Sad news from Havana this morning reports the unexpected and shockingly premature passing of veteran National Series lefthander and current Industriales pitching coach Luis Felipe Díaz. The towering southpaw – a veteran of 16 National Series seasons with the Havana Metros ball club – was struck down by a massive heart attack early Thursday morning at the young age of only 42 years. The loss was especially felt by capital city ball fans and was also a severe personal blow for this author, who had maintained a close friendship with Felipe over the past decade and had enjoyed a reunion visit with the bulky southpaw only last Friday evening in the Industriales clubhouse at Capitan San Luis Stadium in Pinar del Río.
Felipe Díaz debuted with the Metropolitanos team in National Series XXX (1990-91) and made his single national team appearance seven years later during the 1998 World University Games staged in Havana’s Latin American Stadium. Over his 16-season pitching career he won 86 games and dropped 103 for a Metros outfit that was often an also-ran and league cellar dweller. His career stats also featured a 4.93 ERA, 278 games pitched (231 starts), 50 complete games, 47 relief appearances (with 5 saves), 15 shutouts, 1444 innings pitched, a .291 BA by opponents, 720 strikeouts, and 655 walks.
Perhaps his most memorable individual season came in 1998 (National Series XXXVII) as the acknowledged ace (8-6 record and a team-best 20 starts) for a Metros club that enjoyed a rare post-season appearance. That spring Díaz claimed one of the two Metros quarter-finals wins, besting Habana Province southpaw Yulieski González (by an 8-1 count) to temporarily deadlock the series at two games apiece. His swan song campaign was National Series XLV (2005-06) where he won three and lost six, posting an elevated 9.50 ERA and striking out only 26 while issuing 34 free passes for a weak Metros club that posted a league-worst 19-69 ledger.
A natural teacher of pitching techniques and a master of hurling psychology, Díaz served as pitching mentor for his old ball club during the final several seasons of that team’s existence (Metros was disbanded after the National Series LI in 2012). After spending last year working with Developmental League prospects in Havana City, Díaz this year joined the Havana Industriales team as an assistant pitching coach under manager Lázaro Vargas. During those recent months he played a significant role in resurrecting the career of veteran right-hander Frank Montieth, league ERA pacesetter during the first half of the current season before being sidelined by injury.
Luis Felipe Díaz will be sorely missed on the Havana baseball scene. Despite a less than stellar career ledger, he built a reputation as a tireless worker, a dedicated student of the game, and an inspiration to young ballplayers throughout the city. Gregarious and always smiling, Felipe was also a charismatic ambassador of the Cuban national sport to which he devoted the majority of his tragically short life span.
Thursday night’s nationally televised Cuban League replacement player selection draft followed a five-round format and found most of the league’s eight surviving second-round ball clubs opting to fill out their expanded rosters with available pitching talent. Twenty-two of the forty selections were spent on hurlers and manager Lázaro Vargas of first-half pacesetter Industriales spent all five of his team’s selections on much-needed mound reinforcements. Runner-up Matanzas also grabbed four available pitchers from the eight eliminated league ball clubs.
Despite the preference for mound replacements, the first two individual ball players selected were slugging veteran outfielder Freddie Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus) nabbed by Artemisa, and league home run record holder Alfredo Despaigne (Granma) who will now shift his services to Santiago de Cuba. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the selection process was the total bypassing of first-half circuit home run leader Dary Bartolome (Camagüey) who failed to find an assignment for the Round Two 42-game championship schedule which begins next week.
