The most vexing questions now surrounding Cuba’s entry into World Baseball Classic II are not directly related to the roster make-up (at least not the playing roster), nor do they directly involve the chances for Cuba’s non-MLB-affiliated “outsiders” to repeat their stunning runner-up performance that set professional baseball back on its heels three short years ago. There will certainly be plenty of heated nitpickings about the eventual 28-man-roster selections culled from the preliminary 45 “eligibles” list released nearly a month ago. The outfield selections (where either a slumping Alexei Bell or an aging Osmani Urrutia may well be left home on the sidelines) are likely to cause the biggest rhubarbs back on the baseball-nuts Caribbean island. And there is certainly divided opinion aplenty both inside and outside Cuba concerning whether or not this latest lineup for the “Red Machine” will be as well prepared as the 2006 version, or as likely to again surprise the over-confident American, Japanese, Venezuelan, or Dominican big leaguers. But none of those intriguing debates constitute the main controversy now enlivening Cuba’s latest WBC entry.
The issue causing the liveliest debate back in Havana, Santiago or Matanzas at the moment involves the delayed decision on who will manage this spring’s version of Team Cuba during what will be perhaps the most important event of the country’s long and glorious international tournament history. The candidates are numerous and the potential choices are all problematical in their own special ways. Cuban fanatics love their managers, and just like ball fans everywhere, they especially love to castigate their bench generals for each move made every step of the way throughout major tournament action. Controversy swirled back home, to cite but one example, around every lineup that Higinio Vélez trucked out during World Cup 2005 in Rotterdam. Vélez’s choices were not easy, of course: he was forced to place the league’s all-time batting champ (Osmani Urrutia, then owning a string of four-straight .400-plus seasons) in the seventh slot of the batting order; how could you use single’s hitter Urrutia any higher in a lineup that also boasted Cepeda, Enríquez, Gourriel and Ariel Pestano? All of Vélez’s lineups worked well, of course, but none were universally praised by the bulk of the “eleven million managers” calling the sideline shots back home.
Most crucial moves manager Pacheco made in Beijing were seemingly subject to even more heated controversy among island cognoscenti: especially his choice not to pinch hit for Yulieski Gourriel with the bases loaded and the game on the line in the final frame of the gold medal contest (since lefty-swinging Havana favorites Alex Mayeta and Yoandry Urgellés were both available on the bench). But managers don’t win or lose big games in Cuba any more than they do in the majors–ballplayers do that. (The decision of Korean manager Kim to play his infield at double-play depth may have loomed large in winning the contest, but manager Pacheco’s gamble to stick with one of his most proven hitters certainly didn’t alone spell defeat.) Vélez was repeated second-guessed in Holland even though his gold-medal-winning club never lost even a single contest. If Gourriel’s final sharp roller in Beijing had been struck a few inches to the right or left, the Cubans would have successfully defended their Olympic crown and Pacheco would have been celebrated as hero rather than lambasted as scapegoat. Such is the beauty and the pain of man’s most ingenious invention known as baseball.
The most obvious WBC scenario would have Antonio Pacheco returning to the helm of the squad he guided to an impressive (if disappointing to many island fanatics) silver medal runner-up slot in Beijing. There is not much reason to replace the national team skipper after only one summer at the helm, simply because he came home only second-best against the heftiest Olympic Games competition ever assembled. Pacheco may have come up a few runs short in two disappointing contests versus the surprising Koreans (the only losses in Beijing), but he did after all (with a big assist from his hefty lineup) put his team in position to win it all during that the final fateful inning of the championship match. What more can be asked of any manager? No bench boss in his right mind would have sat down one of his most seasoned and productive international stars (Gourriel), especially not with the bases loaded and only one out in the ninth, and with only a tame fly ball needed for a tie, or a slap single for a win. But Pacheco’s return to the helm is nonetheless–fairly or unfairly–ultimately quite problematic. Havana fans especially (spurred by the Industriales-Santiago rivalry) are heated in their opposition to Pacheco. And there were also rumors of team disharmony during pre-Olympic tune-up tours in both Haarlem and Seoul. And a huge controversy surrounding the final cuts of Urrutia and slugging catcher Yosvany Pereza (plus experienced pitchers Yunieski Maya and Yulieski González) also soured the air surrounding those Beijing Games.
