Tagged: International Baseball

Playoffs Cap Remarkable Cuban League Season

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Bjarkman predicts quick playoff exit for Yasser Gomez and the fan-favorite Industriales Blue Lions.

National Series #47 (concluded this past Sunday) provided easily the most exciting and historic Cuban League season in several decades. Highlight events included a new career record for pitching victories by Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio), new individual season marks for both home runs and RBIs (31 and 111 by Santiago’s Alexei Bell), the best single-season pitching season in league annuals (15-0, league-best 111 Ks by Habana’s Yulieski Gonzalez), and the first teammate tandem (Yoennis Cespedes and Alfredo Despaigne of Granma) to smack 50-plus homers between them. Almost lost in the avalanche of record performances was the 13-2 pitching mark (with a 1.55 ERA and rare no-hitter) turned in my Habana’s number two ace Jonder Martinez.

And now the real fun begins this coming week with the post-season playoffs featuring first-round quarterfinal match-ups between Industriales-Pinar del Rio, Sancti Spiritus-Habana Province, Villa Clara-Ciego de Avila, and Santiago (defending champions)-Las Tunas. For my detailed predictions on the Cuban League April post-season derby the reader can turn to http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=639. The complete playoff action can be followed, as well, on our website at www.baseballdecuba.com, including live television streaming of selected games direct from Havana. Log on and don’t miss a moment of championship play from international baseball’s most colorful league venue.

If on a winter’s night a traveler, or Cuba Days and Croatian Nights

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Bjarkman with Industriales manager Ray Anglada in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano (February 9, 2008)

February-March brings another session of wild globetrotting, a regular occurrence this time of year and obviously the factor which explains my relative silence of late on this particular blog site. The first half of last month was spent transversing the Cuban League scene in both Havana and Sancti Spiritus, gathering some final research nuggets for my current volume-in-progress, Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 (dure from McFarland later in the year), and also checking up on the current fortunes of my favorite team located in the island’s central-most province. Recent weeks have again found me back in Zagreb, obstensibly tagging along on another of my wife’s regular research junkets here in the former Yugoslavia, while actually catching up on some overdue writing and reading projects that must be finished before my annual Florida spring training visit at the end of March. There nis no baseball here in Croatia, of course, only the torment of constant snow showers as well as an unwelcome 4.5 earthquake earlier this week–sufficient conditions to enhance the past and future baseball escapism of both Havana and Tampa Bay.

Brief Notes from Cuba: There were few surprises on the Cuban League scene during my week-long stay in Havana (watching a pair of series between Metros and Habana Province, and also Metros and Industriales), and my brief roadtrip to Sancti Spiritus (where my personal favorites continued their season-long slump while suffering a 12-1 knockout thumping at the hands of Pinar del Rio). Of course the National Series this season has been crammed with its sufficient share of earlier surprises: the remarkable pitching in Habana Province (especially by Jonder Martinez at 11-1, with a no-hitter to his credit, and Yulieski Gonzalez at 11-0); the dramatic individual home run race which still finds four players in striking distance of Joan Carlos Pedroso’s single-season record; and the relative collapses of a pair of pre-season favorites, Granma (currently bringing up the rear in Group D) and Pinar del Rio (hanging onto a slim Group A lead but in real danger of soon being overtaken by Isla de la Juventud for the final Eastern sector playoff spot). In the absence of regular commentary on this site, the interested reader can follow these current Cuban League developments on www.baseballdecuba.com, where I have recently posted columns updating the tight pennant race in Group C and the one-sided “non-contest” defining Group D. Jonder Martinez’s recent no-hitter achievement (versus Ciego de Avila) is also covered in full detail on the aforementioned Cuban League website, as is the home run chase featuring Alexei Bell and Yoennis Cespedes.

Briefer Notes from Croatia: One delightful discovery during the hours of leisure reading this past week here in Zagreb has been John D. MacDonald’s remarkable early science fiction novela entitled “Half-Past Eternity” (first published July 1950 in Super Science Stories and also available in reprint form in the 1978 Fawcett paperback edition of MacDonald sf stories entitled Other Times, Other Worlds). Just when one might conclude that MLB’s current psychodrama of scientifically enhanced athletic performance (starring Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte among a cast of dozens if not thousands) is truly “something new under the sun”–a unique product of late 20th century American celebrity and consummer culture–along comes MacDonald. One of our most underrated authors of the past half-century (best known for his Travis McGee thrillers) apparently somehow saw it all onfolding almost six decades back, smack in the midst of the more innocent sporting age of Willie, Mickey and the Duke. For a useful and entertaining perspective on the latent cultural forces that produce something like the Bonds-MLB-Clemens conspiracy, I highly recommend that the reader track down MacDonald’s surpisingly insightful tale of the future of big-time American sport. For me MacDonald’s tale was, of course, the perfect bridge between the nostalgic world of Cuban baseball (experienced in early February) and the looming commercial circus of MLB Florida spring training now looming just around the corner.

Hvala na posjeti!

World Baseball Classic Venues Set for March 2009

Bigcubawin3I have recently received a tip from reliable sources at MLB that the venues have now been fixed for games of the second World Baseball Classic, to be staged in March 2009. All first round contests will reportedly be played outside of the United States (thus avoiding any eroding of fan attendance at MLB spring training games in both Florida and Arizona), while all second round and third round action (semifinals-finals) will be staged on American soil. The tentative schedule has opening round action pegged for the following four venues: Toronto (Rogers Center), Mexico City, Tokyo (Tokyo Dome), and San Juan (Hiram Bithorn Stadium). While no specific pairings have yet been announced, it is being reported that Team USA and Team Canada will both appear in opening round action in Toronto; the four Asian teams would logically be based in Tokyo; Puerto and the Dominican Republic (probably along with Italy and Holland) would perform in San Juan; and Mexico and Cuba (perhaps also Venezuela) would be housed in Mexico City. Sending the Cuban squad to Mexico would avoid two potential first round negatives: the move would clearly avoid an undesirable USA-Cuba matchup in the opening round (rather than gambling on a marketing bonanza with a dream Cuba-USA TV match-up during the "final four" weekend) and would also block the likely efforts of the Obama or McCain administrations to deny visas to the Cuban delegation (if they were slated to play on USA soil in San Juan). The current plan also has all second round action staged in North American MLB ballparks–at San Diego and Anaheim. The finals (including semifinals) will then be played at Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles). The primary thrust of this dollar-conscious schedule is to avoid any unwanted competition for fan attendance between WBC contests and spring training exhibitions in Florida and Arizona (as happened in March 2006). An official announcement of these tentative plans (along with the final team assignments/matchups) is scheduled for the middle of next month.

