One week ago I posed some fascinating questions about hypothetical (and in a few cases all-too-real) events or circumstances set in the world of Cuban baseball. These brainteasers appeared first on my MLB blog site and were intended to illustrate just how entertaining and sometimes unorthodox the Cuban League version of the sport might actually be. I proposed to provide answers in due time for the international (since it includes Canada and Europe and even some outposts in Asia) occasion of SABR Day – an annual late-January celebration of the August 1971 founding of the Society for American Baseball Research. Why does SABR Day fall in January when the organization traces its roots to the month of August? Perhaps there is also some intriguing “trivia puzzle” lurking somewhere in this calendar oddity, but if so I simply do not know what it is. I do, however, have answers to the earlier-raised diamond trivia questions, and I now deliver them here on January 29 (official SABR Day) as originally promised.
First Question: This brain buster was recently raised on a Cuban television broadcast and is merely a hypothetical scenario. But it could well happen even if it so far hasn’t. A game is tied up in the late going and a relief pitcher has been summoned to the mound to begin a new inning. The pitcher faces only three batters and he retires all three successfully. None of those three batsmen are able to reach base. The pitcher then is finished for the day, but when the contest ends he is properly credited as being the losing pitcher. How could this possibly happen?
Answer: You are far better prepared to tackle this one if you are a Cuban League booster, or at least a follower of the international tournament scene. For those readers whose fandom is narrowly restricted to professional organized baseball it remains a tough nut to crack. When I first encountered the teaser I immediately thought of only one possible scenario. Perhaps at the end of the inning in question the manager who inserted the ill-fated pitcher becomes involved in some kind of heated dispute with the umpiring crew and decides to pull his team from the field, causing a forfeit to occur and thus his team to lose by the standard 9-0 forfeit count. But in that scenario does the final reliever take the loss? Is there even a losing and winner hurler assigned in a forfeited game? I simply don’t know. And besides, the forfeit angle seems far too oddball and simple a solution.
There is indeed an answer and it comes under the revised rules in place for international tournament play ever since the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. The specific rule referred to here is what I originally dubbed (and the Cuban media has now branded) as the infamous “Schiller Rule” – named for the then-president of the International Baseball Federation which introduced the controversial procedure. This is a rule that attempts to remove any inconvenience of lengthy extra-inning contests by imposing a type of sudden-death provision on contests deadlocked after the ninth frame. In Beijing the rule took effect after 10 normal innings; it has subsequently been changed to apply after only nine innings. Once extra inning play begins, each team comes to the plate with runners placed automatically on first and second base, with a manager first choosing where in his batting order he wishes to start. (Most opt to place the numbers nine and one hitters on the base paths and then have the number two man lead off the action with a sacrifice bunt. This would then bring the heart of the order to the plate with two in scoring position and only one retired.) This strange rule (fashioned after recreational softball) has now also been adopted for regular season contests during this the Gold Anniversary National Series Cuban League season.
Under Major League procedures, if the ill-fated revealer entered the contest with none out but runners already on the base paths, he might wild pitch several times, or he might yield a stolen base or two – in either case allowing an existing base runner to scamper home. All this may occur with the first batter still at the plate – before he subsequently retires the only three batters he faces. Or perhaps he wild pitches a runner to third, and then retires the first or second batter on a sacrifice fly. But in either case he would not take the loss, since those existing base runners would be charged not to him but to the previously departed pitcher who originally put them in circulation.
But now the Schiller Rule scenario changes everything. The inning begins with two men aboard and they are indeed the responsibility of the pitcher (our newly entered reliever) who starts the inning. So if that pitcher perhaps wild pitches twice and thus gives up a lead run in the process (say in the top of the tenth), then retires the only three batters he faces, he would indeed be the loser. If his team never scores in the bottom of the frame he is tagged with the defeat.
Second Question: This second event reputedly happened in a Cuban National Series game back in the early seventies, although I have never been able to verify its actual occurrence or pin down any specific date or any specific locale. Again the game is tied in the late innings. The visiting team has mounted a threat and has the bases loaded and with none out. The subsequent batter then hits into a triple play to end the inning. But in the process the batter gets credit for driving home the game-winning run. How does this happen?
Answer: This is reported to have happened in a league game and is said to have involved famed batter Wilfredo Sánchez, who in thus scenario was not the batsman but rather the defensive hero. If it didn’t ever happen, it nonetheless represents a plausible situation and also a possible result. Reportedly the batter lined into right center where Sánchez made a spectacular diving gab and then quickly returned the ball to the infield, where one base runner was trapped off second base (out number two) and a third was also gunned down before returning successfully to first (triple play). However, during the process of nabbing the final trapped runner between first and second, the runner on third base had tagged up and scampered across the plate. The home plate umpire signaled that the run had scored before the third tag (or force) was made and thus the tally (the eventual game winner) stood. According to the rule book any batter banging into a twin killing can not be credited with an official RBI. But the restriction doesn’t apply to a triple play. Hence the batter would get credit for plating the game winner, despite his colossal failure in producing a rally-killing three instant outs.
Third Question: A Cuban League batter once incredibly hit into an “official” inning-ending quadruple play. Yes, four outs were actually recorded in the official score book on this one play. Again, how in the world could that happen?