The entire Supplemental Player Draft results were as follows:
Industriales Blue Lions (Manager: Lázaro Vargas)
Round 1: Noelvis Entenza (Pitcher, Cienfuegos)
Round 2: Vicyohandri Odelín (Pitcher, Camagüey)
Round 3: Leorisbel Sánchez (Pitcher, Cienfuegos)
Round 4: Alexander Rodríguez (Pitcher, Guantánamo)
Round 5: Elián Leyva Delgado (Pitcher, Mayabeque)
Matanzas Crocodiles (Manager: Victor Mesa)
Round 1: Yoelkis Cruz (Pitcher, Las Tunas)
Round 2: Carlos Juan Viera (Pitcher, Las Tunas)
Round 3: Lázaro Blanco (Pitcher, Granmas)
Round 4: Eriel Sánchez (Catcher: Sancti Spíritus)
Round 5: Mario Batista Hernández (Pitcher, Mayabeque)
Villa Clara Orangemen (Manager: Ramón More)
Round 1: Ismel Jiménez (Pitcher, Sancti Spíritus)
Round 2: Alaín Tamayo (Pit her, Granma)
Round 3: Yorbis Borroto (Shortstop, Ciego de Avila)
Round 4: Rudelis García (Catcher, Ciego de Avila)
Round 5: William Luis Campillo (Outfielder, Camagüey)
Isla de la Juventud Pirates (Manager: Armando Johnson)
Round 1: Ariel Miranda (Pitcher, Mayabeque)
Round 2: Yudiel Rodríguez (Pitcher, Las Tunas)
Round 3: Frank Navarro (Pitcher, Guantánamo)
Round 4: Yoelvis Fiss (Outfielder, Ciego de Avila)
Round 5: Marino Luis Márquez (Indielder, Camagüey)
Pinar del Río Vegueros (Manager: Alfonso Urquiola)
Round 1: Vladimir García (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)
Round 2: Giorvis Duvergel (Outfielder, Guantánamo)
Round 3: Dennis Laza (Outfielder, Mayabeque)
Round 4: Yormani Socorrás (Pitcher, Camagüey)
Round 5: Roel Santos (Outfielder, Granma)
Holguín Cachorros (Manager: Orochis Bartutis)
Round 1: Norge Luis Ruiz (Pitcher, Camagüey) (Third Overall Selection)
Round 2: Yordanis Samón (Outfielder, Granma)
Round 3: Lenier Rodríguez (Pitcher, Mayabeque)
Round 4: Danel Castro (Infielder, Las Tunas)
Round 5: Guillermo Avilés Difurnó (Outfielder, Granma)
Santiago de Cuba Wasps (Manager: Luis Danilo Larduet)
Round 1: Alfredo Despaigne (Outfielder, Granma) (Second Overall Selection)
Round 2: Yander Guevara (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)
Round 3: Alberto Soto la O (Pitcher, Granma)
Round 4: Yadir Rabi (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)
Round 5: Yunier Mendoza (First Baseman, Sancti Spíritus)
Artemisa Hunters (Manager: Dany Valdespino)
Round 1: Frederich Cepeda (Outfielder, Sancti Spíritus) (First Overall Selection)
Round 2: Yosvani Alarcón (Catcher, Las Tunas)
Round 3: Jorge Jhonson (Outfielder, Las Tunas)
Round 4: Alexander Ayala (Shortstop, Camagüey)
Round 5: Dachel Duquesne (Pitcher, Ciego de Avila)
Fresh off an early season no-hitter (the campaign’s only pitching masterpiece to date), Villa Clara ace right-hander Freddy Asiel Alvarez stands near the top of the polling among pitchers for this year’s league All-Star contest. The showcase game (number 27 in league annals) will be played this coming Sunday afternoon at Nueva Gerona’s Cristobal Labra Stadium (home to the Isla de la Juventud Pirates) and can be viewed worldwide via the internet feed from Cubavision International. The winning squad will be rewarded with an international tournament appearance later in the year, most likely at this summer’s Haarlem Honkbal Tournament in The Netherlands.
Alvarez picked up 12,659 fan ballots to trail only a pair of Holguín stalwarts (reliever Pablo M. Fernández, (14,879) and shortstop Yordan Manduley (14,249) in the overall internet and print press polling. Other popular stars at the ballot box were veteran catcher Yulexis LaRosa (Villa Clara, 11,946), Pinar del Río righty Yosvani Torres (first half league leader with 7 victories, 10,151), and batting pacesetter Maikel Cáceres (Holguín, 10,586). Heavy fan voting in Holguín Province also pushed infielder Yunior Paumier (10,079) into the 10,000-plus leaders grouping. More than 20,000 fans cast ballots during the open selection process which is distinguished from MLB polling by its one fan/one ballot policy. In addition to the leading vote getters, league officials also named two invited “wild card” selections: Isla hurler Héctor Manuel Mendoza (Occidentales) and promising second-year Camagüey mound phenom Norge Luis Ruiz. The complete All-Star rosters announced yesterday (21 players on each team) are as follows:
Lorenzo Quinata, Catcher (Pinar del Río) 7,431
Luis A. Castro, Catcher (Isla de la Juventud) 4,003
William Saavedra, Infield/1B (Pinar del Río) 6,874
Alexander Mayeta, Infield/1B (Industriales) 6,086
José Miguel Fernández, Infield (Matanzas) 7,602