If Pacheco is not reappointed, then the conventional wisdom seems to be that current league commissioner Higinio Vélez will return to the post he manned for the first MLB Clasico during March 2006. But the reappearance of Vélez would indeed be a rather unorthodox maneuver on the part of the Cuban Baseball Federation: why would the entrenched director of Cuba’s entire baseball operations now put himself back in an almost certain no-win situation as bench boss of a Cuban team now facing a much tougher WBC field than the first time around? In purely managerial terms, Higinio Vélez was clearly the shinning star of the inaugural Classic. Not only did he lead his squad to a most surprising (even shocking) appearance in the tournament finale, but he was also nothing short of a perfect emissary for the entire Cuban baseball enterprise. Vélez handled himself with poise and dignity and displayed remarkable eloquence along the road to the WBC finals in both San Juan and San Diego.
A true highlight of WBC I, at least for this reporter (on the scene in both Puerto Rico and California), came with a pair of Vélez post-game news conferences staged before often hostile Puerto Rican and Dominican press contingents. After his team’s 12-2 collapse in the initial second-round match with Puerto Rico, Vélez was sarcastically thanked by one boastful San Juan journalist for “handing us this sweet win and showing us how lousy Cuban baseball really is.” The cool and collected Vélez didn’t flinch but merely reminded his public tormentor that even the vaunted New York Yankees occasionally lost ten-run games (that is the nature of baseball, after all). He also uttered at this juncture his memorable line that his team had “lost the battle but not the war.” “Ask me the same question after our next match,” the sly Higinio Vélez retorted. Of course, no such question was ever repeated in the shadow of a later dramatic 4-3 win that lifted Cuba into the semifinals and left Puerto Rican big leaguers disappointed on the sidelines.
And then there was the rare moment after the semifinals versus the Dominicans when Vélez was asked whether he was surprised that his “amateurs” had upset the Dominican “professionals”. Vélez was again quick to remind his interrogator that Cuban League ballplayers were every bit as much “professionals” as were the big leaguers. “You don’t call school teachers amateurs in your country simply because their salaries don’t match those of MLB ballplayers,” Vélez lectured. The Cuban manager then pointed out that his own athletes dedicated their lives to their sport and that was indeed the only measure of a professional ballplayer, not the amount of money that might be thrown his way by North American team owners. Cuban baseball could not have found any better representative or any fitter spokesperson, both on the field and off, than Higinio Vélez. Yet Higinio (also a former Santiago manager and therefore a less than heroic figure for many Havana-based fans) was roundly criticized back home after the final loss to Japan, mainly for starting and then so quickly yanking Santiago veteran hurler Ormari Romero in the title match. (What really handicapped the Cuban pitching in the finale was, in truth, an unorthodox MLB-imposed pitch-count rule that prevented reuse of either Pedro Lazo or Yadel Martí.) It was rumored if never verified that the manner in which Vélez handled his pitching staff in the WBC finals led directly to the immergence of Rey Anglada as the new national team manager in the late summer of 2006 (in time for the next major international tournament, which was the Havana-based IBAF America’s Olympic Qualifier).
What might be some other available alternatives to either Pacheco’s continued tenure or the unprecedented return of commissioner Vélez? One option might be the reemergence of longtime national team skipper Jorge Fuentes, who enjoyed considerable success in the 1990s before falling out of favor with the Cuban baseball brain trust. Fuentes skippered the Atlanta Olympic champions before seeing his star dimmed by a crushing gold medal loss to Japan at the August 1997 Intercontinental Cup matches in Barcelona. (The shakeup following that defeat, which ended a lengthy Cuban international tournament individual-game winning streak that had stretched beyond 150 contests, also brought Higinio’s predecessor Carlitos Rodríguez to power as league commissioner.) Jorge Fuentes first managed Pinar del Río (also called Vegueros in the 1980s) during the heyday of Omar Linares and directed National Series champions on five different occasions (1982, 1985, 1987-88, 1997). After losing his slot as national team boss Fuentes served as a “coach on-loan” for a number of seasons and even managed Nicaragua in both the 2005 World Cup and 2006 Americas Olympic Qualifier. He then returned to Pinar a couple of years back in time to guide his old Cuban League outfit to a surprise slot in the finals of last winter’s National Series 47, before again stepping aside last summer and citing health concerns for his apparent second retirement. One rap on Fuentes among league officials is rumored to be a damning belief that he is far too passive on the bench to provide what some see as necessary emotional displays of team leadership.