The Remarkable Winning String of NORGE LUIS VERA

This winter’s Cuban League pennant race has to date featured some of the most exciting newcomers in decades and is so far a testament to the remarkable regenerative powers of Cuban baseball. Relative newcomers Yosvany Pereza (Pinar del Rio) and Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) have been engaged in a thrilling battle for the league home run crown (Peraza now has 19 round trippers and Bell 18) and both are on a pace to eclipse Joan Carlos Pedroso’s single-season record of 28 set back in 2003 (National Series #42). An additional pair of slugging youngsters, Granma’s Yoennis Cespedes (also with 18) and Alfredo Despaigne (with 15) remain on the heals of Peraza and Bell and may also have a legitimate shot at surpassing Pedroso’s record. In the individual batting race another newcomer, infielder Leonys Martin of Villa Clara, is leading the pack with a .440 mark, and for the first time in nearly a decade career BA record holder Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) is not a factor in the current batting average derby. Another newcomer to the national team scene, second baseman Hector Olivera of Santiago, is the present pacesetter in total bases (105) and also in runs scored (55), while teammate Jose Julio Ruiz (heir apparent to the national team first base slot now held down by Alex Mayeta of Industriales) stands atop the field in both base hits (82) and stolen bases (with 24, a rare feat for an oversized first baseman). In the pitching department, Habana’s Jonder Martinez (9-0, league-best 1.08) has also emerged from several years of obscurity as the island’s most talented pitcher.

Norgevera1Yet in the midst of all this infusion of new talent, two proud veteran pitchers remain the biggest stories of National Series #47 as they approach two of the most cherished and significant career records in the annals of the island national sport. Pinar’s Pedro Luis Lazo (long familiar to fans of international baseball as the invincible Team Cuba workhorse closer) now stands within three victories of the all-time career mark held for the past decade plus by former Henequeneros southpaw ace Jorge Luis Valdes. Lazo’s pursuit of Valdes’s milepost has received considerable coverage in the Cuban sporting press, and with a 5-3 mark after last Sunday’s win over Sancti Spiritus, Lazo seems a sure bet to write his name permanently into the record books before season’s end. The eventual career wins record will do much to establish Lazo as the greatest pitcher of the half-century post-revolution era. While the island nation watches Lazo’s much-celebrated march into the record books, another island ace has also been zeroing in on perhaps an even more remarkable career winning feat, and he has been doing so with almost no fanfare and little if any notice from the Cuban baseball press. Santiago’s Norge Luis Vera (pictured here)–long this writer’s own personal choice as Cuba’s best year-in and year-out pitcher of the past several decades–is now within striking distance of overhauling the career winning-percentage mark set in the 1980s and early 1990s by one-time Industriales hero Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. (Vera’s first name comes from the popular 1950s North American refrigerator brand and is pronounced to rhyme with Porge and not with forge.) At 7-0 this season, the veteran Santiago right-hander (born August 3, 1971) has reached the mid-point of his 14th National Series with a remarkable 146-55 (.726) career victory ledger. Two more wins without a defeat and Vera’s W-L record will edge out that of El Duque (10 seasons, 126-47, .728) as the most efficient winning ledger in Cuban annuals. Although Vera has stood above the .700 victory plateau for most of the past decade, it long seemed unlikely (if not impossible) for the aging fast-baller to keep winning in the latter years of his career at a clip that would allow him eventually to overhaul the .728 mark posted by the current major leaguer.

Several features of Norge Vera’s achievement seem to outstrip the records of both Pedro Lazo (born April 15, 1973 and thus a year and a half younger than Vera) and El Duque Hernandez. Unlike the career winning mark of Hernandez (who left Cuba for the New York Yankees in 1998)–or the career ERA record of Jose Antonio Huelga (1.50 for 7 seasons before his tragic death in an auto accident)–Vera’s mark has not been aided by a shortened career of ten National Series or less. It is highly unlikely that either El Duque or Jose Contreras (the only other Cuban League hurler with a lifetime .700 mark, at 117-50, .701 for 10 seasons) would have continued above the .700 plateau had they both remained in Cuba and suffered an inevitable dip in winning efficiency once age and time caught up with them at career’s end. While Pedro Lazo’s own winning percentage is nearly as impressive as his victories total (18 seasons, 231-125, .649), it still does not come close to rivaling that of Vera. Both have pitched with year-in and year-out support from two of the league’s top three teams, and both have pitched a fair percentage of their team’s toughest games as the ranking staff ace. But Lazo has won more total games largely by benefiting from four additional seasons and by laboring for a Pinar staff (which included Contreras and Faustino Corrales for much of his career) a bit thinner than the talented and deep Santiago contingents led by Vera. Norge Vera (with 154 fewer career starts entering this current season, at 226 compared to Lazo’s 380) has never been relied upon as the single staff workhorse for his club as has Lazo in Pinar, and while he has many fewer starts and wins, Vera does boast other achievements that Lazo does not.