Dainer Moreira, Infield (Matanzas) 7,758
Yulieski Gourriel, Infield (Industriales) 6,376
Michel Enríquez, Infield (Isla de la Juventud) 6,301
Yasmani Tomás, Outfield (Industriales) 7,132
Reinier León, Outfield (Pinar del Río) 6,206
Yadiel Hernández, Outfield (Matanzas) 5,697
Frederich Cepeda, Outfield (Sancti Spíritus) 5,644
Yosvani Pereza, Designated Hitter (Pinar del Río) 8,288
Yosvani Torres, RHP (Pinar del Río) 10,151
Julio A. Martínez, LHP (Pinar del Río) 9,245
Ariel Miranda, LHP (Mayabeque), 8,467
Frank Montieth, RHP (Industriales) 7,768
Wilber Pérez, LHP (Isla de la Juventud) 6,719
José Angel García, RHP/Relief (Artemisa) 9,391
Leinier Rodríguez, RHP/Relief (Mayabeque) 5,746
Héctor Manuel Mendoza, RHP (Isla de la Juventud), Invited
Lázaro Vargas, Manager (Industriales)
Alexander Ramos, First Base Coach (Isla de la Juventud)
Primitivo Díaz, Third Base Coach (Matanzas)
Raciel Sánchez, Pitching Coach (Pinar del Río)
Yulexis LaRosa, Catcher (Villa Clara) 11,946
Franklin Aballe, Catcher (Holguín) 6,788
Ariel Borrero, Infield/1B (Villa Clara) 9,422
Lerys Aguilera, Infield (Holguín) 5,453
Yunior Paumier, Infield (Holguín) 10,079
Yordan Manduley, Infield/SS (Holguín) 14,249
Luis Y. La O, Infield (Santiago de Cuba) 4,901
Maikel Cáceres, Outfield (Holguín) 10,587
Andy Zamora, Outfield (Villa Clara) 8,631
Alfredo Despaigne, Outfield (Granma) 5,118
Reutilio Hurtado, Outfield (Santiago de Cuba) 4,627
Ramón Lunar, Designated Hitter (Villa Clara) 9,099
Freddy Asiel Alvarez, RHP (Villa Clara) 12,659
Danny Betancourt, RHP (Santiago de Cuba) 9,942
Oriolbis Cobas, RHP (Guantánamo) 6,002
Vicyohandri Odelín, RHP (Camagüey) 5,710
Vladimir García, RHP (Ciego de Avila) 5,695
Pablo M. Fernández, RHP/Relief (Holguín) 14,879
Carlos Viera, RHP/Relief (La Tunas) 8,563
Norge Luis Ruiz, RHP (Camagüey) Invited
Ramón More, Manager (Villa Clara)
Ernest Gainza , First Base Coach (Santiago de Cuba)
Leonardo Paris Jonhson, Third Base Coach (Holguín)
Roidel Enríquez, Pitching Coach (Villa Clara)
For the second straight winter the Cuban League is hosting an odd “divided” season that involves the traditional 16 provincial teams fighting through a first-half 45 game slate to qualify for a 42-game championship round involving only the top eight qualifying clubs. First half play wrapped up on Sunday with the eight qualifiers now officially determined, but also with a handful of suspended contests still to be completed. The make-up games (scheduled to be played during the weekend of January 4-7) will not alter the list of championship qualifiers but will likely impact on the precise order of finish between the top five or six ball clubs. Those final standings hold considerable significance since they will determine the selection order when the second-round teams select five reinforcement players each from the league’s eliminated also-rans, a selection process scheduled for national television on Thursday, January 9, eve of the league’s All-Star Game Weekend.
Cuba’s novel split-season format has not been without its share of controversy since it seems to have alleviated one long-standing league weakness while at the same time striking a severe blow against one of the circuit’s traditional boasting points. There is little doubt anywhere that concentration of the league’s top stars on a smaller contingent of clubs has strengthened the quality of league play during the second “etapa” 42-game run to the championship. At the same time, elimination of eight teams at mid-season (and also the transfer of some of the island’s top stars from those losing outfits over to the contenders) has left half the country without local games and without a rooting interest for much of the year. It is a system that now undercuts the longstanding concept of a true national sport and also undermines a unique format featuring local stars playing only for hometown teams throughout an entire career.
This year’s first-half qualifying round remained extreme tight during the two months of league action with less than five games ultimately separating the eight qualifiers and with the final two positions in the top-half standings not determined until the final day of play. Artemisa, Santiago and Ciego de Avila limped to the wire with identical 24-21 ledgers, but the Ciego Tigers where the odd-team out as a result of dropping the head-to-head season series to both Artemisa and Santiago (the latter club also gaining the seventh slot by virtue of its head-to-head superiority over Artemisa).