There are, of course, some other distinct possibilities. Cuba has changed national team bosses frequently enough over the past half-dozen years to leave a number of experienced candidates looming on the horizon. There are many fans in Havana pulling for rookie Industriales skipper and past-era shortstop superstar Germán Mesa to emerge as a dark horse candidate. And Mesa’s predecessor at the helm of Industriales, Rey Anglada, perhaps also should not be entirely counted out. The cards do seem always to be stacked in favor of Santiago (Vélez and Pacheco), Pinar (Fuentes and Alfonso Urquiola) and also Industriales (Anglada) when it comes to staffing national teams during the past dozen or more seasons. But both past and present managers of the island’s most popular team seem to have little real chance to grab the coveted post this time around. Germán Mesa has never handled a national squad at any level, and a marquee event like the WBC would hardly seem the proper spot for a debut assignment. Mesa’s résumé has also not been helped by the slow start of his maiden Industriales club, which has floundered in the second division of the newly formed Occidente Division for the first half of the current season. (This surprising Industriales swoon is not all Mesa’s doing, by any stretch, since an abandonment of the squad and also the country by outfielder Yasser Gómez and top hurler Yadel Martí struck a major pre-season blow.) Anglada, for his part, is now outside the country on a foreign coaching assignment and seems to be no true part of the equation. If Anglada was not trusted with a 2008 Beijing Olympic assignment there is little reason to expect he would have many supporters on the technical commission this time around either.
Finally there is the perplexing issue of former Villa Clara bench boss Victor Mesa. Mesa has been one of Cuba’s most controversial baseball figures of the past quarter century. As a player “El Loco” was colorful and popular; as a manager in Villa Clara for much of the past decade he has been nothing short of a lightning rod for controversy. As Villa Clara manager Mesa’s track record was a definite mixed bag: his clubs regularly finished at the top of the Group C standings (in the four-division pennant races that existed until this season) yet were just as often ineffective during post-season play. Mesa never won a National Series pennant, despite owning a ball club that was as talented as any other club in the circuit (stacked with national team headliners like Eduardo Paret and Ariel Pestano, plus underrated stars-in-waiting like Ariel Borrero, Andy Zamora, now-departed Dayan Viciedo, and promising youngster Leonys Martin). It was a major pre-season surprise last November when Mesa stepped down from his league post and headed to Mexico to manage a lower division club in Vera Cruz. Rumors afloat in Cuba suggested that Mesa’s request for a foreign assignment resulted from his disappointment in not being handed the open Industriales managerial slot he reportedly coveted. This writer has speculated from the outset, however, that Mesa’s surprise assignment in Mexico involved more behind the scenes than what was announced at the time. Perhaps it all had something to do with the upcoming WBC (since Mexico City is Cuba’s first-round stop) and may even have involved some formal scouting duties regarding the Mexican opposition.
Pacheco versus Vélez, or Pacheco versus Fuentes, or Higinio versus Victor Mesa, or even Higinio versus a handful of distant dark horses. This is indeed quite a perplexing problem confronting the current Cuban Baseball Federation commissioners charged with making the final WBC roster selections. The technical commission’s final deliberations regarding the team manager may cause far more internal debate than the selections of the ballplayers themselves. (We have already gone on record on this website in stressing how obvious some of the ballplayer roster selections ought to be.) That so little has leaked out about the probable (or possible) WBC manager seems proof enough of just how murky the picture actually is. It now seems quite likely that nothing will be clarified until the playing roster itself is unveiled at the mid-February All-Star Game festivities.
My own speculation here is that the choice will inevitably have to come down to Vélez, Pacheco or Victor Mesa. Anglada’s time has obviously passed, and any sudden appearance of the former Industriales boss at this point in time would easily be the biggest surprise on the Cuban baseball scene in years, if not in decades. Germán Mesa simply is not ready for so large and serious a challenge on the international scene, although I expect the former shortstop (who was often compared with Ozzie Smith during playing days) to figure prominently in the national team mix in years to come. Fuentes would be a popular pick in many quarters and is perhaps the ideal compromise candidate. But if health problems were truly what kept the veteran Pinar skipper out of National Series 48, then it is hard to image that he would be thrust back into so intense a spotlight only a few months after stepping down from pressures on the domestic scene. In short, the job is likely available to Vélez if he wants to accept it. But that is the rub, since what I heard from very good sources (ones close to the commissioner) while I was in Cuba in November was that Higinio was voicing considerable doubts behind the scenes about wanting to serve in this capacity. Pacheco is probably Higinio’s own personal pick, just as he was Vélez’s favorite going into Beijing. And there is no reason why Pacheco shouldn’t be given the top job since his credentials (three National Series crowns in four years at the helm of Santiago) are as impressive as anyone else on the scene. But Pacheco is not the most popular selection (perhaps for all the wrong reasons) among many Cuban fans and public pressure (at least in baseball matters) is always as much a factor in Cuba as it is elsewhere. Our own poll conducted at www.baseballdecuba.com in recent weeks has come down heavily on the side of either Vélez or Fuentes and shown little fan support for Pacheco or either Mesa.