Vera’s resume contains a rare no-hitter (January 21, 2001 versus Habana Province) while Lazo’s does not. Vera’s sterling 2.60 career ERA (one of the best of the past decade) far outstrips Lazo’s 3.24; the strikeout-to-walks ratios are about the same for the two aces (Vera has 1019 Ks and 397 BB, Lazo has 2157 Ks, 855 BB); Vera boasts 32 career shutouts which is one more than Lazo. And no individual mound effort in recent Cuban League seasons (including Maels Rodriquez’s 263 strikeouts in 2001) surpasses Vera’s 0.97 season-long ERA of 2000, the first National Series after the return to wooded bats. It is of course most likely that even if Vera does overhaul El Duque’s current career standard in the course of the current season, it will be difficult at best for him to remain above the .728 percentage mark if he continues to pitch another several seasons. Age is bound to eventually take its toll. But it is not such a bad bet at this point that Norge Vera will retire with a career mark well above .700 and thus well beyond that of Lazo. Lazo’s victory total (remarkable as it is) is a tribute to longevity as much as to any other factor. Like Pete Rose’s base hits standard in the majors, Lazo reached his plateau simply by outlasting all other rivals. Vera’s record, on the other hand, has been increasingly threatened and not at all aided by the march of time. The more he lasts the harder (not easier, as in Lazo’s case) it is for him to maintain a record-setting pace. On this basis alone one could build a good argument that Norge Vera (a more efficient winner than anyone outside of El Duque who ever came before him) has been the best pitcher (Lazo included) ever the grace to forty-seven seasons of Cuba’s revolutionary baseball.

Norge Vera first burst on the consciousness of North American baseball fans when he hurled 7.0 highly effective innings in relief against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in May 1999. He reached his peak in international play when he pulled off a remarkable and unprecedented double as the winner in both the semifinals (7 innings as a starter versus Chinese Taipei) and finals (7 innings of relief versus Panama) during World Cup XXXV in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano (October 2003). But Vera’s visibility outside the island has been minimal due to his sparse use on the national team during the late 1990s and early 2000s. (He did post a 1-0 record and 0.69 ERA in the Athens 2004 Olympics, plus a 1-1, 1.23 mark in the Sydney 2000 Olympics). While Lazo gained a huge international audience with his memorable closing effort versus the Dominican big leaguers at the WBC semifinals in San Diego, Vera was left off the WBC roster (mainly due to injury) and thus unfortunately missed his rare moment in the sun with North American and Asian fans. It is precisely Lazo’s visibility on the international scene–and especially his performance versus the Dominicans in Cuba’s greatest single-game victory ever–that has perhaps focused so much attention this season on the island itself on Lazo’s pursuit of the CL career record for total victories. Yet it is Vera’s pursuit of El Duque’s mark that may be in the end the more remarkable story–given the greater difficulty for a 14-season veteran to continue to win at an unprecedented record pace despite the ravages of time and the always improving level of Cuban League baseball. The Cuba press should indeed give Lazo his due, and victory number #235 should be celebrated with great fanfare everywhere on the island. But if Norge Vera eclipses El Duque in the coming weeks this special landmark achievement merits receiving equal celebration throughout Cuban baseball circles. It may only be a matter of time before some catches up with Lazo and records 250-plus career wins. But is may be a long time in coming before any future ace can match the career long winning percentage that will ultimately be the legacy of Norge Luis Vera.

Yosvany Peraza is Walk-Off Hero of Cuban All-Star Extravaganza

In a rare bit of potential future barroom trivia, the eleventh Cuban All-Star Game of the modern era ended with an unprecedented walkoff homer from the bat of a visiting team slugger. The heroics were provided by hefty Occidentales backup catcher Yosvany Peraza (Pinar del Rio), who drove a delivery from righty Jorge Luis Longa (Ciego de Avila) deep into the left field bleachers to send the visiting West squad home 6-5 winners. The rarity of a visiting team "walkoff" was provided via a unique league decision to allow the visiting all-stars to bat last in this year’s match at Santiago’s picturesque Guillermon Moncada Stadium. The final blast was the third long-ball of the tense see-saw contest–the others coming off the bats of a pair of Santiago regulars, Alexei Bell and Rolando Merino–and provided the Occidentales with a 12-11 lead in the overall series (including earlier-epoch games played strictly in Havana between 1963 and 1994). Industriales hurler Alexei Gil was the game winner (in relief) in a thrilling contest played before a packed house and a nation-wide television audience. It was the second time in recent seasons that a Cuban all-star game has ended in sudden-death fashion, with Danel Castro (Las Tunas) providing a similar walk-off ending to the 2004 affair staged in Santa Clara.

Yperazahomer Peraza’s memorable shot (pictured here) provided a perfect ending to a weekend of thrills which included a hard-fought (and seriously played) Veterans Game and a showcase home run hitting contest, both on Saturday evening. The old-timers match fell to the Orientales 11-7 and was decided by a dramatic grandslam homer off the bat of career base-hits leader and current Santiago manager Antonio Pacheco. The popular long-ball contest was captured by WBC star Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spiritus) who smashed eight; Gourriel was trailed in the contest by Juan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas, 7), Yoennis Cespedes (Granma, 4), and Yosvany Peraza and Jose Julio Ruiz (Santiago) with three apiece. The remaining seven competitors in the showcase contest included veterans (i.e., old-timers) Pacheco and Villa Clara manager Victor Mesa (who actually won this event back in 2000). Full details of the Cuban all-star weekend (including video clips of Peraza’s dramatic homer and other highlights) can be found on the USA-based Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. That site also contains my own detailed essay on the past history and special features of Cuba’s mid-season all-star classic.

I will be back in Cuba during the coming week, visiting Havana (for the Industriales-Metros inter-city rivalry series) and Sancti Spiritus (for games between Pinar del Rio and the host Gallos) and checking out the opening days of the second half of league play. I will be blogging further about the developing National Series #47 after my return from the island in mid-February.