Early-season elimination play provided a number of small surprises, topped by the strong performances of normal also-rans Isla de la Juventud and Artemisa, the latter club having occupied the league basement in its recent maiden two seasons of league play. Perhaps equally unexpected were the rather dramatic slides experienced by two of the league’s perennial powers, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Avila. The SSP Gallos fell into an early tailspin with the pre-season loss of the three Gourriel brothers (especially star third sacker Yulieski, long-time national team stalwart); all three were transferred to Industriales in late August in a highly controversial move related to the health and relocation of father and former league star Lourdes Gourriel. Ciego (under manager Roger Machado) had captured the league title only two years back and with a strong pitching corps headed by national team luminaries Vladimir García, Yander Guevara and Yadir Rabi had been originally tabbed by most savvy prognosticators as a top pennant challenger.
Final First Half-Season Standings (Minus Suspended Games)
Team (W-L, GB)
Industriales Leones Azules (27-15, —)
Villa Clara Naranjas (26-16, 1.0)
Matanzas Cocodrillos (27-17, 1.0)
Isla de la Juventud Piratas (27-18, 1.5)
Pinar del Río Vegueros (26-18, 2.0)
Holguín Cachorros (25-20, 3.5)
Santiago de Cuba Avispas (24-21, 4.5)
Artemisa Cazadores (24-21, 4.5)
Suspended games pending: Industriales 3 (vs. Las Tunas (2), Granma), Villa Clara 3 (vs. Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Mayabeque), Matanzas 1 (vs. Villa Clara), Pinar del Río 1 (vs. Villa Clara)
A number of noteworthy achievements and eye-popping collapses on the individual front also marked the first half of the current National Series schedule. On the penultimate day of play in Havana’s Latin American Stadium Yulieski Gourriel equaled the career home run total (247) established two decades earlier by his legendary father Lourdes; one day later teammate Alexander Malleta (now playing in his 16th National Series season) crossed a milestone of his own by becoming only the 36th player in league annals to reach the 200 career home run plateau. Early-season action was highlighted by the circuit’s 53rd no-hit, no-run game (matching precisely the number of years of league play) tossed by Villa Clara ace Freddy Asiel Alvarez. The Alvarez masterpiece took the form of a 1-0 whitewashing of Sancti Spíritus on home turf at César Sandino Stadium. Also on the pitching front, the current season saw Sancti Spíritus ace Ismel Jiménez suffer through a dismal career-worst 2-6 campaign (largely the result of non-existent offensive support from his dispirited teammates). Less than a year ago Jiménez had briefly edged ahead of long-departed El Duque Hernández to briefly claim the league all-time career winning percentage standard. Additional noteworthy performances over the past two months have been Maikel Caceres’s breakout leading-leading .400 batting mark for Holguín and the surprising resurrection of one-time Industriales ace Frank Montieth, who paced the circuit in ERA (1.17) and also posted an unblemished 4-0 winning mark as the league’s most effective starter. Home runs were down across the entire league and some of the league’s top sluggers posted surprisingly slim numbers: especially Alfredo Despaigne (7), Yulieski Gourriel (5), and Yosvany Peraza (4).
First-Half Season Batting/Pitching Leaders (Minus Suspended Games)
Average: Maikel Caceres (Holguín) .400
Hits: Maikel Caceres (Holguín) 70
Runs: Héctor Hernández (Camagüey) 37
Home Runs: Dary Bartolome (Camagüey) 8
RBI: Yadiel Hernández (Matanzas) 38
Steals: Luis la O (Santiago) 17
Slugging: Ariel Sánchez (Matanzas) .538
ERA: Frank Montieth (Industriales) 1.17 (46.0 Innings)
Percentage: Frank Montieth (Industriales) 4-0 (1.000)
Wins: Yosvani Torres (Pinar del Río) 7
Strikeouts: Ariel Miranda (Mayabeque) 73
Saves: José Angel García (Artemisa) 15
Innings: Norge Luis Ruiz (Camagüey) 79.0
Appearances: Yadir Rabi (Ciego de Avila) 24
The league now enjoys a brief hiatus (with the exception of the half-dozen make-up games) before championship-round games are launched on January 14. The second-half schedule (matching each team against all seven rivals in three-game home and away series) will continue through mid-March, with a two-week suspension of play (January 25-February 11) to accommodate the visit of 2013 league champion Villa Clara to this year’s Caribbean Series winter league professional championships in Venezuela. Mid-season holidays will also feature the league All-Star contest on January 12, staged for the first time in Isla’s Cristobal Labra Stadium (Nueva Gerona).
