One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the run-up to the World Baseball Classic has now been resolved with the “official” announcement earlier this evening in Havana that Higinio Vélez will indeed return as manager of the island’s team for the March World Baseball Classic II. Vélez last appeared as the national team field manager at the previous WBC three years ago. On the heels of a championship game loss to Japan in March 2006 the Santiago native was removed from his post in favor of Rey Anglada, at the time manager of Havana’s Industriales Lions, the most popular of Cuba’s sixteen National Series league teams. Anglada in his own short tenure managed the gold medal Cuban squad in the 2007 Pan American Games, as well as the silver medal entrants in the 2007 Taiwan World Cup, before himself giving way to Antonio Pacheco. Pacheco skippered the second-place Cuban Olympic squad in Beijing but was the inevitable recipient of much (largely unfair) criticism back home for that team’s apparent gold medal “failure” last August. Vélez has meanwhile served for the past season and a half as the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation and National Series league commissioner.
Much speculation swirled around the candidacies of Vélez and former Pinar del Río and national team manager Jorge Fuentes, as the seeming frontrunners for the 2009 “Clasico” assignment. There was also speculation in the Cuban media (as well as on the http://www.baseballdecuba.com website by this author) that Pacheco and former Villa Clara manager Victor Mesa (now on assignment in Mexico) were also under strong consideration for the coveted post. Vélez proved an excellent field boss and eloquent spokesman for the Cuban squad during the first Classic and that likely was the determining factor in his ultimate choice by the Cuban Baseball Federation. The Federation was under increasing press from island media and fans in recent days to finally name its manager, since the first roster trimming of the Cuban squad was now only days away, and also since Cuba remained the only country in the 16-team Classic field without a designated team manager. But there were also many rumors on the island that Vélez didn’t want to thrust himself into the awkward position of wearing two simultaneous hats–as both league commissioner and national team skipper–an heretofore unprecedented assignment in Cuban baseball annals.