Answer: This one is about as strange as they come, especially since it reputedly occurred during the same play just described in the above incident. Or it almost happened, as I will explain. But once again, let’s consider the logical possibilities (what the rule book allows) and not just the historical accuracy here.
On the triple-play just mentioned, it appeared that the go ahead run had been scored by the runner tagging at third. But as the defensive team left the field their manager raced out to confront the umpires with his protest that the runner had in fact left the bag early, before the catch was made in right-center. After a short and heated discussion the umpiring crew chief behind the plate reportedly signaled that he was reversing the decision and calling the runner out at third for not properly tagging up. In order to prevent the run from counting, that base runner would indeed have to be marked as out in the score book. Thus no run but also four recorded outs. Unprecedented perhaps, but such a scoring is certainly conceivable and apparently the only allowable rule book solution. Nonetheless – at least as the story is reported – after further debate with both managers (and likely a good deal of on-field chaos) the umpires at last concluded that the initial call should stand – triple play, the runner legitimately scoring on a legal tag, and thus a game-winning RBI produced by a triple-killing.
Fourth Question: While this event is sometimes attached to Cuba, it in truth occurred during a winter league match in Venezuela. A team known as Cervecería Caracas had the bases loaded with two retired when the next batsman drew a base on balls and was thus awarded first base. But the inning ended with three Caracas players retired and no runs scoring in the remarkable inning. But how could this conceivably happen? This strange event is not only plausible but also quite well documented, being detailed in the volume entitled Momentos Inolvidables del Béisbol Profesional Venezolano, 1946-1984, a volume authored by Alexis Salas. There are few if any umpiring decision more unusual than this one, so who can explain it?
Answer: Believe it or not my friends this one actually did occur. In the contest (on January 4, 1948) matching Cervecería Caracas and Venezuela (a league team and not one representing the country), a mammoth homer by future Cleveland big-league slugger Luke Easter had deadlocked the score and sent the game into the eleventh frame. After two outs to start the Caracas side of the eleventh, an infield hit and a pair of walks had suddenly loaded the sacks. Pitcher Tuerto Arrieta next delivered four wide tosses to batter Benitez Redondo, who had to dive to the dirt to avoid being hit by the wild third pitch (which was saved from going to the backstop on a diving play by catcher Humberto “Pipita” Leal). With the fourth wide pitch, batter Redondo did not start immediately toward first, which caused the third base runner, Romero Petit, also to hesitate in confusion a few feet from the bag. Redondo waved at Petit to head home with the automatic lead run, and then started his own lazy trot to first. At this point catcher Leal pulled a surprising maneuver by racing after Redondo and tagging him halfway down the line. Leal also screamed “you’re out” thus provoking loud laughter from the grandstands, and a stunned response from batter Redondo. Angered by the odd challenge, Redondo next ripped the ball from the catcher’s glove and heaved it toward the backstop.
What then happened is truly “one for the record books” as they say. Veteran umpire Henry Tatler threw a gallon of metaphorical gasoline on the fire by immediately calling Redondo out for his brazen act of “base runner interference” in seizing the ball from crafty catcher Leal. Adding charm to the play was the fact that slow-moving Romero Petit was still several feet short of home plate when Tatler made his remarkable interference call on Redondo. There was then much heated on-field debate with Caracas manager Daniel Canónico – the one-time pitching legend who once become a national hero by besting Cuban ace Conrado Marrero in the championship game of the 1941 Havana Amateur World Series. But the protests were to no avail and Tatler’s ruling stood. The base runner was out by interference and the automatic run coming for third was erased from the scorebook. (To complete the story, the home club – Venezuela – won the match with a bases loaded single in the bottom of the same fateful eleventh inning.)
Final Question: I have saved the best for last. This one did indeed occur and I actually witnessed it in person during a 2009 stint in Cuba. It thus remains the strangest moment in my own half-century of baseball watching. In a tense Cuban League playoff semifinal match staged in Pinar del Río, Habana Province mounted an early threat with one out and runners on first and third. Habana was already in the lead by a 4-1 count in this pivotal Game 3 of the series. The next Habana Province batter then drove a blast that appeared to clear the fence in left field for a three-run homer. The extra umpire along the left field foul line raced into position and immediately waved his arm in the traditional home run signal. The runners circled the bases, but in the process the ball suddenly reappeared at the base of the wall in left center. A heated dispute obviously erupted between the Pinar manager and the umpiring crew, with the issue being whether the ball caromed back onto the field after striking something behind the wall (thus a home run), or perhaps whether the ball actually struck the top of the wall before re-entering play (a possible ground rule double?). At any rate, the three runners were already in the Habana dugout and three more runs were on the scoreboard. (By the way, an interesting footnote here is the fact that the pitcher victimized with this strange phantom home run was none other than current Washington Nationals hurler Yunieski Maya.)
Then the truly bizarre once more occurred – much like it had with the unprecedented ruling by Venezuelan umpire Henry Tatler sixty years earlier. The umpiring crew chief decided to overrule the call earlier made by the left field umpire, thus nullifying the three-run homer. Only one run was credited, and one out was recorded on the play. What was the umpire’s ruling, why was it made, what basis does it have in the rule book, and who was ruled out? That ought to keep you busy, if not dizzy! (I did provide a hint here by reminding readers that I had actually written about this very incident on this same website several years back.)