Given the tight competition witnessed during the season’s first half, this year’s supplemental player draft (January 9) will likely be highly significant in tipping the second-half balance of power between the contending ball clubs. Available during the draft will be such hitting stalwarts as Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Freddy Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus), and first-half home run leader Dany Bartolome (Camagüey). More important still will be the reassignment of some of the league’s top pitching talent represented by southpaw strikeout leader Ariel Miranda (Mayabeque) and workhorse reliever Yadir Rabi (Ciego de Avila), as well as Norge Luis Ruiz (Camagüey), Valdimir García and Yander Guevara (Ciego de Avila), and Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos). For some if not most surviving ball clubs, supplemental draft day in early January may well prove to be the most crucial date of this year’s entire league campaign.
Was Cuba’s Fidel Castro – one of the most controversial figures of the past century – truly a prized baseball prospect as legend has so long had it? Read all to details in my latest essay for the SABR BIOGRAPHY PROJECT.
Most baseball fans tend to take their idle ballpark pastimes far too seriously. On momentary reflection, even a diehard rooter would have to admit that big league baseball’s most significant historical figures – say, Mantle, Cobb, Barry Bonds, Walter Johnson, even Babe Ruth himself – are only mere blips on the larger canvas of world events. After all, 95 percent (perhaps more) of the globe’s population has little or no interest whatsoever in what transpires on North American ballpark diamonds. Babe Ruth may well have been one of the grandest icons of American popular culture, yet little in the nature of world events would have been in the slightest degree altered if the flamboyant Babe had never escaped the rustic grounds of St. Mary’s School for Boys in Baltimore.
Such is certainly not the case with Cuba’s most notorious pitching legend turned Communist revolutionary leader. Although Fidel Castro’s reputed blazing fastball (novelist Tim Wendel suggests in Castro’s Curveball that he lived by a tantalizing crooked pitch) never earned him a spot on a big-league roster, the amateur ex-hurler who once tested the baseball waters in a Washington Senators’ tryout camp would nevertheless one day emerge among the past century’s most significant world leaders. Castro was destined to outlast nine U.S. presidents and survive five full decades of an ill-starred socialist revolution he in large part personally created. Cuba’s Maximum Leader would greet the new millennium still entrenched as one of the most beloved (in some quarters, mostly third world) or hated (in others, mostly North American) of the world’s charismatic political figures. Certainly no other ex-ballplayer has ever stepped more dramatically from the schoolboy diamond into a role that would so radically affect the lives and fortunes of so many millions throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond.
Castro remains the most dominant self-perpetuating myth of the second half of the twentieth century, and this claim is equally valid when it comes to the Cuban leader’s longtime personal association with North America’s self-proclaimed national game. Rare indeed is the ball fan who has not heard some version of the well-worn Castro baseball tale: that Fidel once owned a blazing fastball as a teenage prospect and was once offered big league contracts by several eager scouts, slipshod bird dogs (especially one named Joe Cambria working for Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators) whose failures to ink the young Cuban prospect unleashed a coming half-century of Cold War political and economic intrigue.
Read the full story here:
Stellar Los Angeles Dodgers Cuban rookie sensation Yasiel Puig may have fallen ever so short of Joe DiMaggio’s all-time big league first-month base hits standard (46 for Hall of Famer DiMaggio in 1936 and 44 for Puig last month). But another sensational Cuban slugger has just equaled a unique standard for Mexican League base-hitting proficiency that had stood the test of time for nearly eight decades. In brief, if Puig only shadowed DiMaggio, Despaigne has now caught up with four-hall-of-fame Cuban immortal Martin Dihigo. Wednesday night in Nelson Barrera Romellón Stadium the slugging outfielder (currently on loan from the Cuban Federation to the AAA league Campeche Pirates) banged out six straight base hits in as many at bats during a 10-4 victory over Saltillo’s Saraperos. On the night Despaigne singled five times (in the first, third, fourth, sixth and ninth) and capped the onslaught with a homer off Dominican veteran Willy Lebrón in the visiting team seventh frame.
