sojourn in the 1950s and 1960s, including one memorable “gopher pitch” to Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium that resulted in a blast of near Josh Gibson-like proportions. But in later years Ramos most likely held much fonder memories of the single pitch he tossed to Herzog to launch one of the brightest moments for his countrymen in the annals of the Golden Age Fifties.
Major League Baseball may well have forgotten its only surviving centenarian but the New York Times hasn’t. This weekend the Times sports section tells at least a small part of the Marrero story — largely in his own words, culled and translated from my various interviews in Havana (since 1999) with the ageless fifties-era Washington Senators “junkball” legend.
There are few surprises on the newly released Cuban national team roster, but there are some interesting developments here nonetheless. Freddie Cepeda returns to the outfield after a controversial absence from last fall’s Intercontinental Cup in Taiwan. But Norge Luis Vera has now joined Pedro Luis Lazo on the sidelines. For the complete story see http://www.baseballdecuba.com/EngnewsContainer.asp?id=2540