Answer: The immediate issue confronting the arbiters in this case was whether or not the blast (an apparent homer) struck by Habana Province catcher Danger Guerrero had actually left the ballpark or not. Did the ball strike the top of the wall and rebound onto the field, or did it clear the fence and then rebound back after coming in contact with something or someone beyond the wall? Cuban television coverage – limited to a trio of cameras – does not offer the possibilities of decisive “instant replay” review now available for North American games. The Cuban sport remains much more human (including a large does of human error) in its execution and thus much more open to exotic possibility.
In this instance, replays shown to the Cuban television audience revealed precisely what had occurred and what had been missed by the umpiring crew on the field. This strange instance of post-season dramatics was elaborated for readers of www.BaseballdeCuba.com in my May 25, 2009 article (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/NewsContainer.asp?id=1496) entitled “The Home Run That Wasn’t” and can still be found in the website’s Archives. For any who missed it, I will reprise here what I originally wrote about the remarkable Danger Guerrero phantom home run.
Here is the play as it actually transpired, during the early innings of one of the oddest post-season games on record and also one of the most vital contests of that year’s (2009) rapidly closing National Series. In the top of the second frame, with runners on first and second and only one retired, Pinar ace Yunieski Maya faced Habana’s number-eight hitter, the ironically named Danger Guerrero. The pesky Habana catcher featuring the all-too-perfect given name smacked a towering drive that just eluded the glove of leaping left fielder Jorge Padrón. The long fly caromed high off the top rail of the concrete wall before landing harmlessly on the warning track, several feet behind Padrón. The closest umpire (the one assigned to the left-field line in the normal six man post-season crew) gave an immediate and apparently premature signal that the blast was indeed a home run. Guerrero thus circled the bases unmolested, with arms held high in celebration, while a stunned Padrón stood holding the ball he had quickly retrieved from the outfield grass. It was obvious to everyone but the badly positioned umpire that the fly ball had never left the stadium. It was also obvious (even to left fielder Padrón, who thus made no attempt to throw to his infielders) that the ball was no longer in play, since a clear home run signal had already been given to create a “dead ball” scenario. The situation was quickly put beyond any easy solution. There was no homer, even though one was called. How many runs had actually scored? Should Guerrero be allowed to remain in the dugout, or must he be returned to the base paths? How was the play to be entered on the scoreboard or in the press box official score book?
The umpires had almost immediately realized the huge error involving the early home run signal, and thus confusion already reigned on the diamond and in the dugouts even before Guerrero had finished rounding the bases with his right fist still raised in apparent triumph. The scoreboard now read 7-1 in favor of Habana, but the play could obviously not stand as called without a full game protest by Pinar skipper Luis Casanova and perhaps a full-fledged riot by the packed house of Pinar fanatics. In the middle of it all was crew chief César Valdés, a veteran umpire most famous for his internationally televised body slam of a political protester who had intruded onto the Camden Yards diamond during a historic May 1999 Cuba-Orioles showdown.
During the lengthy and heated debate involving the umpiring sextet and both managers, stunned Pinar players milled on the field of play, while both benches collected in front of their respective dugouts. There seemed to be only one obvious solution to the bizarre home run ruling, at least to all seasoned baseball watchers. Guerrero would have to return to second base, while a second runner (the one originally on first) should be returned to third. Under this ruling of a ground-rule double, only one run would score and one out would remain on the scoreboard. It was not a comfortable solution, since there was no obvious reason for a ground-rule two-bagger. No fan had touched the ball, and also the ball had bounced into the stadium and not out of it. But what was the alternative? Once the home run call was erroneously made by one umpire, a “dead ball” situation obviously existed, ruling out any further attempts by the defense to tag out any of the three runners.
But that would not be the ruling as it was finally handed down. In what seemed to be an obvious attempt by embarrassed umpires and ill-prepared league technical commissioners to salvage a least damaging result for both clubs, a decision was made that completely threw the official rule book right out the window. Two base runners ahead of Guerrero were both allowed to score, the logic being that both would have easily reached home with the ball remaining in play. But since Pinar would have been the clear victim of this ruling, it was decided to rule Guerrero out after his untouched line drive blast off the top of the fence. But under what rule book conditions, since the batter did not step out of the batters box, nor did he pass by any runners on his trip around the bases, nor did he deviate from the base paths. How could the play (the out) be entered into the scorebook? Apparently the scoring could only be UU–out by umpire’s error unassisted–an entirely unique ruling in all of baseball’s seemingly endless history.
Of course a most dangerous precedent had now been set. Allowing umpires to seize the power to make decisions outside of the written rules destroys the entire fabric of the game. Yes the proper (if uncomfortable) ground-rule-double call would have done most damage to Pinar, but then it was the Pinar hurler who had allowed the towering blast in the first place. The game must be played strictly by the rule book and not by compromises to save face for erring umpires. In the end, this most bizarre of plays did not determine the outcome of a crucial championship match. Habana sealed the victory with a ninth-inning uprising that gave them a final wide 10-6 margin of victory and knotted the series. But the arbiters had somehow escaped determining the outcome only because Pinar’s pitching was even worse than the shoddy umpiring. While Maya was saved from an early exit by an unorthodox umpiring decision, he could not stand prosperity and was knocked from the box by the middle innings, after his own disastrous throwing error opened the door in the fifth to several more Habana tallies.