Cuban League Prepares for Another February Showcase All-Star Spectacular

Forget all the inevitable mind-binding hype surrounding this coming weekend’s made-for-TV celebration of ritual physical violence that has long been popularly known as the NFL Super Bowl Sunday. After all, this self-indulgent American celebration of over-consumption and couch-potato commercial gluttony has little to do with competitive sport and almost everything to do with feel-good flag-waving mock warfare. It is FOOTBALL after all! At least for base-hit-starved hot-stove-season baseball fans, there may be some minimal solace in the fact that the post-winter-league Caribbean Series also opens action this weekend in the distant Dominican Republic. Yet there is also regrettably little true baseball drama now left in what was once an attractive February tradition, but which in recent years has become a watered-down and talent-thin coda to the near-moribund professional Latin American winter season. The present-day round-robin week-long Caribbean Series (once a thrilling match-up of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Mexican league champions) today features little beyond A-level and AA-level prospects and a smattering of broken down and retread veterans (last year’s big league "names" at the event in San Juan were Miguel Tejada, Jose Lima, Luis Polonia and Tony Batistia, all futilely resurrecting their faded careers for the winning Dominicans). Most of last winter’s disappointing Caribbean Series was played before thousands of empty seats in San Juan’s 12,000-capacity Roberto Clemente Stadium, and the recent death knell for the once-proud Puerto Rican winter circuit now means a tournament roster of two teams from the Dominican itself (half the field) in a reduced three-corner round robin. All and all, the Latin American Alliance Caribbean Series has become something quite inferior to the kind of true showdown match between baseball-hot Caribbean nations witnessed with the March 2006 second round of the MLB World Baseball Classic.

Moncada553_1 For those ball fans interested in an escape from the head-banging and clamorous advertising hype of Super Bowl Sabbath, this coming Sunday does thankfully bring an attractive ballpark alternative in the guise of the annual Cuban League midseason All-Star Game, staged this year in Santiago’s picturesque Guillermon Moncada Stadium (pictured here). Coming at the midpoint of National Series #47, this year’s game showcases a number of newly emerging young stars like Santiago’s slugging outfielder Alexei Bell (the midpoint home run leader with 15), Pinar’s muscular catcher Yosvany Peraza (MVP of last summer’s World Port Tournament in Rotterdam and the heir-apparent to long-time national team backstop Ariel Pestano), and rapidly improving Habana Province right-hander Jonder Martinez (a little-used hurler with the 2006 Cuban entry at the MLB World Baseball Classic, but this season’s league ERA leader with a sterling 1.39 mark). Martinez will lead a record corps of ten Habana Province players on the West squad–the most ever from one league team–representing the season’s most surprising first-half ball club. Habana Province currently leads fan-favorite Industriales by 4.5 games in the island’s most competitive Group B division pennant race.

DespaignebigbatBetter-known (off the island) veteran stars featured in this years event will include Sancti Spiritus stars Freddie Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel (both heandliners on the WBC team), Matanzas veteran Yoandy Garlobo (DH in the WBC and a surprise early leader in this winter’s individual batting race), six-time batting champion and lifetime BA leader Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas), and a pair of sterling outfield prospects from Granma Province–Alfredo Despaigne (left photo) and Yoennis Cespedes. Notably absent from this year’s Classic are Villa Clara veterans Ariel Pestano (catcher) and Eduardo Paret (shortstop), both long-time national team fixtures. This will be the eleventh staging of the Cuban League All-Star Game since its resurrection as part of a drastic league makeover back in 1998, and the East squad (Orientales, representing a pair of four-team divisions called Group C and Group D) currently holds a slim 6-4 advantage over the West (Occidentales, made up of Groups A and B). Last year’s match in Ciego de Avila fell to Orientales, 2-0, and featured some brilliant starting pitching by long-time Granma ace Ciro Silvino Licea, the 2007 league ERA champ.

The Cuban League All-Star spectacular is nothing like the MLB version in which fan-elected starters play only an inning or two, all members of the team roster make a token appearance, and there is less emphasis on winning than on the showcasing of individual performers. The provincial rivalries that underpin the Cuban League structure (players perform only for their home province and are never traded) are as evident in this mid-season exhibition match as they are in regular season action; the game is usually contested with all the managerial strategy, intense on-field focus, and palpable winning attitude that might be expected from a post-season championship match. There are extra trappings to all-star weekend, to be sure, such as individual hitting displays (a home run derby), speed exhibitions (timed races around the bases), and throwing competitions (testing accuracy into a barrel, as well as long-distance heaves); an added wrinkle this season will be the introduction of a Saturday night old-timers game (immediately before the "feats of skill" contests between current players) featuring such "immortals" from past decades as  Agustin Marquetti, Juan Castro (current Sancti Spiritus manager), Lourdes Gourriel (father of Yulieski), Lazaro Vargas, Orestes Kindelan (all-time Cuban home run champion), Antonio Pacheco (career base hits leader), Omar Ajete, and Javier Mendez, among numerous other past-era legends. But again–unlike the MLB all-star old-timers contests which of late have been replaced by farcical co-ed softball exhibitions featuring television, movie and music celebrities–the Cuban version will actually maintain the appearance of a real and competitive baseball game.

