A dramatic battle for mythical title of “Cuba’s Home Run King” raging for the past month has finally come to a dramatic and somewhat odd conclusion on the season’s final day of action. Granma’s Alfredo Despaigne took back sole position of the league record with his 36th smash of the campaign on Sunday afternoon in his second-to-last at-bat of the season. The blow in Nueva Gerona’s Cristobal Labra Stadium came off a delivery from Isla right-hander Alesky Perera and was ironically Despaigne’s only inside-the-park home run of the year. With four RBIs on the day the Granma “Stallion” also pushed his league-leading final total in that department to 105, a margin of six over runner-up José Dariel Abreu.
Despaigne’s final record performance was accompanied by some obvious oddities and notable ironies. First and foremost was the almost certain claim that this was the first time in any modern-era league where a home run title was decided or a new all-time record established with a four-bagger that never left the field of play. So far there has been no video available to demonstrate precisely what occurred on the historic hit. Isla made two substitutions in the outfield to start the inning (and also one replacement in the top of the previous inning). Did confusion on Despaigne’s fly ball to center result from the constant outfield “musical chairs” by the home team? Was Despaigne’s blast slightly tainted by lackadaisical effort (either intentional or otherwise) on the part of the Isla outfielders? Or was there a misplay during the action that might well have resulted in a defensive error that was never credited by a home field official scorer. There is little reason to suggest that Despaigne’s rather strange homer was in any way illegitimate, and yet without a video replay or some further description from the Cuban press it is hard not to speculate, or at least to ponder the circumstances.
A second irony attached to the final day’s events is the fact that Despaigne was handed something of an assist by the absence of José Dariel Abreu from the playing field. Cienfuegos manager Iday Abreu had moved his slugger to the top of the batting order for the Friday and Saturday games – presumably to provide the big first baseman a few extra plate appearances that might increase his chances of overhauling Despaigne. Abreu had made up a six-homer deficit over the last couple weeks and had also closed the gap on Saturday to only two in the RBI department. At stake for Abreu was not only his piece of the home run record (which he had previously shared with Yoennis Céspedes) but also a potential first-ever National Series Triple Crown batting feat. But then, for some so far inexplicable reason, Abreu sat helplessly on the sidelines Sunday afternoon.
The odd absence of the top Cienfuegos slugger not only handed the title to Abreu’s Granma rival but also gave a huge boost to visiting Ciego de Avila. The visitors eked out a narrow 3-2 win over the Abreu-less Elephants that pushed them into a post-season playoff spot. It is indeed possible that it was injury that sent Abreu to the bench; he did also miss an entire series last weekend in Isla. But that scenario seems rather unlikely given the move to the top lineup spot on Friday and Saturday and the effort to gain extra ABs for Abreu in the opening matches of the series. Some explanation seems in the offering.
This was the second consecutive year that José Dariel met bitter disappointment in the final game of the campaign. Last season the Cienfuegos star was able to tie Céspedes for the home run lead (and league record) in the final contest yet also fell one short in the RBI chase. He thus missed an historic Triple Crown by only the slimmest of margins. The Despaigne home run and four RBIs on Sunday meant that in retrospect Abreu would likely have been outdistanced today even if he had taken his normal spot in the lineup. But nonetheless it has to be far more of a disappointment to “go down sitting” than to “go down swinging” on the season’s final day. Despaigne raced around the bases in Nueva Gerona with a new spot in the record book (if possibly a controversial one) but his top rival Abreu never had a chance to answer.