And there you have it – some of the strangest moments of baseball history, all certain to provide hours of entertaining barroom controversy. Hopefully my fellow SABR members have all savored their wintery North American Hot Stove gatherings this afternoon in such snow-encased baseball hotbeds as Indianapolis, Providence, Colchester and Cooperstown – and even in Toronto, Ontario. I didn’t attend myself since for me live baseball once again got in the way. Rather than debate Blackball or pro-ball events from eons long past – in some festive restaurant or union hall auditorium – I myself remained glued to my office computer following every live pitch (via Radio Rebelde) of today’s Granma vs. Metropolitanos encounter in Havana’s Changa Mederos ballpark. My own “hot stove league” doesn’t roll around until North American summertime months – once the beauties of a National Series pennant chase have been packed away for yet another dry and dull spring and summer baseball off-season. Good night Andy Wirkmaa, wherever you are.
The below photo shows Cuban national team catcher Ariel Pestano (with his Cuban League Villa Clara club at the time) in a rare bit of action in Havana last spring. Pestano is tagging out a pair of Industriales runners on the same play during the National Series championship finals. This is not an unprecedented event, having occurred several times in the majors – most notably a few decades back with hall-of-famer Charlton Fisk involved in the rare gambit in Yankee Stadium. But if this recent odd-ball Cuban League play is not altogether novel, how about the several events that follow below?
Baseball fans love brain-teasing trivia almost as much as they love hopeless annual also-rans like the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers. So in the true spirit of the upcoming SABR Day (Society for American Baseball Research) festivities being held around the country on January 29, I offer up the following collection of barroom conversation pieces – to stump your drinking buddies or entertain captive audiences. All these brainteasers (with one exception) are based on events that either actually happened (or at least are reported to have transpired) sometime in the recent or distant past of island baseball lore
1 – This question was recently posed on Cuban television and is merely a hypothetical scenario. But it could well happen even if it so far hasn’t. A game is tied in the late going and a relief pitcher is summoned to the mound to begin a new inning. The pitcher faces only three batters and he retires all three successfully. None of those three batters reaches base. The pitcher then is finished for the day, but when the contest ends he is properly credited as being the losing pitcher. How could this possibly happen?
2 – This second event reputedly happened in aCuban National Series game back in the seventies, although I have never been able to verify its actual occurrence or pin down a specific date or stadium. Again the game is tied in the late innings. The visiting team has mounted a threat and has the bases loaded and with none out. The subsequent batter then hits into a triple play to end the inning. But in the process the batter gets credit for driving home the game-winning run. How does this happen?
3 – A Cuban League batter once incredibly hit into an “official” inning-ending quadruple play. Yes, four outs were actually recorded in the official score book on this one play. Again, how in the world could that happen?
4 – At an international tournament in the late 1940s, a Mexican squad playing the Cubans reportedly had the bases loaded with two retired when the next batsman drew a base on balls and was thus awarded first base. But the inning ended with three Mexicans retired and no runs scored in the inning. How could this conceivably happen? (This incident has been reported in several sources but again I have been unable to uncover whether or not it is only apocryphal. Nevertheless, even it did not actually occur, it theoretically could have under the rules of baseball. So explain it.)
5 – I have saved the best for last. This one did indeed occur and I actually witnessed it in person. It remains the strangest moment in my own half-century of baseball watching. In a recent Cuban League playoff semifinal match staged in Pinar del Río, Habana Province mounted an early threat with one out and runners on first and third. Habana was already in the lead by a 4-0 count if memory serves me correctly. The next Habana Province batter then drove a blast that appeared to clear the fence in left field for a three-run homer. The extra umpire along the left field foul line raced into position and immediately waved his arm in the traditional home run signal. The runners circled the bases, but in the process the ball suddenly reappeared at the base of the wall in left center. A heated dispute obviously erupted between the Pinar manager and the umpiring crew, with the issue being whether the ball caromed back onto the field after striking something behind the wall (thus a home run), or perhaps whether the ball actually struck the top of the wall before re-entering play (a possible ground rule double?). At any rate, the three runners were already in the Habana dugout and three more runs were on the scoreboard. (By the way, the pitcher victimized by this strange “home run” was none other than current Washington Nationals hurler Yunieski Maya. Just an interesting footnote.)
Then the truly bizarre occurred. The umpiring crew chief decided to overrule the call earlier made by the left field umpire, thus nullifying the three-run homer. Only one run was credited, and one out was recorded on the play. What was the umpire’s ruling, why was it made, what basis does it have in the rule book, and who was ruled out??? That ought to keep you busy! (I will give a hint here. I wrote about this incident on this very blog several years back.)
Please don’t email me any answers. I must keep my email in-box free to receive all those daily missives from health care providers, insurance salesmen, angry South Florida readers of many of my recent www.BaseballdeCuba.com columns, and zealous Tea Party fundraisers.
I promise to post the answers to all these puzzles on Saturday, January 29, on the happy occasion of this year’s annual SABR Day celebratory festivities.