Previous Cuban All-Star Game results of the recent epoch are as follows:

1998 (Ciego de Avila) Orientales 5, Occidentales 2

1999 (Guines) Orientales 1, Occidentales 0

2000 (Sancti Spiritus) Orientales 4, Occidentales 1

2001 (Pinar del Rio) Occidentales 5, Orientales 2

2002 (Holguin) Occidentales 8, Orientales 1

2003 (Cienfuegos) Orientales 8, Occidentales 6 (10 innings)

2004 (Santa Clara) Orientales 4, Occidentales 3

2005 (Las Tunas) Occidentales 4, Orientales 1

2006 (Havana) Occidentales 7, Orientales 1

2007 (Ciego de Avila) Orientales 2, Occidentales 0

For fans craving more information on the background of the Cuban All-Star Game, including the history of the event and the rosters and prospects for this year’s match in Santiago, these can be found in articles appearing over the next several days on the pages of www.baseballdecuba.com. Coverage there will be provided by Ray Otero in Spanish and this author in English. But where can a viewer outside the island hope to follow the Cuban all-star performances? An internet feed direct from Cuban TV (Spanish) is scheduled for Sunday afternoon (2 pm EST) on the baseballdecuba.com website and should prove to be just the needed antidote for true ball fans more enamored of ball and strikes and of graceful outfield catches than they are of bone-crunching body blasts and midfield human scrums played out against the backdrop of endless advertising "pitches." There are no "commercials" by the way on Cuban baseball telecasts. The playing fields in Havana and Santiago and points between are still made of real grass and the scoreboards post no flashy video images. All fans in Cuban ballparks sit within easy eye-gaze of their on-field heroes. And all the surrounding stadium noise is always a product of human lungs and never of nerve-fraying electronic amplifications. It is a treat to be savored by those who still remember baseball as it once was played–without steroids, constant commercial pauses, and the noisome din of extraneous rock combos. And for those American viewers either hopelessly addicted to the NFL product–or perhaps desiring to keep a foot in both contrasting worlds–the Cuban baseball attraction will actually end well before the first Fox Network million-dollar-a-minute promotion flickers onto the video screens of nearly every North American household.

Historic Documentary Airs on Cuban Television

IanpadronA landmark off-field event occurred in Cuban baseball on Saturday, January 12, 2008, with the airing on Havana local television of Ian Padron’s remarkable documentary film entitled "Fuera de la Liga" ("Outside the League"). This 58-minute video was produced by Padron between January 2002 and April 2003, with the bulk of the scenes shot in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Pinar del Rio during the course of the 2001-2002 Cuban League National Series. Ian Padron is one of the most decorated of young Cuban documentary filmmakers (Padron is seen here at the right in the attached photo) and this work is without question the most revealing, vivid, truthful and informative video ever to treat post-revolution Cuban League baseball.

The thrust of Padron’s masterpiece is a demonstration of the passionate fandom among both rooters and ex-players for Cuba’s most popular ballclub, the Industriales team of Havana. A mixture of interviews (with fans, players, and Cuban artists), off- and on-field baseball action (including practices, games, road trips, and dugout, bus and hotel scenes with the Industriales players) from the 2002 season, historic rare archive footage of Cuban baseball from the 1960s-1990s, and interviews with former stars (and later "defectors" to the majors") Orlando Hernandez (an Industriales ace of the 1990s), Kendry Morales (CL rookie of the year in 2002), and Rene Arocha (one-time pitcher for Habana Province). The interviews with El Duque and Arocha were filmed in the US after both had left Cuba.

This film captures like no other the beauties and enthusiams (as well as the warts) of Cuban League baseball, exposing both the hard conditions under which Cuban Leaguers travel and play and also the unrelenting passion for the game on the island that is never quite matched by the North American professional (big leagues) version of the sport. The film is unquestionably positive about the Cuban national pastime and was originally made under the auspicious of the Cuban film ministry. Once produced, however, the work was repeatedly rejected by Cuban authorities for showing at the annual December Havana international film festival–likely due primarily to the criticisms of some of the interviewees concerning the flaws in Cuban baseball (poor economic conditions affecting the on-field games, lack of team caps and other collectible memorabilia for fans, and often poor playing and training conditions). Another red flag for Cuban authorities was the appearance of so-called "defectors" Hernandez, Arocha and Morales, who all eventually abandoned the Cuban system for big league careers.

After an extensive letter-writing campaign from the Cuban artistic community (filmmakers and writers), the Cuban government recently relented (after again banning the documentary from last December’s film festival) and allowed showing on a one-time basis on local Havana television. The film has not yet been aired nationalwide in Cuba. And it would certainly be a mistake in concluding that its broadcast in any way signals any movement of Cuban baseball authorities toward opening up "business" with the US professional leagues. In this author’s view there exists no work that better captures the spirit, glories and realities of Cuban baseball than "Fuera de la Liga" and this is a work that everyone interested in exploring Cuban baseball should definitely see. (Since the impact of the film is largely visual, it can indeed be enjoyed by fans who do not speak Spanish.) American viewers will apparently soon actually have an oportunity to view Padron’s remarkable work since we are planning to re-air the documentary on our www.baseballdecuba.com website. Interested potential viewers should keep checking that site for forthcoming annoucements on precisely when the film will be shown.

Cuban League National Series #47 Schedule Available


RadioCOCOBoysSm.jpgStaff of COCO baseball columnists is ready to cover National Series #47 on its Havana website
www.radiococo.cu. L to R: Yasel Porto, Ismael Sene, Jesus (Jeli) Suarez Valmana, and Pete Bjarkman (Havana, November 2, 2007)

Many readers with an interest in following Cuban League baseball have been emailing me with questions about accessing the complete 2007-08 National Series schedule. The entire schedule for each league team can now be easily accessed on the Radio COCO website via the following link: http://www.radiococo.cu/cocobeisbol/serie%20nacional/47serie/calendario.htm. Simply click on the team icons in order to access each team’s schedule.

Cuba League Season Opens December 2 with New Internet Outlets

Ciegowallpaper_2 The huge centerfield scoreboard of Candido Gonzalez Stadium in Camaguey reflects the simpler and more colorful veneer of Cuban League baseball.

