On the heels of a successful National Series #46, which wrapped up in late April with a thrilling title clash between perennial favorites Industriales and Santiago, early May ushered in a week of nothing but bad news for Cuban League baseball circles. First came the announcement of the passing of Owen Blandino (pictured here), one of the earliest heroes of post-revolution league and national team triumphs. This was followed by an official declaration of a one-year ban for star national team third baseman Michel Enriquez. And then there was the lackluster silver-medal performance of Team Cuba during the second edition of the ALBA friendship games staged in Caracas, Venezuela.
Blandino, a star third baseman for Azucareros, Las Villas and finally Sancti Spiritus during the first two decades of Cuban League action, succumbed in his hometown of Sancti Spiritus on May 3rd. Known as the "Gallo de Cabaiguan" (his native village), Blandino capped his career in the lineup of Sancti Spiritus’s only National Series championship team in 1979. A decade earlier he was a star performer (tournament leader in BA, runs and hits) during one of Cuba’s greatest international triumphs over Team USA at the Santo Domingo Amateur World Series of 1969. In 18 years of league action Blandino compiled only an unspectacular career average of .258, but his offensive performance at the 1969 World Cup matches (20 hits in 40 AB) was one of the truly great clutch performances of Team Cuba’s legendary international tournament heritage.
Two days after Blandino’s passing the office of Cuban baseball commissioner announced (after a long process of deliberation that national team third sacker and 2006 batting champion Michel Enriquez (left) would serve a one year suspension as the result of an ugly dispute in mid-March with veteran league umpire Jose Perez Julien. Enriquez (who played in the WBC and Athens Olympics and ranks behind only Osmani Urrutia and Omar Linares as third in Cuban League lifetime BA) was apparently suspended from a home game in Isla de la Juventud on March 13 and latter expelled for the remainder of the National Series season. (At the time he was again on the heels of Urrutia in a tight batting race.) While the Cuban press was largely mum on what actually happened between the ballplayer and umpire after the former’s on-field ejection on the 13th, there were reports that Julien had been sent to Havana for treatment of a broken arm (apparently received in a later off-field scuffle). Enriquez, known for his usual soft-spoken demeanor and always hot bat, hit at a .447 pace in National Series #45 to interrupt Urrutia’s previous string of five consecutive batting titles.
The week of embarrassment concluded with Team Cuba’s silver medal finish in the second ALBA games in Caracas, where a young "backup" national squad compiled an identical 7-1 record to that of gold medal-winning Panama, yet lost a 3-1 decision in the lidlifter to the champions managed by former Cuban national team skipper Alfonso Urquiola (Cuban manager in the 1998 Italy World Cup). The Cubans won seven straight after slipping against Panama, but they were hardpressed to edge Colombia, Brasil and Venezuela (a 3-2 10-inning game which clinched the silver medal). While this Cuban roster did not carry its biggest stars (Urrutia, Gourriel, Cepeda, or home run champ Alexei Ramirez) it did nonetheless featured several veterans of international play (Leslie Anderson, Juan Carlos Moreno, Joan Carlos Pedroso, and veteran hurlers Norge Vera and Ciro Silvino Licea). The loss to Panama in Venezuela was just one more mild disappointment in a somewhat unsettling opening to a chaotic month of May.