P.S. – There may not be much financial reward to be had or many worthless trinkets to consume at Cuban League games. There is no deafness-hastening rock music either. And there are no 22-story flashing video screens. Miraculously Cuban fans somehow find on-field baseball action alone to be entertainment enough. But I am indeed convinced (as perhaps the above oddities illustrate) that Cuban ballpark fans do indeed have much more fun.
From the pen of a writer the Wall Street Journal recently call either “an expert” or “a stooge”. Take your pick. And enjoy the current season. The long dull dry days of summer are only a few months down the road.
How do milestone hitting and pitching feats in Cuban League baseball actually stand up against great individual achievements in the the majors. Sceptics will of course tell you that Osmani Urrutia’s five-season string of batting above .400 (2001-2005) or Urrutia’s single-season record .469 BA are not worthy of comparison, since Cuban seasons are shorter and Cuban pitching is likely not up to big league standings. But what about Faustino Corrales striking out 22 batters in a nine inning game; no MLB pitcher has ever matched that number. Or what about Ibrahim Fuente’s string of 14 consecutive base knocks, surpassing the 12-hit big league mark of Walt Dropo? And has anything on a big league diamond ever been comparable to Alexei Bell’s pair of grand slam homers in the opening inning of the season (2009), or the same Bell’s two-homer inning and three-hit inning in two separate post-season contests. And for trivia lovers, how many know that there is indeed a Cuban Leaguer who once equalled Johnny Vander Meer’s previously unique feat of back-to-back no-hit, no-run games?
For those who want to pursue the issue of milestone and perhaps unbreakable Cuban League batting and pitching records, the complete story (in English) is now available at www.BaseballdeCuba.com. Take a look and perhaps be surprised. Pete Bjarkman
An important epoch of Cuban baseball history reached its end at Pinar’s Capitán San Luis Stadium on Sunday, December 26, 2010. That balmy afternoon was witness to a heated battle between traditional league rivals Pinar del Río and Havana Industriales that brought to an end the first month’s action for historic National Series #50 (league games now being suspended until after the New Year’s holiday). But far more significant than any on-the-field Sunday afternoon action–for the packed house on hand as well as for Cuban aficionados around the globe–were the brief pre-game ceremonies marking formal retirement for Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching victories–legendary #99, Pedro Luis Lazo.
For two full decades Lazo anchored the mound corps of one of the league’s most successful ball clubs, while at the same time erasing numerous pages etched into the island record books by such earlier Vegueros legends as Rogelio García, Julio Romero, and Faustino Corrales. For the last dozen years of his illustrious 20-season career the gigantic Lazo (towering in both legendary stature and physical frame) also dominated international diamonds as a highly effective and intimating closer for Cuba’s remarkably successful national team. Perhaps a single notable irony surrounding the long-anticipated retirement of the revered “Cuban Skyscraper” was the fact that its official celebration came only a handful of days after one of the true milestone pitching performances of Pinar del Río club history–the near “perfect game” no-hitter tossed on Thursday by former teammate Vladimir Baños. Such a no-hit game was one of the few distinctions that managed to escape Pedro Lazo’s otherwise incomparable lifetime resume.
Cuba’s best known hurler had hinted at retirement two years back (November 2008) in an informal chat with this author at his home in Pinar del Río; but that wish to replace the role of active athlete with his often-expressed dream of coaching Cuban youth ballplayers never materialized quite on schedule. One reason may well have been an unspoken desire to finish on top as Cuba’s all-time winning hurler (a feat which he has now achieved with his 257 National Series and post-season victories) and also as all-time strikeout king (where he would fall ever so short, ultimately trailing Rogelio García by single digits, 2426 to 2499). Nearly two full years after our “off-the-record chat” in Pinar, Lazo finally seized an opportune moment to inform the public of his departure. The occasion was a downtown Havana public ceremony (in August 2010) honoring the release of a new celebratory biography (Pedro Luis Lazo, El Razcacielos de Cuba by José A. Martínez de Osaba); there the longtime Pinar de Río mainstay revealed that he would finally hang up glove and spikes for good at the conclusion of a pair of upcoming October international IBAF tournaments. Formal recognition of the retirement would (as is traditional in Cuban baseball) not actually come until a customary festive celebration of Lazo’s career could be staged during a Pinar home contest at the outset of a landmark fiftieth National Series season that would open in late November.
Pedro Lazo ranks in almost any estimation as the greatest hurler in the half-century of post-revolution Cuban baseball. While one-time fellow Pinar ace José Contreras opted to flee the island in 2003 for the lure of big league dollars, Lazo remained at home to rewrite the Cuban League record books. He has now amassed a truly formidable statistical legacy for generations of new hurlers to aim at in future campaigns. In addition to his rank at the top of the heap in wins (more than 20 ahead of 46-year-old and still active runner-up Carlos Yanes) and strikeouts (second behind García), he also stands in the career Top Ten in complete games (fifth), starts (sixth), winning percentage (seventh), and total innings pitched (second, trailing only Yanes). Only Yanes (27), Misael López (24), Faustino Corrales (23), Gervasio Miguel Govin (22), and Adiel Palma (21) have logged more National Series seasons than has Pedro Luis Lazo.