While most stateside ballfans must now resign themselves to the endless media focus on the Barry Bonds trial, or to the final violent outbursts of an absurd native ritual known as "American" football, Caribbean region fans are now set for the first tosses and swings of winter and the opening of still another round of the island national pastime as played Hispanic-style. A new Cuban League season (National Series #47) opens on December 2 (Sunday) with the traditional pairing of last spring’s league finalists–this time around Havana Industriales and Santiago de Cuba. All 14 other league teams swing into action on Tuesday, December 4, in a 90-game season that will stretch on to early April. For those of you interested in following every twist and turn of baseball’s most colorful circuit, you can do so on Havana’s RADIO COCO website page devoted to National Series #47 (the link is http://www.radiococo.cu/cocobeisbol/serie%20nacional/serienacional.htm). This page will provide daily standings, numerous photos, some radio game broadcasts, up-to-the-minute news, comprehensive team and individual stats, and daily and weekly analysis (in both Spanish and English) from a team of commentators that includes this present author.

Detailed Cuban League season coverage will also be available from our USA-based website (with Spanish and English pages) at www.baseballdecuba.com. If you enjoyed the www.baseballdecuba.com coverage of the recent IBAF World Cup (the most comprehensive World Cup reports found anywhere), then you will not be disappointed with the thoroughgoing Cuban League coverage provided by the same fascinating site. Due to the jamming of Cuban websites in the State of Florida, the RADIO COCO site unfortunately will not be an option in the Miami area, but the latter baseballdecuba site is readily available anywhere around the globe. Tune in and see what non-commercial baseball is actually like–without exploding scoreboards, pitching changes sponsored by Valvoline, or thinly disguised shopping malls masquerading as ballparks. Follow the best unknown diamond stars in the world and join this author as he nchronicles the pennant-race fortunes of his own favorite ballclub–the Gallos (Roosters) of Sancti Spiritus.

World Cup History is Celebration of Half-Century Cuban Domination

BjarkmanwcreportsOsmani Urrutia’s dramatic walk-off opening-night home run lifting the lid on this year’s World Cup XXXVII in Chinese Taipei was only the latest small chapter in the rich history of what was once known as baseball’s Amateur World Series. Today’s IBAF-sponsored World Cup is an event that began nearly 70 years ago and that has been dominated by the Cubans over the years to a degree entirely unprecedented anywhere else in the history of this or any other sport. Reigning world champions since 1984, winners of more than 90 percent (in better than 300 games) of their pressure-packed world championship contests, owners of 25 titles in 28 tournaments entered, and possessors of a consolation bronze or silver medal in the only three tournamentsin which they failed to earn gold. That is the Cuban ledger, and it is one that no Hollywood film about a sports franchise even dare to offer as a believable script. Nothing found anywhere in American sports lore can legitimately claim the title of "true dynasty" when laid alongside the achievements of Cuban national teams in international baseball play. On the eve of the tournament semifinals (Cuba-Japan and USA-Holland) in this year’s World Cup competitions, perhaps it would benefit observers to take a small break from the action and read through a capsule history summarizing seven decades of previous World Cupbaseball play. Such an exercise may well be necessary as well as informative, since this event–despite its popularity in Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean region–receives little if any coverage from inward-looking North American media outlets. Perceived wisdom here seems to be that if it is not about home-bred American stars or glorious American victories than it is not worth the retelling.

UrrutiawalkoffOsmani Urrutia’s opening night walk-off homer was only the latest chapter in Cuba’s incredible half-century World Cup history.

While the first attempt at an amateur-level world tournament took place in England in 1938, the event, as we know it today, was largely a creation of the Cubans themselves and celebrated its first several editions in Havana, thus staking the claim of that city as the true amateur baseball capital of the world. The original idea of a worldwide baseball tournament was launched in London in late 1938 with a two team and five game series that was the brainchild of American businessman Leslie Mann. The two squads consisted mainly of U.S. servicemen on assignment in England and thus had as limited a claim on the notion of a true "world series" as does the long-standing event annually staged by the major leagues of American professional baseball. A year later, the Batista government in Cuba inaugurated its own three-tean affair in pastoral La Tropical Stadium and it was this second effort that would slowly evolve into the "Amateur World Series" eventually adopted by a European-based International Baseball Federation. The five straight years of competitions in Havana (1939-1943) reached a high of seven competing nations (1940), produced four Cuban victories, but bwas severely hampered in its growth by the travel restrictions imposed during the hostilities of World War II. The most dramatic series was the 1941 affair in which Venezuela (with pitching ace Daniel Canonico) bested the host forces (and future big league hurler Conrado Marrero) in a deciding playoff match that remains one of the classic fixtures of Cuban baseball lore. Cuba avenged the 1941 defeat in succeeding years (1942, 1943) with a talented pitching corps that headlined Marrero (one of the icons of early Cuban amateur baseball), Julio "Jiqui" Moreno (another future Washington Senators hurler), "Limonar" Martinez, and Natilla Jimenez. This five-year tournament run in Havana, under sponsorship of the Batista government, constitutes the first "Golden Age" of world-level baseball competitions, and it likely did as much as the later relentless Cuban winning tradition to establish the island as the true home of the sport’s growing international traditions.

MarrerocanonicoMarrero and Canonico after their 1941 Amateur World Series showdown in Havana.

The late 1940s and early 1950s produced the only extended dry spell for the Cubans in Amateur World Series play, an arid stretch of eight years with only one title to show for the six tournaments staged between 1944 and 1950. Cuba did claim a pair bronze medals during this stretch, one of them somewhat controversial, since both the Cuba and mexico squads pulled out of the 1944 Caracas event during the three-team final round, protesting some obviously biased umpiring favoring the home nine. Venezuela in turn merely declared itself the winner by default. Much of the downturn for Cuba in the late forties could be blamed on the widespread signing of young prospects by the Havana pro winter league that was newly affiliated with USA organized baseball; a direct result of these signings was the considerable weakening of the island’s amateur game. Cuba didn’t send a team to the IBAF-sponsored events in 1945, 1947 or 1948. But in both 1952 (Havana) and 1953 (Caracas), the Cubans did again post gold, and in the process the revitalized Cuban squads of that era effectively launched the country’s still-active half-century iron grip on international competitions. After 1953, however, the Amateur World Series (as it would be known until the late 1980s) enjoyed a short hiatus and was not renewed until the 1961 games were convened in San Jose, Costa Rica. San Jose’s 1961 event notably came directly on the heels of the Cuban Revolution, an event which effectively ended pro-style lague baseball on the now communist-controlled island and thus also breathed new life into a once proud but lately sputtering amateur sporting tradition.

