The baseball playoff season is also a time for individual post-season honors, and Cuba is certainly no exception. It is, however, a little more difficult to find comprehensive lists of past-season winners, and that is due largely to a strange gap in the Cuban League record books. The annual guides (perhaps due to severe space restrictions and printing costs) do not carry any season MVP or Rookie-of-the-Year lists for bygone campaigns, although both these distinctions are annually announced in the Cuban sporting press. Cuba has no other major individual awards–such as a Cy Young Award for pitchers–and there is no “official” designation of a playoff MVP. The top post-season performer has, however, been “unofficially” recognized for the past dozen seasons by Havana’s Radio COCO, one of the top Cuban media outlets for coverage of the national game.
Since I have received numerous requests over the past several years for a list of Cuban MVPs (or for winners of the honor in this season or that season) it would seem most appropriate to publish such a list. I did not provide one in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2007 (published in 2007). So I will now offer an up-to-date listing (it will appear later this week on the Playoffs Page of www.baseballdecuba.com), along with a handful of related editorial comments touching on trivial curiosities pertaining to past selections, plus the prospects for the certain-to-be-controversial current season MVP selection.
In reviewing lists of past winners, a number of historical oddities are worth noting. Only a small handful of ballplayers have tacked together multiple MVP seasons, and fewer still have captured the top rookie designation and then later taken MVP honors. The only three-time winner of the MVP laurels is Omar Linares, but with Yulieski Gourriel only now reaching his peak years this may soon change. Gourriel might well have been in the running for this year’s coveted honor (it would have been his third) had he not dropped the batting title to Michel Enríquez during his final season’s at-bat, or had his Sancti Spíritus club performed better (drawing more attention to his own torrid slugging) during early weeks of the past National Series campaign.
In nearly a half century there have been but six players who have repeated as National Series league MVP, with Omar Linares the only three-time honoree. Yulieski Gourriel and earlier Wilfredo Sánchez are the only pair to wear the MVP crown in consecutive years, while the trio of Lourdes Gourriel (Yulieski’s father), Cheito Rodríguez, and Michel Abreu (later in North American professional baseball) were Rookie-of-the-Year selections who later also earned the MVP distinction. Outfielders make up the largest proportion of MVPs, with Havana’s Industriales not surprisingly having produced more winners of the honor than any other single ball club. Players from Pinar del Río (including that club’s several appearances under the name Vegueros) can claim seven MVPs and thus Pinar stands a close second in the team category.
The current year’s honoree will not be announced until the end of post-season play and this time around will likely represent a most difficult MVP decision. Alfredo Despaigne essentially matched Alexei Bell’s sensational season of a year ago (when Bell was the consensus selection) and was indisputably the outstanding performer, at least on offense–setting a new league home run mark, becoming the first player to reach 100 homers in his first five National Series seasons, and also pacing the circuit in both RBIs and slugging average. But does that necessarily mean he was the MVP–as opposed to the league’s most visible star, which is quite another thing? This is the same debate that occurs often with big league selections. Should a player from a last-place club be considered all that valuable, since his teammates would have finished in the same tail-ender position with or without his output? The question always is whether the candidate’s performances had the same impact on his team’s achievements as they did on the record book? I am of the school (the majority of MVP voters, I suspect) that still believes this award should say as much about a player’s value in the lineup as it does about his hefty personal stats.
My own vote would probably go to either Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Río), Maikel Folich (Ciego de Avila) or Yadier Pedroso (Habana Pedroso). These three outstanding pitchers have done the lion’s share of the work in putting their teams into the playoffs, and one of them may yet carry his teammates to a league championship during the playoff round. There is also some prejudice against pitchers, of course, since some would argue that the MVP should go to a ballplayer from the everyday lineup and not one who appears but once or twice a week (that is, a pitcher). In the major leagues, this line of thinking is also supported by the existence of a special pitcher’s award; the CY Young Award is designed for the American League and National League MVP pitchers. But in the Cuban League there is no equivalent Cy Young Award; perhaps we should have a José Huelga Trophy for the year’s top pitcher, but we do not. Thus in the past Cuban League pitchers have faired comparatively well in MVP voting, claiming ten (a little more than one-fifth) of the previous 47 crowns. Maels Rodríguez was the last hurler to walk off with the honor, during the year (2001) when he smashed a celebrated single-season strikeout mark and thus also bagged most of the winter’s top headlines.
My own vote for MVP, then, goes to league ERA champ Yadier Pedroso (pictured above) of Habana Province. But if pushed to predict the actual winner I would guess that it will in the end be either batting champion Enríquez (his team at least made the playoffs, even if they were crushed in the opening round) or home run record setter Despaigne. Just like in the “grand” leagues, in Cuba it is the sluggers and not pitchers “that drive the Cadillacs.” Well not exactly, of course, because almost no one in Cuba drives a Cadillac–or at least not one built during the last five decades. But the point here is that in modern-era baseball it is the run-producing sluggers who garner the bulk of media attention–even in more baseball-pure Cuba.
The complete listing of Cuban League MVP, Rookie-of-the-Year, and Post-Season MVP award winners will be available this week on the Playoff Page of our website at www.baseballdecuba.com. The list can also be accessed at http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=8591.