While an ace starter on the domestic front in Pinar, Lazo became over the years a dominating presence in Team Cuba’s bullpen and thus one of the most feared closers found on the international scene. His most memorable moments came in San Diego in March 2006 (where he closed out the WBC semifinals versus Dominican big-leaguers) and in Grosseto and Florence (Italy) last September (where he shut down first Australia and later Canada on the road to the most recent World Cup finals). One of Lazo’s rare poor showings came in his final outing a year ago at the September 2009 World Cup event; perhaps overused during a week-long run up to the gold medal match, Lazo was unable to quell a fateful 6-run Team USA seventh-inning uprising that began against Norge Vera and ultimately cost Cuba a world championship. It was that highly forgettable showing (in what could have been his final international outing) that likely convinced Lazo to return for one more crack at the foreign tournament circuit. Disappointingly, however, the towering right-hander largely failed in a couple of final chances to erase the memory of his ineffective meltdown a year earlier in Nettuno. Lazo made only a pair of rather-less-than-noteworthy appearances during this past summer’s IBAF World Cup Qualifier event staged in Puerto Rico and was later left off the gold-medal-winning club that recaptured Cuban prestige during Taiwan’s Intercontinental Cup matches.
Cuba has not only lost its most accomplished pitcher this winter, but the Cuban League has now also bid a fond farewell to one of the most colorful characters of island baseball history. Perhaps only Victor “El Loco” Mesa holds a similar stature in the five decades of post-professional Cuban baseball. The image of the huge bear-like Lazo lumbering out of the national team bullpen has long struck fear into the hearts of enemy batters. But the “Cuban Skyscraper” (one of his many rather colorful nicknames) has long been equally as renowned on his native island for his personal charm and unorthodox style as for his blazing fastball and unhittable sinker. My own personal memories of Lazo will always be vividly colored by a pair of moments during the June 2009 Cuban League post-season playoffs. The first was his departure from the mound after a failed attempt to claim career victory number 250 at Nelson Fernández Stadium (Habana Province) in what seemed at the time to be potentially his final career outing; the behemoth hurler had already stripped off both his uniform jersey and under sweat garment to the delight of a howling grandstand throng long before disappearing into the Pinar dugout. A second indelible image is Lazo’s repeated presence hanging over the dugout railing during that same series puffing on a huge black cigar in full view of the entire grandstand audience.
In a brief post-game Sunday interview granted to local Pinar journalist Elena Milián Salaberri the normally quite laconic Lazo seized the opportunity to downplay his own stature in island baseball lore. Pressed to name Cuba’s greatest all-time hurler Lazo was quick to suggest that Rogelio García, Braudilio Vinent and Jorge Luis Valdés (whose records he eventual overhauled) all merited more respect as the island’s greatest. It was of course the most dignified and honorable thing to say about one’s own legendary stature. But for this journalist, at least, Lazo was on this final public occasion somewhat off the mark with his delivery. García, Vinent and Valdés–perhaps other earlier Cuban legends like José Antonio Huelga, or Juan Pérez Pérez, or Lázaro Valle–may indeed loom large in island lore. But none of those earlier greats faced big-league-level hitters of the superior stature now being produced in the modern-era; none faced the offensive challenge of sluggers like Despaigne, Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel, Osmani Urrutia and Alexei Bell. And none battled the North American, Caribbean or Asian professional batsman encountered in today’s twenty-first century international tournament venues. Nostalgia may cast a heavy vote for earlier stars from early decades–those facing hitters bolstered by aluminum bats or those mowing down international rivals who were usually little more than North American or Asian collegians and industrial leaguers. But hard cold statistics and the undeniable realities of international baseball in the current decade cast the deciding vote for Pedro Luis Lazo as the greatest all-around hurler that island baseball has so far witnessed.
Whereas last winter’s Cuban National Series opened with one of the most remarkable and explosive batting displays found anywhere in baseball history–a pair of first-inning grand slam homers authored by Santiago’s Alexei Bell–the first month’s highlight of the year’s Golden Anniversary Cuban League campaign has arrived in the form of pitching mastery rather than slugging prowess. The most attention-grabbing achievement of this season’s opening has been the near-perfect-game no-hitter tossed on December 23 by veteran Pinar del Río right-hander Vladimir Baños. No-hit games are nowhere near as commonplace in Cuban League action as they have lately proven to be on North American professional diamonds. And a Cuban League “perfect game” (no base runners allowed and thus a minimum of 27 batters faced) has remained the very rarest of island diamond occurrences. The masterful Baños outing (involving a minimum 27 hitters despite a single base runner) was perhaps all the more remarkable simply because it occurred against the backdrop of an offensive-laced opening month that has already witnessed home runs flying out of Cuban League ballparks in record numbers.
The recently completed 2010 MLB season was dubbed by many North American baseball journalists as “the true year of the no-hitter” in light of a remarkable half-dozen masterpieces–including a pair of rare “perfectos” (by Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay), two no-hit gems during a single season by the same pitcher (Roy Halladay) for only the sixth time in modern big-league annals, and also only the second post-season no-hitter on record (again Halladay). The 2010 big-league no-hitter outburst represented the most such games in a single season since the seven tossed in the American and National Leagues way back in 1991. The majors have now witnessed a grand total of 21 no-hitters (four of them “perfect games”) during the first decade of this new century while the somewhat more offense-minded Cuban League has experienced a mere ten such games over exactly the same time span.