The six-for-six Mexican League milestone was first achieved by Cooperstown resident Dihigo on September 18, 1936 during a game between Aguila and Agrario played at Mexico City’s Delta Park. A full half century later (on march 28, 1989) the cherished record was equaled by native Mexican batting star Daniel Fernández Méndez during a contest between the hometown Mexico City Reds and rival Tabasco. Despaigne – a multiple-year Cuban League batting and home run champion – is currently coming off a season (National Series #52) in which he outdistanced José Miguel Fernández for the league hitting crown (.382 to .355). The Granma “Stallion” recently joined the Campeche club along with Granma teammate Yordanis Samón (the National Series number-three hitter at .354) and long-time Cuban national team third baseman Michel Enríquez. But Enríquez was discovered to have a nagging previous undiagnosed leg injury that slowed his defensive play, and Samon simply could not adjust to Mexican pitching; the result was that the pair was quickly released and shipped back to their Cuban homeland. So far Despaigne has obviously experienced no such disappointing setbacks.
Team Cuba Personnel Coming to American Soil
While there has been no official announcement of the Cuban squad slated to travel to the American Midwest and east coast in late July for a renewal of their series with the USA Baseball Collegiate all-stars, I have been able to uncover here in Rotterdam reliable information on the makeup of most of the traveling island ball club. The Cuban catching corps debuting on American soil July 18 in Des Moines will represent a complete change from the squad here at the World Port Tournament; the receiving duties will be handled by Lorenzo Quintana (Pinar del Río), Lednier Ricardo (Cienfuegos) and Lázaro Herrera (Matanzas). Nine pitchers will make the trip and seven are known at the moment. The group will be headlined by Ismel Jiménez (Cuba’s all-time career winning percentage leader) and Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara) who is fresh off a record 40.2 consecutive scoreless innings hurled in last month’s National Series semifinal and final playoff rounds. Other hurlers will be Diosdani Castillo of Villa Clara (the league ERA pacesetter at 1.55), Noelvis Entenza (Cienfuegos 14-game winner currently here with Team Cuba at the Rotterdam World Port Tournament), Jonder Martínez (bullpen ace for Villa Clara during the recent playoffs), Villa Clara southpaw Misael Silverio (the only left-hander on the incomplete roster), and rookie of the year Norge Luis who divided his season between Camagüey (his assigned regular season team) and Sancti Spíritus (where he helped fuel a near-miss championship run as a “second half reinforcement” addition). Two further pitchers have yet to be revealed.
Team Cuba’s starting infield on the American tour will be largely the same as the one now here in Rotterdam this week: José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos) at first; José Miguel Fernandez (Matanzas) at second, veteran slugger Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus at third), and Erisbel Arruebarruena (Cienfuegos) manning shortstop. Additional infielders include Andy Sarduay (Villa Clara) and Yurisbel Graciel (Matanzas third baseman). But there will likely be at least one major change as home run king Abreu is currently suffering from a nagging rib cage injury and will most probably have to be pulled from action. The outfield, however, will boast a fresh appearance with Yasmani Tomás being the only World Baseball Classic and Rotterdam holdover. Newcomers to the Team Cuba outfield include Darion Varona (Villa Clara), Rusney Castillo (Ciego de Avila), and William Luis Campillo (Camagüey). Castillo is bouncing back from a sensational 2011 fall season in which he lead the entire field in batting during the Panama-based IBAF World Cup; William Luis moved from Camagüey to Cienfuegos this season as a second-half replacement player and tied Elephants teammate José Dariel Abreu for the league long-ball boasting rights with twenty.
One additional holdover and also one new wrinkle in the World Port Tournament roster currently on display have also been quietly leaked. World Baseball Classic skipper Victor Mesa will replace Yovani Aragón in the manager’s seat while Juan de Dios (Sancti Spíritus) will continue to handle the pitching staff. A complete finalized roster (included ages and other personal data) will be available on www.BaseballdeCuba.com shortly.
The “wicked orange-clad witch” is finally dead and Cuba reigns yet again as champion of the Rotterdam World Port Tournament. Sunday’s second-straight 4-0 shutout victory over the Dutch seemed to put an end to a run of almost uninterrupted recent Orange successes against Cuba. The string started with two victories (including a gold medal triumph) at the 2011 Panama IBAF World Cup, nip-and-tuck wins earned on the strength of solid pitching by Rob Cordemans and Orlando Yntema. Dutch mastery was then punctuated with an additional pair of successes during round two of the recent WBC third edition in Tokyo and included a heart-wrenching late-inning loss that kept Cuba out of a second appearance in the WBC final round. The only interruption to the string of Orange successes came in last year’s Haarlem Baseball Week when Vladimir García shut down the host Netherlands squad 4-0 en route to Cuba’s gold medal triumph over Puerto Rico.