Costa Rica’s Amateur World Series XV–the first tournament event to follow Fidel’s successful socialist revolution and the resulting Cuban government transition of 1959–would turn out to be the setting for one of Cuba’s biggest international triumphs. Mass tryouts in Havana produced an exceptionally strong Cuban team that featured a handful of stars (Pedro Chavez, Jorge Trigoura, Antonio Gonzalez, Urbano Gonzlaez and Jose Pineda) who would also headline the first decade of the newly formed Cuban league now labelled the Cuban National Series. In a quirk of fortuitous timing, the fired-up Cuban contingent ran roughshod over the five other participating teams at precisely the same moment when Fidel’s army was repulsing a USA-backed home-front military invasion at the Bay of Pigs. At the end of the decade, in mid-August 1969, Cuban again ran the field undefeated in Santo Domingo during games that were also played under considerable political tension, this time due to strong anti-USA feelings spawned by an American invasion of the Dominican Republic four years earlier. An overflow pro-Cuban crowd of 20,000-plus witnessed the tense Cuba-USA showdown in the finale (both teams were undefeated) which spawned a new Cuban diamond hero. Pitcher Gaspar Perez was the gold medal savior that year for the inspired Cuban forces, pitching brilliantly in relief, driving in the crucial tying run, and also himself scoring the eventual winning tally.

Huelga5Jose Antonio Huelga’s tragically short career was highlighted by his victory of Burt Hooton in the Colombia World Cup Games of 1970.

A new era opened with a bang in December 1970 during a dramatic IBAF tournament (Amateur World Series XVIII) staged in cartagena, Colombia, an event that launched one of the true showcase decades for post-revolution Cuban amateur baseball. The Cartagena games featured an opening-round Cuban loss to Team USA, inspired by the knuckleball pitching of future big league stalwart Burt Hooton. When the same two teams opened the best-of-three championship round, Hooton was matched up against young Cuban ace Jose Antonio Huelga in a classic mound duel which finally fell to the Cubans, 3-1, after 11 hard-fought innings. Cuban southpaw ace santiago "Changa" Mederos started the second playoff game and received stellar relief support from Manuel Alarcon–and once again from Huelga–in the 5-3 win that clinched Cuba’s tenth world championship crown. It was the closest the Americans have ever come to gaining a world title by besting the rival Cuban forces. Team USA did win two asterisk-tainted titles in watered-down 1973 and 1974 tournaments sponsored by a short-lived FEMBA confederation that had split off temporarily from the IBAF body which still governed world amateur play. With the IBAF back in charge (after 1974) and Cuba back in the field, the perennial world champs rang up back-to-back titles in Cartagena (1976) and Italy (1978), on both occasions featuring the impressive slugging of Agustin Marquetti, Armando Capiro and Antonio Munoz. Cuba’s most impressive title of this decade came in 1973, on home turf in Havana, and showcased a roster that may have been the most dominant World Cup lineup ever: the 1973 club managed by Servio Borges boasted a pitching staff that hurled 110 consecutive innings without allowing a single earned run. That year also witnessed another pitching masterpiece in the form of Cuba’s first-ever World Cup no-hitter, tossed by Juan Perez Perez against rival Venezuela. Additional highlights of the decade were the 1971 Havana-based Amateur World Series XIX that prompted the renovation of ageless Latin American Stadium into its present all-enclosed structure, and the 1972 event in Nicaragua that featured the first 16-team field ever and also witnessed the impressive hitting of national team newcomers and legendary National Series stars Wilfredo Sanchez and Armando Capiro.

Team Cuba opened the 1980s as it had closed the previous decade, maintaining its iron grip on an event that now had been firmly stamped as exclusive Cuban property. In the Tokyo event of late 1980 (the first World Cup staged in Asia), Servio Borges emerged as a winning manager for a record eighth time in World Cup play as his team breezed with an 11-0 mark. Highlights this time around were a memorable game-winning hit by Lourdes Gourriel (father of Yulieski) in the showdown match with the Americans, and another .400-hitting performance and MVP honor for giant first baseman Antonio Munoz. Two years later, with the tournament remaining in Asia Ithis time Seoul) for a second straight session), the Cubans elected to sit on the sidelines for political reasons, opening the door for the final time to opposition forces. South Korea thrilled the local fans with a gold medal win over rival japan, while the Americans limped home third. It would be the final time that the Asian and North American forces had much of anything to cheer about, since Cuba was now poised to claim all the remaining world championships to be contested during the final 20-odd years of the 20th century. That string began in 1984 in Havana, with Fidel Castro himself opening the festivities alongside West German president Willie Brandt. On the field of play itself the resiliant Cubans escaped from a potentially embarrassing opening round loss to upstart Italy mainly on the strength of clutch late-inning hits by Lourdes Gourriel and Alfonso Urquiola. Fleet outfielder Victor Mesa was the top Cuban hitter and also the tournament MVP, while a skinny 19-year-old Barry Bonds (a shadow of the later chemically enhanced version) notably appeared in the American lineup. The format now in place was a pair of preliminary and championship round robins with Cuba (11-2 overall record) easily outdistancing second-place Chinese Taipei (7-5).

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Omar "El Nino" Linares emerged in the 1980s as "the greatest third baseman on the planet."