All this then leads to the most interesting scenario of all: the reemergence of Victor Mesa. My own opinion is that this would not be a bad move, certainly not the disaster that might be predicted by the doomsayers among Victor’s most outspoken Cuban critics. Victor Mesa has had his army of detractors on the island as a direct result of an unorthodox managerial style and outspoken iconoclast views. I myself have witnessed (in person) such Mesa managerial stunts as pinch-running for a pinch runner, bunting runs into scoring position (and thus giving up outs) when a dozen runs behind, and ejecting an unused bullpen to the team bus after his on-field pitchers had thrown gasoline on an enemy rally. If Victor has a steep downside it is that he so often calls more attention to himself than any manager ever should. Former commissioner Carlitos Rodríguez once addressed his own complaints about Mesa to this author in the wake of National Series 46 (2007), when he expressed his displeasure with Cubavision telecasts for focusing the camera on Mesa ten times more often than on rival manager Antonio Pacheco during that year’s playoff semifinals series. But I was also on hand to witness the impressive managerial job that Mesa turned in at Rotterdam in July 2007, on the single occasion when he was handed a national team bench assignment. There Mesa led an inspired Cuba B squad–featuring then-untried youngsters like Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell and Yosvany Peraza, all making their international debuts–to an undefeated gold medal victory at the high-level World Port Tournament; in the processes his team twice ran roughshod over the same USA roster that had severely challenged the Cuba A club (managed by Anglada) at the Pan American Games only a month earlier. Several (here unnamed) members of the victorious Cuban squad in Rotterdam later told me that Victor was a definite “players’ manager” and the best field boss they had ever played under.
My prediction is only a wild guess at this point, but I would still throw my cards with Higinio. The only reason that an announcement has not already been made (since there was much talk about Higinio being a lock for the position when I was in Havana in late November) is likely because Vélez is not at all convinced he wants the job. Victor Mesa, on the other hand, would hardly be a disappointment for me, despite the baggage he seems to carry almost everywhere on the island. Nor would the return of Antonio Pacheco be at all a letdown for this reporter. I was not among that considerable number who blamed Pacheco for the losses to Korea in Beijing and also saw the silver medal Olympic finish as more letdown than cause for celebration. This Cuban team will be talented enough to perform well under any of the three leading candidates, or even some of the dark horse contenders. Managers do not win championships or tournaments, as noted above; only ballplayers do that. Team Cuba will enter this tournament with a full stable of sluggers and their shortcoming, if any, will be the lack of sufficient pitching–something that no managerial magic will likely overcome. But given the intense microscope under which the Cuban national team performs back on the island, whatever the managerial choice is, it will surely be second-guessed for weeks on end. Especially if the Cuban team doesn’t outperform all expectations and pull off yet another miracle the size of the one achieved in San Diego a little more than thirty-six months ago.
One thing can be counted on as a certainty, and that is truism that the manager of Team Cuba will have the toughest job available on the World Baseball Classic stage. Certainly Davy Johnson has his work cut out for him in avoiding another disappointing collapse by super talented and thinly motivated Team USA; and Luis Soto was nearly lynched in his homeland last time around when high-profile Venezuela lost to both Cuba and the Dominicans in San Juan. But the WBC is only a mere blip on the American and Venezuelan big league scenes; another American or Venezuelan failure to get to the finals in Los Angeles will cause some brief bellyaching back home and then fans will return to MLB pennant races as though the WBC never happened. But each loss in this tournament will be a catastrophic event in baseball-obsessed Cuba, and each victory will set off a national celebration of historical proportions. Managing the Cuban national team, after all, ranks right up there in pressure and consequence with managing the faltering Cuban national economy.