Some will of course argue that this week’s double shutout victories over the Dutch forces are shallow because this is not the same Dutch team that boasted top AAA prospects and a handful of big leaguers in both Panama and Tokyo. But that is a lame comparison at best. While this Cuban team did feature 13 WBC holdovers, it did not have the best of its WBC pitchers on board (namely Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Vladimir García, Norberto González, and Diosdani Castillo), while the current Dutch squad did display the better part of its Tokyo pitching contingent (Cordemans, Yntema, Diegomar Markwell, David Bergman, Leon Boyd, Kevin Heijstek and Berry van Driel). If the Dutch didn’t have the likes of Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Kalian Sams, Roger Bernadina and Andruw Jones in its Rotterdam lineup, it also must be remembered that in Tokyo Cuba never had the luxury of calling upon such big league reinforcements as Alexei Ramírez, Yunel Escobar, Dayan Viciedo, Yoennis Céspedes and Leonys Martin.
In short, the only truly fair comparison between Cuba’s and Holland’s international teams is one that matches native Cuban Leaguers against a squad representing those currently playing in the domestic Dutch professional League. Leave the exported professionals now laboring in the big leagues out of the equation. That was the matchup we had here in Rotterdam this week. And in point of fact it was Cuba and not Holland that was never at full strength since this Cuban squad was merely this year’s Occidentales All-Star Game winners and not a full Cuban national team. With a more level planning field here in Rotterdam, the Cubans roared back from a Game 2 7-0 setback (again at the hands of Cordemans) to dominate the final two meetings and finally put to rest the growing legend of a Dutch international dominance. The victory was sweetened for the Cubans by the fact that the two 4-0 whitewashings came against their two earlier nemesis foes from Panama 2011 – namely Orlando Yntema and Rob Cordemans.
Cuba won this tournament squarely on the shoulders of truly brilliant pitching, which is a great irony in the end. The Occidentales squad playing here boasted some of the island’s best sluggers but only a trio of its better pitchers. Since the Cuban brain trust was adamant about not supplementing the original Occidentales roster (despite the absence of Freddie Cepeda due to injury) the team arrived with only twenty-three players and seven pitchers (after Odrisamer Despaigne’s mysterious disappearing act in the Paris airport). With no more than seven available arms (all three opponents boasted ten) Cuba seemed in hot water from the very start. But such are the ironies of baseball that in the end the handicapped Cuban pitching overwhelmed this tournament and far outmatched even the celebrated Dutch mound staff headlining a full seven veterans of the March WBC squad that made it all the way to San Francisco.
In the seven-game event (including the finals), Cuban arms posted four shutouts; and two of the three remaining games were a 3-1 victory and 2-1 defeat (both against Chinese Taipei). The team ERA for the six-game round robin was a sensational 1.73 compared to 2.15 for the runner-up Dutch. Add on the final title game that the ERA comparison widens to 1.48 for Cuba and 2.43 for The Netherlands. On only two occasions did manager Yovani Aragón have to use as many as three pitchers; Cuban starters worked at least into the seventh frame on four occasions; veteran Wilber Pérez was the surprise of the week with two brilliant starting efforts and a perfect 0.00 ERA over 12.2 frames; and late bullpen relief provided by Duniel Ibarra and Raciel Iglesias didn’t allow a single tally across 9 full innings of mop-up duties.
Cuba’s highly successful run down the stretch started on Saturday with a 11-0 romp that saw the Cuban offensive finally come alive after two troubling tight matches with Taiwan. Aragón’s crew had failed to clinch a spot in the finals on Friday when they squandered multiple opportunities and left the sacks jammed in both the first and ninth frames of a 2-1 loss to the opportunistic Taipei ball club. Forced therefore to call on ace Ismel Jiménez for the must-win Saturday rematch with Curacao, Cuba jumped out early with four tallies in the third and another pair in the fourth; it was only a downhill joyride after that and a “mercy rule” knockout was assured when four singles and a hit batsman produced 3 final runs in the top of the eighth. Andy Ibánez was the offensive hero with his second straight three-hit afternoon against rather mediocre Curacao pitching.
