In one of the more stunning Cuban baseball developments of recent vintage, 17-year veteran and national team mainstay Ariel Pestano announced on national television Wednesday evening (January 28) that the current National Series would definitely be his last. The 34-year-old Villa Clara superstar receiver was quick to clarify that he is still in top playing shape and also totally satisfied with this season’s personal performance. He also announced that he will remain with the national team throughout the IBAF World Cup tournament in September, which he has now apparently decided will be his swan song event. Pestano further elaborated that his main motivation in abruptly ending his active playing career is a strong desire to take a more central role in the hands-on training of his teenaged son, a young catching prospect currently playing in the island’s provincial youth leagues.
The timing of Pestano’s announcement is shocking for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be the fact that he is currently enjoying a solid campaign with his rejuvenated Villa Clara team. The Orangemen presently sit atop the Oriental League pennant race by a comfortable mid-season margin and are thus one of the odds-on favorites to capture this season’s National Series league championship. The clutch-hitting backstop currently stands among the league’s top ten in RBI with 40, paces the circuit with 15 game-winning hits, and is batting .365 (80 points above his overall average) with runners in scoring position. While Pestano’s impact has always come primarily with his glove rather than his bat, these offensive numbers hardly suggest any physical fall-off or drop in enthusiasm that might spur thoughts of retirement.
While still only 34, Pestano is now surpassed by only two other league starting catchers in either age or years of service–Santiago’s Rolando Meriño (37, with 18 National Series) and Isla’s Vladimir García (36, but only 15 seasons logged, two less than Pestano). Another surprising element in Pestano’s timing is the heavy upcoming tournament schedule featuring the two most illustrious among international events–MLB’s World Baseball Classic in March and the September IBAF World Cup in Europe. Perhaps Pestano’s reasoning might be that these two showcase events would be the perfect cap to an illustration national team career that might not have that much longer to run under even the best of circumstances. Youngsters like Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Río), the current National Series home run leader, and Yenier Bello (Sancti Spíritus) are poised in the wings to eventually (perhaps sooner rather than later) inherit the national team starting backstop role.
Ariel Pestano has performed best over the years on the international stage, where he has caught nearly 95% of the innings logged by Team Cup in major world class tournaments since his debut as a starter at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Highlight moments have been many, but the reliable Cuban backstop shone brightest at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where his stellar MVP performance included a tournament-leading .512 BA and the top honors for base hits (18), doubles (5), and RBI (14). Other memorable offensive moments on the world stage included dramatic homers that broke open the 2005 World Cup semifinals versus Panama and the Beijing Olympic semifinals versus rival Team USA. But Pestano’s greatest national team value has always resulted from his glove work behind the plate, plus his role as inspired field general and adept handler of the always-changing Cuban national team pitching staff. This author has frequently gone on record during the past decade as saying that if he were forced to chose three or four top Cuban stars who might step directly into the major leagues as starters for any MLB club, then that list would have to be topped by Ariel Pestano (followed by shortstop Eduardo Paret, outfielder Frederich Cepeda, and ace closer Pedro Luis Lazo). Even after a decade and a half of wearing service at the game’s toughest position, and now in his mid-thirties, Pestano remains by any measure a sure-thing big-league backstop.
Coming on the eve of the World Baseball Classic, Pestano’s announced retirement will cause many ripples and a good deal of sadness in island baseball circles. It will also seemingly serve to make his final performances in the brighter spotlight of the showcase MLB-sponsored world championships all that much sweeter to observe and savor.