Granted that Cuban League seasons are only slightly more than half as long as are big league campaigns, and twice as many ball clubs in the two MLB circuits also means approximately twice the number of daily games. Nonetheless the modern major leagues have now produced a grand total of 269 “official” nine-inning “gems” or an average of 2.5 per MLB season. And this number includes only “sanctioned” MLB no-hitters in which a game must last a full nine innings and the pitcher authoring the gem must also be the game-winner. (When Andy Hawkins of the New York Yankees no-hit the Chicago White Sox in July 1990 and lost the game 4-0 on errors, he was not credited with a no-hit effort since (1) he was not the game winner, and (2) the home team Sox batted only eight times and not nine since they had the lead.) If we add-in such losing effort games (there have been three), weather-shortened gems of less than nine frames (there have been 23 since 1903), plus games in which no-hitters were broken up in extra innings, after the first nine frames were hitless (13 of these), then the MLB total soars to 308 and the ratio to 2.878 (almost three) MLB no-hitters per season. Of 49 Cuban National Series now in the record books, only a mere three (those ending in 1968, 1969 and 2000) have witnessed as many as three different no-hit efforts.
Despite the indisputable difference of season-length (and thus total number of games played), it can nonetheless be reasonably argued that Cuban baseball’s modern-era (post-1962) has experienced the occasional no-hit game as a decidedly rarer phenomenon. While Cuban seasons are admittedly shorter, a total of only 51 no-hitters have been scattered across not only 49 National Series campaigns (NS#50 is now but one-month old) but also 21 Selective Series (SS) seasons (ranging from as few as 45 games per team in 1984, and again in the early 1990s, to as many as 64 games per team in late-1980s), two 30-game Revolutionary Cup Series in the late 1990s, and four much shorter Super League seasons involving only four or five teams in the early years of the current decade. Over this total of 77 Cuban League campaigns of various lengths (the National Series has been a 90-game season since the fall of 1997), 51 total no-hitters means a frequency of but 0.72 gems per campaign–i.e., three such games for every four seasons played. To draw out the comparisons a bit further, one could also consider the following facts. Of 51 Cuban no-hitters, 4 have been shortened to less than nine frames by the ten-run “mercy rule” which thus leaves only 47 Cuban gems that would meet MLB’s nine-inning requirement. While 107 MLB modern seasons have brought 20 “perfect games” Cuba has witnessed only one such truly ultimate pitching performance (by Maels Rodríguez in December 1999). And while MLB has now had a pair of post-season gems (Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay in the 2010 NLCS) Cuba has to date witnessed no such post-season occurrence since the current National Series playoff format was first introduced in the mid-eighties (with NS#25).
In tossing his masterful whitewash against hitless Matanzas on Thursday of this past week (December 23) Vladimir Baños became only the fourth Pinar del Río hurler to claim such a rare masterpiece, the third to perform the feat during National Series action, and the first in nearly two full decades. Earlier Vegueros (Pinar) aces to turn such a trick were Raúl Alvarez (NS#8 versus Camagüey), Julio Romero (SS#9 also versus Camagüey), Rogelio García (twice, in the same season during SS#13), and lefty Faustino Corrales (NS#31 against Isla de la Juventud). Laboring in the small provincial Hermanos Saíz ballpark located in the Pinar municipality of San Juan y Martínez (before a near full house of 4500 spectators) Baños cruised through the Matanzas lineup, striking out eight, issuing no free passes, and permitting only a single base runner via an infield error in the fifth frame. The unfortunate boot by shortstop David Castillo prevented Baños from perhaps achieving true “immortality” by matching Maels Rodríguez with only the second-ever perfect-game masterpiece in the half-century Cuban annals. Baños did, however, face only the minimum 27 opposition batters since Lázaro Herrera (after reaching first on Castillo’s fateful misplay) was quickly erased by a pitcher-to-short-to-first bang-bang-style double play.
Several additional statistical footnotes regarding Cuban League no-hitters might prove of some interest here. Of the 49 National Series seasons staged so far, 23 (nearly half) have transpired without a single no-hit game being thrown. While Baños provided the first Cuban masterpiece since January 2009 (nearly two years back), the longest stretch of consecutive National Series seasons without a single no-hit game remains five (NS#23 through NS#27). The most productive no-hit season was National Series #7, with five “gems” being tossed during that single campaign (four in the month of January and two on the very same day). The only Cuban League hurler with three such games during his career is Juan Pérez Pérez, whose trio of masterpieces were the only three such oddities during the long stretch of three campaigns between 1972 and 1975. Regarding team achievements, Pinar del Río now matches Camagüey (with 5) as the single team authoring the most no-hit games, but the Camagüey ballclub also ironically holds the distinction of standing on the receiving or losing end of the most no-hit spectacles (7 times). Havana’s Latinamericano is the most fertile ground for hitless games (having hosted 13) while Holguín’s Calisto García and Havana’s Changa Mederos (Metropolitanos) remain the only current regular league ballparks never to host a no-hit game. But perhaps the most ironic fact of all is that the first two Cuban League no-hitters were tossed nine days apart in January 1966 (NS #5) during back-to-back starts by diminutive Centrales southpaw Aquino Abreu. Abreu thus launched the no-hitter phenomenon for the modern-era Cuban League by immediately duplicating the one-time-only big league feat of 1938 by Cincinnati Reds lefty Johnny Vander Meer.
