There is always something new in baseball–something to send devotees scrambling for the trivia books–and more often than not that something seems to pop up in the never-dull Cuban National Series. On Wednesday evening (Christmas Eve) at Jose Huelga Memorial Stadium in Sancti Spiritus, journeyman righthander Dany Gonzalez (below) entered the record books as well as the trivia books when he recorded a three-pitch strikeout of Industriales rookie David Remedios that lasted for exactly 85 minutes. This was not a rain-delay or light-tower-power-failure-induced type of event; there was no act of the Baseball Gods here. Rather it was a not-soon-to-be-forgotten moment that transpired as the result of one of the most bizarre twistings of the rule book dictums imaginable. The unprecedented details are as follows.
In the top half of the opening frame–second game of a day-night doubleheader–Sancti Spiritus starter Yoharisleibis Panama (my current favorite Cuban League name, by the way) got off to a rather rocky beginning when he sandwiched free passes to Industriales batters Eliut Torres (leadoff) and Yoandry Urgelles (third slot) around a ringing double off the bat of number-two hitter Leugim Barroso. Sancti Spiritus manager Juan Castro had seen enough and sent an immediate call to the pen for reliever Jorge Luis Perez, who immediately poured a healthy dose of gasoline on the fire by walking cleanup hitter Alex Malleta and forcing home the first tally of the night. Serguei Perez then followed with a slap single to center field that upped the count to 3-0 in favor of the visitors. Then the plot began to thicken.
By way of necessary explanation, the Cuban League rules allow for 27-man rosters with only 26 players allowed to dress for any given game; that is, one player is designated as ineligible for each contest. That player on Tuesday evening was the soon-infamous Dany Gonzalez. Either distracted by the herd of Industriales baserunners, or perhaps thinking that he might sneak one by the already giddy visitors, manager Juan Castro next replaced the ineffective Jorge Perez with his third pitcher of the evening–designated sitter Dany Gonzalez. Industriales manager German Mesa was so quick on the uptake that he protested the use of Gonzalez before the ineligible hurler was able to launch his first fateful pitch. Castro was thus now faced with a major conundrum. By anyone’s best interpretation of the rules, Gonzalez could not leave the game until he had faced at least one batter (he had already been announced as a substitute). But the minute he took part in the action the SSP team had violated league rules and the game was eligible for protest and forfeit should SSP eventually come out on top. Castro surprisingly (but not altogether inexplicably, since Mesa had given him an opening by jumping the gun on his protest) ordered his pitcher to delay, delay, delay and delay some more on the hill to avoid the inevitable sanctions. Game accounts in the Cuban press do not reveal answers to all the following vital questions: foremost, why didn’t the umpires order Gonzalez to hurl a pitch under penalty of immediate forfeit if he did not? Or what was Castro trying to accomplish? Once he had erred why didn’t he simply bite the bullet and allow the game to go on? What was the reaction of the fans and what happened on the field during the hour-and-a-half delay? Did the SSP players remain at their defensive posts? Did Gonzalez merely stand on the hill glaring at home plate in defiance of the rule book? Did Remedios ever leave the batter’s box? I have already sent a flood of emails to my contacts in Cuba trying to unravel all this, but to no avail.
Ultimately Castro was convinced that this one had obviously passed him by and Gonzalez was consequently ordered from his own dugout to pitch, finally making short order of Remedios on three unhittable deliveries. But the inning itself dragged on for more than another half-hour as the visitors plated 11 total runs. Since the game ended in a 14-4 seven-inning knockout (Cuba plays with the international 10-run KO rule) the issue of the forfeit proved in the end to be a moot point. Which only made the shenanigans of the opening frame all that more bizzare.
Over the past few seasons I have personally witnessed some classic cases of unorthodox behavior on the part of Cuban League managers, the bulk of these at the hands of now-departed Villa Clara skipper Victor Mesa. On one occasion I saw Mesa bannish his entire unused relief corps from the bullpen to the team bus after one of his firemen issued a walk in the middle of a ten-run Matanzas rally; another time Mesa amazed fans as well as the opposition by calling for a new pinch runner for a previously inserted pinch runner who had just successfully stolen second (apparently Mesa was attempting to “play the odds” by assuming that two successive steals by the same man would be somewhat unlikely); and to top it all, last season I witnessed Mesa give up two outs by bunting runners into scoring position while already down by nine runs. In last season’s crucial semifinal playoff series (at the same Jose Huelga Stadium that housed this week’s fiasco) Pinar del Rio manager Jorge Fuentes was ejected from action by the home plate umpire for vehemently protesting balls and strikes in the ninth inning of a tie game; yet Fuentes continued to direct his forces from the bench–quite visibly and without any objection by the arbiters–during several extra fames.
In brief, there seems never to be a dull moment in the Cuban League. Yet on second thought, there must have been about 85 of them in Sancti Spiritus on Christmas Eve.