Over most of the past quarter-century the Cuban National Series season has remained a fairly stable affair, a definite contrast with the opening two-plus decades in which league sizes and ballclub identities shifted with painful regularity. The current two-division (eight teams in each) regional structure dates back only a couple of seasons (introduced for National Series #49, replacing the long-standing four-group league format). A current post-season playoff structure has now existed for fully half the life span of the island’s post-revolutionary baseball. The present 90-game season was the last major innovation, launched in 1998 (National Series #37), and the last half-dozen years have witnessed a single campaign without any early summer extra play in the form of a Selective Series or Super League. We have to reach back to 1992 (National Series #31) to locate the disappearance of a league team (in that case with the simultaneous demise of Forestales and Citricultores) or the renaming of a Cuban ballclub (the adoptions by Henequeneros and Vegueros of the traditional provincial names of Matanzas and Pinar del Río).
But now on the heels of an historical Gold Anniversary National Series the winds of change are in the air. And this time around it is mainly politics and governmental reformation that will impact squarely on the face of Cuban League baseball. The creation of two new provinces last spring – with the division of the old Habana Province into the new entities known as Mayabeque and Artemisa – means a shifting in the inventory of league teams. One of the new squads will represent Mayabeque, playing its games at Nelson Fernández Stadium in San José de las Lajas, the former longtime home of the Habana Province Cowboys. The second newly created team representing Artemisa will operate from the provincial capital of the same name. Artemisa is set to inherit the entire stellar pitching staff of the defunct Habana Province nine, as well as manager Estebán Lombillo. To accommodate the change without any imbalance in league scheduling, the original plan also called for the dropping of a “poor-cousin” Metropolitanos Warriors team, the capital city’s second-fiddle and largely ignored league entry
But now the whole affair seems to have taken on a new and rather messy aspect. Reports out of Havana (where the issue is being sparsely covered in the press but widely debated on street corners) suggest the Metros team has not yet in fact been dropped from the league alignment. Maintaining a current 16-team, two-division league format was definitely the preferred plan of league boss Higinio Vélez and his technical commission, as well as a notion favored throughout INDER, the national sports ministry. But then the central party committee in Havana apparently intervened in the debate and the best laid plans of baseball administrators may be on the verge of going awry. The chairwoman of the central party recently revealed her opinion that having only one team in Havana would likely cause even further departures (“defections”) of young players from the capital and thus would only further embarrass the government and the revolution. The idea was briefly floated of using former Metros players on the Mayabeque squad but it seems the technical commission was not in favor of this latter solution since it would break down the long standing policy of having squads composed strictly of local provincial players.
The issue is now very much up in the air and with little time remaining for timely resolution. With less than three months remaining on the calendar until opening day of a new season, no firm decision has yet been made. One can only speculate that when a resolution is finally proposed it will almost certainly come from government officials and not from the baseball commission, which wants Metros out. The release of the new schedule in early November may well be delayed longer than usual by this messy conflict. One clear signal of behind-the-scenes preparations for the possible last-minute resurrection of Metros arose when the summer Developmental League (Cuba’s version of the minor leagues) began play last week with 17 rather than 16 teams, one club being a farm team for Metros.
The continued existence of the Metros ballclub has been an issue for heavy debate for several seasons now. Havana’s “second” team claims few fans, is usually a lame cellar dweller, and now plays its games in the league’s worst facility (dilapidated Changa Mederos Stadium located in the Havana Sports City complex). But more troubling of late has been the regular utilization of the Metros squad by Havana INDER officials as a virtual farm club for the city’s popular Industriales Blue Lions. The only regular shuffling of Cuban League players takes place when promising second and third year athletes are regularly shifted from the Metros lineup to the Industriales roster. Alex Mayeta, Rudy Reyes, Carlos Tabares, Frank Camilo Morejón and Yoandry Urgellés are only a handful of recent Industriales stalwarts who received their needed seasoning for one or two winters in Metros uniforms – an advantage which none of the fourteen other provincial teams enjoys. When Industriales captured yet another championship crown two years back I wrote a somewhat ironic piece on this website asking whether the true champion was actually Industriales or perhaps the Metros club in disguise.
The appearance of new squads in Mayabeque and Artemis seemed to finally offer a neat solution to the longstanding problem of two teams in the city of Havana. The time had finally come to give the Metropolitanos Warriors an overdue and honorable burial. But suddenly chaos has reemerged in the always entertaining Cuban League. Havana fans are no longer preoccupied with debating the merits of Metros as a thinly disguised and illegitimate Industriales farm team. The question now on everyone’s lips in the Parque Central debating societies is much simpler if equally perplexing – “Is Metros actually coming or going?”