Cuban League Prepares for Another February Showcase All-Star Spectacular

Forget all the inevitable mind-binding hype surrounding this coming weekend’s made-for-TV celebration of ritual physical violence that has long been popularly known as the NFL Super Bowl Sunday. After all, this self-indulgent American celebration of over-consumption and couch-potato commercial gluttony has little to do with competitive sport and almost everything to do with feel-good flag-waving mock warfare. It is FOOTBALL after all! At least for base-hit-starved hot-stove-season baseball fans, there may be some minimal solace in the fact that the post-winter-league Caribbean Series also opens action this weekend in the distant Dominican Republic. Yet there is also regrettably little true baseball drama now left in what was once an attractive February tradition, but which in recent years has become a watered-down and talent-thin coda to the near-moribund professional Latin American winter season. The present-day round-robin week-long Caribbean Series (once a thrilling match-up of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Mexican league champions) today features little beyond A-level and AA-level prospects and a smattering of broken down and retread veterans (last year’s big league "names" at the event in San Juan were Miguel Tejada, Jose Lima, Luis Polonia and Tony Batistia, all futilely resurrecting their faded careers for the winning Dominicans). Most of last winter’s disappointing Caribbean Series was played before thousands of empty seats in San Juan’s 12,000-capacity Roberto Clemente Stadium, and the recent death knell for the once-proud Puerto Rican winter circuit now means a tournament roster of two teams from the Dominican itself (half the field) in a reduced three-corner round robin. All and all, the Latin American Alliance Caribbean Series has become something quite inferior to the kind of true showdown match between baseball-hot Caribbean nations witnessed with the March 2006 second round of the MLB World Baseball Classic.

Moncada553_1 For those ball fans interested in an escape from the head-banging and clamorous advertising hype of Super Bowl Sabbath, this coming Sunday does thankfully bring an attractive ballpark alternative in the guise of the annual Cuban League midseason All-Star Game, staged this year in Santiago’s picturesque Guillermon Moncada Stadium (pictured here). Coming at the midpoint of National Series #47, this year’s game showcases a number of newly emerging young stars like Santiago’s slugging outfielder Alexei Bell (the midpoint home run leader with 15), Pinar’s muscular catcher Yosvany Peraza (MVP of last summer’s World Port Tournament in Rotterdam and the heir-apparent to long-time national team backstop Ariel Pestano), and rapidly improving Habana Province right-hander Jonder Martinez (a little-used hurler with the 2006 Cuban entry at the MLB World Baseball Classic, but this season’s league ERA leader with a sterling 1.39 mark). Martinez will lead a record corps of ten Habana Province players on the West squad–the most ever from one league team–representing the season’s most surprising first-half ball club. Habana Province currently leads fan-favorite Industriales by 4.5 games in the island’s most competitive Group B division pennant race.

DespaignebigbatBetter-known (off the island) veteran stars featured in this years event will include Sancti Spiritus stars Freddie Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel (both heandliners on the WBC team), Matanzas veteran Yoandy Garlobo (DH in the WBC and a surprise early leader in this winter’s individual batting race), six-time batting champion and lifetime BA leader Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas), and a pair of sterling outfield prospects from Granma Province–Alfredo Despaigne (left photo) and Yoennis Cespedes. Notably absent from this year’s Classic are Villa Clara veterans Ariel Pestano (catcher) and Eduardo Paret (shortstop), both long-time national team fixtures. This will be the eleventh staging of the Cuban League All-Star Game since its resurrection as part of a drastic league makeover back in 1998, and the East squad (Orientales, representing a pair of four-team divisions called Group C and Group D) currently holds a slim 6-4 advantage over the West (Occidentales, made up of Groups A and B). Last year’s match in Ciego de Avila fell to Orientales, 2-0, and featured some brilliant starting pitching by long-time Granma ace Ciro Silvino Licea, the 2007 league ERA champ.

The Cuban League All-Star spectacular is nothing like the MLB version in which fan-elected starters play only an inning or two, all members of the team roster make a token appearance, and there is less emphasis on winning than on the showcasing of individual performers. The provincial rivalries that underpin the Cuban League structure (players perform only for their home province and are never traded) are as evident in this mid-season exhibition match as they are in regular season action; the game is usually contested with all the managerial strategy, intense on-field focus, and palpable winning attitude that might be expected from a post-season championship match. There are extra trappings to all-star weekend, to be sure, such as individual hitting displays (a home run derby), speed exhibitions (timed races around the bases), and throwing competitions (testing accuracy into a barrel, as well as long-distance heaves); an added wrinkle this season will be the introduction of a Saturday night old-timers game (immediately before the "feats of skill" contests between current players) featuring such "immortals" from past decades as  Agustin Marquetti, Juan Castro (current Sancti Spiritus manager), Lourdes Gourriel (father of Yulieski), Lazaro Vargas, Orestes Kindelan (all-time Cuban home run champion), Antonio Pacheco (career base hits leader), Omar Ajete, and Javier Mendez, among numerous other past-era legends. But again–unlike the MLB all-star old-timers contests which of late have been replaced by farcical co-ed softball exhibitions featuring television, movie and music celebrities–the Cuban version will actually maintain the appearance of a real and competitive baseball game.

Previous Cuban All-Star Game results of the recent epoch are as follows:

1998 (Ciego de Avila) Orientales 5, Occidentales 2

1999 (Guines) Orientales 1, Occidentales 0

2000 (Sancti Spiritus) Orientales 4, Occidentales 1

2001 (Pinar del Rio) Occidentales 5, Orientales 2

2002 (Holguin) Occidentales 8, Orientales 1

2003 (Cienfuegos) Orientales 8, Occidentales 6 (10 innings)

2004 (Santa Clara) Orientales 4, Occidentales 3

2005 (Las Tunas) Occidentales 4, Orientales 1

2006 (Havana) Occidentales 7, Orientales 1

2007 (Ciego de Avila) Orientales 2, Occidentales 0

For fans craving more information on the background of the Cuban All-Star Game, including the history of the event and the rosters and prospects for this year’s match in Santiago, these can be found in articles appearing over the next several days on the pages of www.baseballdecuba.com. Coverage there will be provided by Ray Otero in Spanish and this author in English. But where can a viewer outside the island hope to follow the Cuban all-star performances? An internet feed direct from Cuban TV (Spanish) is scheduled for Sunday afternoon (2 pm EST) on the baseballdecuba.com website and should prove to be just the needed antidote for true ball fans more enamored of ball and strikes and of graceful outfield catches than they are of bone-crunching body blasts and midfield human scrums played out against the backdrop of endless advertising "pitches." There are no "commercials" by the way on Cuban baseball telecasts. The playing fields in Havana and Santiago and points between are still made of real grass and the scoreboards post no flashy video images. All fans in Cuban ballparks sit within easy eye-gaze of their on-field heroes. And all the surrounding stadium noise is always a product of human lungs and never of nerve-fraying electronic amplifications. It is a treat to be savored by those who still remember baseball as it once was played–without steroids, constant commercial pauses, and the noisome din of extraneous rock combos. And for those American viewers either hopelessly addicted to the NFL product–or perhaps desiring to keep a foot in both contrasting worlds–the Cuban baseball attraction will actually end well before the first Fox Network million-dollar-a-minute promotion flickers onto the video screens of nearly every North American household.

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