An event-filled Cuban League off-season has already brought some surprising changes and upheavels on the heels of a disappointing Beijing Olympic silver medal performance, as well as much to ponder on the eve of a highly anticipated revamped National Series #48. The Cuban League itself will take on a somewhat different look this coming year, with an altered league playing schedule and overhauled “minor league” system now firmly in place. And national team preparations for the spring World Baseball Classic (where the Cubans will attempt to repeat their surprise second-place finish of 2006) and fall Europe-based IBAF World Cup (where a main storyline will be Team Cuba’s effort to recapture the “world championship” lost in November 2007 for the first time in a quarter century) will likely share equal billing all winter long with the National Series pennant races being played out on the home front.
But no breaking storyline has so far been more surprising, or launched more rabid fan commentary in Cuba itself, than the unexpected departure of colorful and Quixotic Villa Clara manager Victor “El Loco” Mesa. It was first announced in late September that Mesa’s eight-season reign at the helm of the Villa Clara ball club, for which he also starred as a slugging outfielder in the 1980s and early 1990s, had come to a sudden and unanticipated end with the imminent departure of the charismatic skipper for a coaching assignment in Mexico. Whether Mesa’s new assignment will be with the Mexican national team or with the professional AAA-level Mexican summer league is not at all apparent.
Mesa’s departure from the league scene is only one of several noteworthy managerial shifts already announced as Cuban baseball gears up for what promise to be landmark domestic and international seasons. Rey Anglada (national team manager with the 2007 Pan American champions and 2007 World Cup silver medalists) has also stepped aside after a half-dozen seasons guiding the fortunes of the league’s most popular Havana-based club. Anglada’s brief tenure as Industriales manager featured three league titles (2003, 2004, 2006) and one championship finals loss (2007) with the fan-favorite Blue Lions outfit that is often dubbed “the Yankees” of Cuba. Anglada will be replaced by long-time Industriales star shortstop German Mesa (no relation), a spectacular infield defender in the 1980s and 1990s whom many viewed a decade back as the Cuban version of Ozzie Smith. And two additional former league headliners will also make their managerial debuts in December 2008. One-time national team leadoff batter Luis Ulacia (who now ranks fourth on the all-time Cuban League base hit list behind only Antonio Pacheco, Fernando Sanchez and Omar Linares) takes the reins in Camaguey, while 1970s-80s-era slugging star Luis Giraldo Casanova (sixth all-time with 312 homers) replaces veteran skipper Jorge Fuentes (manager of the gold medal Atlanta Olympic team) for 2008 National Series runner-up Pinar del Rio.
These celebrity managerial shifts have taken front-page attention away from the several structural changes in Cuban League play that should combine to lend a significantly different look to the upcoming National Series season. This year’s league action will debut on November 30 (with the traditional opener matching the previous season’s championship finalists–in this case Santiago and Pinar) and will feature the same 90-game format. The schedule will undergo one significant change, however, with the National Series now divided into three segments or “etapas” of 30-game duration each. The first phase of the new season will conclude December 24, allowing for Christmas and New Year’s festivities at year’s end. A second “etapa” will run from January 14 through February 11 and be followed by All-Star Game activities on February 14-15 (at a site yet to be determined). A month-long break in league action will then ensue, with the national squad representing the country in the second MLB World Baseball Classic (the roster to be announced February 17) first training for and then competing in the March WBC spectacular. Cuban League play will reconvene on March 29 and run until May 5, 2009. Post-season playoffs will then fill the remainder of the May calendar, resulting in a slightly later-than-normal conclusion to this season’s National Series action.
(This entry is an abbreviated version of a more detailed article recently published in the archives of www.baseballdecuba.com. For the full story on Mesa’s departure and also on the revamping of the upcoming Cuban League season the reader is directed to the full article (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/EngnewsContainer.asp?id=964). Attention is also called to the exciting new look and format now featured on our www.baseballdecuba.com “Official Cuban League” website.–PCB)