A week-long stay in Havana earlier this month (May 14-22) found the Cuban baseball scene–in the immediate aftermath of one of the most exciting National Series post-seasons in recent years–to be overflowing with the usual euphoria that has reinvigorated the island’s national sport since the March 2006 World Baseball Classic. A special mid-May excitement also surrounded the official release of the 35-man player roster that comprises Cuba’s national team for this summer’s series of top-flight international competitions. The 35 invitees will train in Havana and Panama throughout June and early July for the mid-July Pan American Games tournament in Rio de Janeiro, the early August Netherlands-based World Port Invitational Tournament in Rotterdam, and the eventual World Cup XXXVII to be held in mid-November in Chinese Taipei. An additional warm-up tournament designed as a preliminary to the Pan Am Games (one involving Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba) will also be staged in Panama City during early July.
Twenty players only will be selected from the original 35 trainees for the limited Pan American Games squad that will visit Rio (a severe roster restriction that somewhat diminishes this particular tournament); Cuba will be defending a Pan American gold medal in Brazil that it has won in each of the last nine editions of this event (since 1971). In November the crack Cuban club will also be attempting to stretch its unbroken string of World Cup titles to nine (Cuba did not attend the 1982 competitions in South Korea, and has not lost on the field since 1951 in Mexico City). Cuba’s Rotterdam and Taipei rosters will also be selected from the 35 ballplayers currently in training for the Rio matches.
Cuba’s national team roster for 2007 (as announced on May 16) is as follows (with National Series teams indicated in parentheses): Catchers Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara), Eriel Sanchez (Sancti Spiritus), Yovani Peraza (Pinar del Rio) and Osvaldo Arias (Cienfuegos). Infielders Alexander Mayeta (Industriales), Jose Julio (Santiago), Hector Olivera (Santiago), Alexei Ramirez (Pinar del Rio), Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago), Eduardo Paret (Villa Clara), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spiritus). Outfielders Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas), Georvis Duvergel (Guantanamo), Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spiritus), Yoandri Urgelles (Industriales), Yohennis Cespedes (Granma), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), and Alexei Bell (Santiago). Pitchers Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio), Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Rio), Vladimir Banos (Pinar del Rio), Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos), Norberto Gonzalez (Cienfuegos), Jonder Martinez (Habana), Elier Sanchez (Camaguey), Vicyohandri Odelin (Camaguey), Norge Vera (Santiago), Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Jose Angel Garcia (Habana), Aroldis Chapman (Holguin), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), Felix Rivera (Santiago), Alberto Bicet (Santiago) and Arley Sanchez (Habana). Manager Rey Vicente Anglana (Industriales).
I was privileged to watch the first two closed practices of the new national team contingent held in Estadio Latinoamericano (May 19-20) and was quickly convinced that the blend of WBC veterans (Gourriel, Cepeda, Lazo, Paret, Pestano, Palma, etc.) and emerging young talent (especially promising outfielders Bell, Cespedes and Urgelles) will make this perhaps an even stronger outfit than the one that surprised with a WBC silver medal in San Diego fifteen months back. The most noteworthy features of this Cuban roster are perhaps the return of Rey Anglada as manager (despite a disappointing loss in the National Series finales at the helm of heavily favored Industriales), the move of league home run champion Alexei Ramirez to second base to clear some space in an over-crowded outfield, and the re-emergence of veteran Norge Vera as anchor of the exceptionally strong and experienced pitching staff. Rumors circulating in Havana last week suggested that Santiago skipper Antonio Pacheco had been the top choice as team manager but that minor health problems had keep Pacheco (who collapsed after one recent playoff game) stuck on the sidelines.