A complete listing of all previous Cuban League no-hit games is available on www.BaseballdeCuba.com.
Coming off a successful fall and summer tournament season, Team Cuba has once again retained its prestigious top slot in the IBAF (International Baseball Federation) World Baseball Rankings. The year-end list of international baseball-playing nations was released earlier this week by the world’s governing body currently housed in Switzerland. With its dramatic gold medal victories in the final edition of the IBAF-sponsored Intercontinental Cup (Taiwan in November) and the August World University Games (Tokyo), the Cubans were able to maintain a slim lead over the rival Americans and thus protect a world baseball crown they have now held for the entire three-year span of IBAF championship polling. The Cuban margin over the Americans has rapidly diminished, however, now slipping to a margin of only 32.67 points (compared to 108.36 points in the 2009 year-end polling). This year’s results also saw Korea overtaking Japan for third slot, with a third Asian power, Chinese Taipei, maintaining its three-year grip on the prestigious fifth position.
2010 Final IBAF Rankings
1. Cuba (986.02) (2009 #1 with 1159.68 pts)
2. USA (953.25) (2009 #2 with 1051.32 pts)
3. Korea (811.34) (2009 #4)
4. Japan (799.74) (2009 #3)
5. Chinese Taipei (524.36) (2009 #5)
6. Netherlands (374.51) (2009 #6)
7. Venezuela (352.31) (2009 #9)
8. Canada (325.51) (2009 #7)
9. Mexico (287.23) (2009 #8)
10. Australia (226.83 (2009 #11)
11. Puerto Rico (213.23)
12. Italy (187.50)
13. Dominican Republic (163.02)
14. Nicaragua (144.24)
15. China (103.48)
16. Panama (86.74)
17. Spain (69.51)
18. Thailand (67.71)
19. Germany (63.38)
20. Czech Republic (53.46)
A total of 74 countries were ranked in this year’s poll, with Latvia, Cameroon and Samoa bringing up the rear in a dead heat for 72nd spot. Latin American countries finishing outside the top twenty positions included the Netherlands Antilles (22), Columbia (28), Argentina (32), Brazil (36), Guatemala (43) and Aruba (46). Besides the flip-flop between Asian rivals Korea and Japan, other top ten shifts included a two-slot rise by Venezuela (number 7, from number 9 in 2009), as well as one-position slides by Canada and Mexico. The only top ten newcomer was Australia, up from number 11 one year ago. Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic also hung on to their earlier slots on the fringes of the top-ten rankings.
The IBAF introduced its world ranking system in January 2009, at that time announcing its inaugural poll of rankings for the 2008 international tournament season. Rankings are based on points earned in IBAF sanctioned events during either a four-year window or the period encompassed by two IBAF World Cup events. This means that 2010 tournament results (along with those of 2007-2009) replaced results of 2006 in this year’s most recent tally. National teams earn points based on their finishes in international events (50 for gold, 40 for silver, 30 for bronze, and 15 for fourth place); those points are then multiplied by a number representing the strength of the event (for example, a 4X multiplier for major events like the World Cup or Olympics but only a 1X multiplier for lesser events like the World University Games or World Junior tournaments). Cuba has now been ranked at the top of the heap for all three years of the poll’s existence, while the USA, Japan and Korea have continued to jockey for the number two, three and four slots. Also for the first time this year the IBAF has announced a women’s world ranking, with Japan, USA, Australia, Canada, and Taipei (in that order) occupying the top five positions.
After a summer of exciting international tournament competitions, actual national championship play has opened once again on baseball’s enchanted island. The new season–the fiftieth renewal of the Cuban National Series–has already witnessed a number of most noteworthy events during its inaugural week, including all of the following:
1- The return of national team star Frederich Cepeda to the Sancti Spiritus roster, punctuated by a pair of Cepeda homers in the Gallos’ opening two contests.
2- Four consecutive home-turf losses for the Cuban League’s popular defending champions, the island-wide fan-favorite Industriales Blue Lions.
3- Unveiling of newly imported Vietnamese-made scoreboards (featuring a purported savings on electicity consumption and eye-catching artwork) in five Cuban Stadiums: Lationamericano (Havana-Industriales), Jose Huelga (Sancti Spiritus), Nguyen Von Troi (Guantanamo), Guillermon Moncada (Santiago de Cuba), and Agusto Cesar Sandino (Villa Clara).
4- A rare triple play turned by the Guantanamo infield in a contest with Ciegto de Avila.
And perhaps best of all for Stateside, European and Asian fans, we have inaugurated an entirely new and revamped website design at www.BaseballdeCuba.com, featuring many improvements and added features. Once again our site boasts its popular up-to-date stats, photos, box scores, game reports, news items and opinion columns. And we again will be carrying a full slate of live (and tape delayed) games from both Cuban radio and Cuban television feeds. It’s winter here in the USA, which means once again baseball at its very best, so tune in and follow all the action of what promises to be a truly historic season.