In the nineties, the juggernaut Cuban forces not only swept all three events played but they never even lost a single game as they posted consecutive unblemished 10-0 marks in Edmonton (1990), Managua (1994) and Rome-Parma (1998). This was the decade when the international stage belonged largely to sluggers Omar Linares (once considered the best third baseman on the planet and certainly the best outside the majors) and Orestes Kindelan (Cuban League career home run leader with 486 and RBI king with 1511). And there were plenty of other Cuban heroes on the scene as well. Lazaro valle dominated the opposition in his three pitching starts in Edmonton; three future big leaguers (Orlando Hernandez, Osvaldo Fernandez, and Rolando Arrojo) shut down opposing bats in Nicaragua; and Jose Contreras went the distance versus South Korea in the 1998 Parma finale, striking out 13 and tossing an effective five-hitter. The 1988 event a decade earlier in Italy had marked an historical turning point, with the event first renamed as the Baseball World Cup; now ten years later a new milestone was reached in the same venue when tournament play was for the first time open to professionals. Only the Dominicans and Panamanians showed up with any American minor leaguers in tow, however, and no major leaguers as of yet participated.

Three tournaments have now been played in the 21st century and the constantly renewing Cuban squads have showed absolutely no signs of letting go of their remarkable international domination. In the same Taiwanese venues that house this year’s matches, Cuba recovered in November 2001 (World Cup XXXIV) fromk a single pool-round loss to Japan to best the Americans 5-3 in the finale. Luis Ulacia won MVP honors in his final international appearance and Jose Contreras pitched brilliantly in the dramatic 3-1 11-inning semifinal victory over the japanese. In Havana in 2003 another future escapee to the U.S. professional leagues, Kendry Morales, rescued Team Cuba with a ninth-inning homer versus Brazil that avoided unexpected disaster during the quarterfinals. Freddie cepeda then slugged two late-inning solo homers to clinch the finale versus Panama. The string of World Cup titles stretched to nine in Holland during September 2005, where a Higino Velez-coached team (paced by the slugging of Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enriquez) ran through the field unbeaten and also largely unchallenged, clobbering the American AAA pros in the quarterfinals (11-3) and the Panamanians in the semifinals (15-2). Cuban forces then rode the brilliant pitching of Dany betancourt to a 3-0 gold medal title victory versus South Korea.

Taken as a whole, the Cuban record in World Cup play is absolutely staggering, whether one considers only the raw statistics, reviews the highlight events of various individual tournaments and contests, or reprises the list of individual heroes performing on the World Cup baseball stage. In the thirty-six tournaments played so far, Cuba has participated 28 times, winning the gold medal championship honors in twenty-five of those outings. On the three occasions in which they did not win the title outright, the Cuban entry nonetheless captured a silver medal (1941 in havana) and two bronze medals (1944 in Caracas, when the Cubans withdrew in protest of the hometown umpiring and forfeited their final medal-round game to Mexico; and also in 1951 in Mexico City). Never have the Cubans been a participant without claiming one of the top three slots. The years when the Cubans either elected or where forced to sit on the sidelines included all the followng dates: 1938 (England), 1945 (Venezuela), 1947 (Colombia), 1948 (Colombia), 1965 (Colombia), 1973 (Nicaragua), 1974 (St. Petersburg, Florida), 1982 (South Korea). In the eleven tournaments where Cuban has fallen short (in most cases, when they actually haven’t shown up), Venezuela has claimed three banners ( 1941, 1944, 1945), while Colombia won twice (at home in 1947, and again in 1965, when the Colombian government blocked Cuba’s attendance). Puerto Rico (1951 in Mexico) and the Dominican Republic (1948 in Managua) can each brag of a single championship banner. The Americans claim only two amateur world series crowns, but these both came in the two semi-legitimate substitute FEMBA-sponsored events of 1973 (Managua) and 1974 (St. Petersburg, Florida), during which the Cubans and Venezuelans were not present.

When one looks at overall games played and not just at gold medal titles, the record is even more astounding. Entering this year’s competitions (where they finally lost to The Netherlands, 2-1, in the final game of pool play) the Cubans have captured 280 games (now 287) over the years while dropping but 28 (now 29)–an astounding .909 winning percentage, which is almost a thing of pure fantasy in the sport of baseball, where winning six of every ten usually means a league championship. During their nine-title uninterrupted run since 1984 the Cuban team has miraculously lost but a single nine-inning contest (5-3 to Japan in the pool round at Taiwanin 2001) over seven full tournaments, while winning a staggering 72 games. Seventy-two and one; it surely boggles the imagination! (After the Holland loss of this week the Cubans now stand 79 and two.)  It was the 31-game game unbeaten skein coming into last week’s action that was mirculously salvaged by the heroic home runs launched by Cepeda and Urrutia on the opening Tuesday night in Taichung. major league fans crow about the 25-plus MLB-version World Series banners rung up by the New York Yankees (in more than 100 tries). The label "dynasty" has been freely attached to the double three-peats of the NBA Chicago Bulls from the 1990s, and also the eight-year run of the NBA Red Auerbach-coached Boston Celtics during the 1960s. If those were truly sports DYNASTIES, then the term is far too tame to attach to the unparalleled winning achievements over seven long decades hung up by Cuba’s national baseball team. This is not a mere dynasty tale; it is something almost more akin to a fanciful super-hero creation of childhood folklore, one whose truly legendary feats will almost certainly never be quite duplicated.

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For those fans interested in delving more deeply into the World Cup baseball story, the history of this showcase event (as well as that of other major international tournaments, such as the Olympics, Intercontinental Cup, and Pan American Games) is recounted in detail in Chapter 7 ("Havana as Amateur Baseball Capital of the World") of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007), and also in Chapter 10 ("Baseball’s Olympic Movements: World Amateur Competition") of my earlier volume, Diamonds around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball (Greenwood, 2005). Both chapters contain year-by-year tournament capsule summaries, as well as full rosters, statistics, and all game scores for the Cuban teams participating in each event. These are currently the only comprehensive histories of World Cup baseball found anywhere in either English-language or Spanish-language publications.

See all of my 2007 World Cup day-by-day reports on the Cuban League website found at www.baseballdecuba.com.