Sunday’s game provided one of the best-ever Cuba-Dutch matchups as the Dutch again sent Cuba-killer Cordemans to the mound and Aragón was forced to come back with 36-year-old Wilber Pérez for the second straight time against the host club. Pérez nearly matched his early outing, but this time lasted only until the fifth frame despite allowing only two safeties. Cuba took early command in the third when Mayeta opened with a double but seemed destined to be stranded on third until clutch two-out singles by Yulieski Gourriel and Eriel Sánchez produced a two-run cushion. The game turned in the home half of the sixth when with two retired and two aboard clean-up hitter Brian Engelhardt smashed a deep drive to right that appeared on route to sail out of the park. Cuban right fielder Yasmani Tomás raced more than forty feet to the wall and leaped to spear the drive off the top of the fence and thus preserve the slim Cuban lead. It was one of the most sensational defensive plays ever witnessed by this writer, especially given the tense circumstance of a championship match.
After Tomás had robbed the Dutch of the potential go-ahead runs, manager Steve Janssen appeared to leave a tiring Rob Cordemans on the hill one inning too long, which provided a second irony of sorts. Cuba had lost the fateful final meeting in Tokyo (a game which Cordemans had started for the Dutch) when skipper Victor Mesa left Norberto González on the hill just long enough to surrender a game-turning homer to Andrelton Simmons. A similar scenario unfolded Sunday in the Cuban eighth when the already spent Cordemans allowed a two-double to Alexander Mayeta that plated the all-important pair of insurance runs and salted away victory for the Cubans.
Final World Port Tournament Standings (Round Robin)
Through Saturday, July 6
Teams — Record — Points — Runs (For-Against)
Cuba (first) — 4-2 — 8 — 22-10
Netherlands (second) — 4-2 — 8 — 24-13
Chinese Taipei (third) — 3-3 — 6 — 14-18
Curacao (fourth) — 1-4 — 2 — 11-30
Championship Game (July 7): Cuba 4, Netherlands 0
On top of their superb team effort, the Cuban forces also walked off with the bulk of the tournament’s top individual prizes. As the week’s fifth leading batter (.304) among those with the minimum required 20 plate appearances, and as author of some sterling glove play at third, Yulieski Gourriel was tabbed the WPT 2013 MVP. With the only fence-clearing shot of the entire event Alexander Mayeta walked off with the trophy as tournament “home run king” while Ismel Jiménez (with a perfect 0.00 ERA over a tournament leading 15.2 innings) was an easy choice for “Top Tournament Pitcher.” Holland’s Dwayne Kemp was named top hitter with a .400 average across 20 at-bats, but the true hitting star was indisputably Cuba’s Andy Ibáñez. Appearing in only three games (2 starts) during the six-game round robin, Ibáñez posted a .667 BA (six-for-nine) and then kept up the pace with another three-for-five afternoon as the Cuban DH in the Sunday championship match.
Individual Tournament Awards
MVP – Yulieski Gourriel (Cuba)
Batting Champion – Dwayne Kemp (Netherlands)
Home Run Champion – Alexander Mayeta (Cuba)
Best Pitcher – Ismel Jiménez (Cuba)
Press Award (Most Popular Player) – Michael Duursma (Netherlands)
Several young up-and-coming stars were showcased in this event, the group headlined by Ibáñez, Raciel Iglesias, and Johan Moncada. Twenty-year-old Ibáñez made his National Team debut (outside of a token appearance in the March MLB Classic) in sensational fashion with a solid three-hit performance as opening game starter at second. Reinserted in the DH slot for the final weekend Andy continued an offensive display that resulted in a final sizzling .643 BA and also played a major role in regenerating an earlier dormant Cuban offense. Iglesias (age 23) shared the pitching heroics with Ismel Jiménez and Isla teammate Wilber Pérez by saving four of the five Cuban victories. The wiry Iglesias worked 7.1 innings (3.2 in the finale), allowed no runs and a mere 3 hits, and struck out eleven enemy batters. Eighteen-year-old Moncada appeared only briefly in four games, had but two official plate appearances (one resulting in a touring fly ball to the warning track in left field), struck out twice, walked once, and executed a perfect sacrifice bunt late in the second meeting with the Dutch. (Moncada’s long outfield out was only one of about a dozen lengthy flies that would normally have cleared the fences of most parks; but this tournament remained largely free of long balls due to the extremely soft balls employed for tournament play.) But his brief display of outstanding physical tolls as a switch hitter and agile infielder were the talk of “scouts row” and Moncada continues to generate most of the buzz among the MLB scouting fraternity as the most impressive current Cuban League prospect.