The biggest news emanating from the Cuban baseball scene this first week of a new season was made off the field of play and involves a truly sad story coming out of Santiago de Cuba. The headline was first broken online by Dominican-based ESPN Deportes writer Enrique Rojas late Monday afternoon (November 9) and then repeated with only sketchy details several hours later by Havana’s Radio COCO. Santiago ace right-hander Norge Luis Vera had been hospitalized the previous evening as the direct result of severe injuries suffered during a street brawl in his home city and would be lost to baseball for at least the remainder of the current season. It is the second winter in a row that the Santiago team has been unable to get beyond the first week of National Series action without suffered a bizarre and crippling injury to one of its star players and pennant-hope fixtures.
Last November the dreams of a repeat championship seemed to go up in smoke at Guillermón Moncada Stadium on the opening day of the campaign. In that earlier incident star slugger Alexei Bell was struck in the eye by an errant fastball from Pinar del Río starter Yunieski Maya. At the time Bell was coming off a sensational previous season in which he had obliterated league records for homers (31), RBI (111) and slugging percentage (.722), walked off with the league MVP trophy, and then for an encore led the Olympic Tournament in batting with a lofty .520 mark for the silver medal winners. Bell was able to return to the Santiago lineup after a couple of days, but the physical and psychological scars of the blow sent him into a downward cycle that left him batting .211 at mid-season and erased any chance of a slot on the March WBC roster or late summer World Cup team. Bell rebounded in the second half of the campaign for a final .288 batting mark with 11 homers, but the Wasps despite all their hitting from other quarters never made it out of the post-season quarterfinals round.
This year it seemed on Opening Day and the handful of games that followed like Bell had clearly rebounded and thus things had to be looking up in the Wasps camp. Then tragedy suddenly and unexpectedly struck yet again. News of Vera’s setback was all the more shocking and bizarre for the mere fact that it did not occur on the field of play but in the presumed safety of his Santiago family home. Preliminary reports indicate that the star hurler had left the team hotel over the weekend to recuperate from a bout of influenza and had somehow become involved in a street altercation involving members of his own family. Who might have been actually involved and how Vera was so severely injured are not at all clear at this juncture. The only details forthcoming are that he was violently struck in the face with a heavy object (perhaps a brick or stone) and suffered such extreme damage to the area of the nose that he was placed in “guarded” condition by hospital officials. An attending female physician, Dr. Zadyz Navarro, later released an official statement that Vera did not have life-threatening injuries but would have to undergo reconstructive facial surgery and would be lost to athletic competitions for a minimum of four or five months. This would place Vera’s possible return to active physical workouts at the end of the current National Series season.