Tagged: International Baseball

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.

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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.

It’s Been Cuba’s Party So Far at the Taipei World Cup

The first week of action during World Cup XXXVII in Taipei and Taichung has provided enough thrills, heroes and nail-biting action to keep even the most hardened baseball fan on the edge of his or her seat. Those who are not sacrificing their sleep (translate this as 99.999% of the North American population of MLB fans) to watch the video feed of games being delivered via the internet at 11pm and 5am EST daily are thereby missing out on one of the year’s biggest treats of pure diamond sport entertainment. So far the tournament has been pretty much all Cuba, as the nine-time defending World Cup champions somehow miraculously survived a near upset against strong Australia via the last-moment heroics of sluggers Freddie Cepeda and Osmani Urrutia, then have easily run the field in four following outings to remain the only undefeated club in either group with five out of seven games completed in opening round pool play. In slightly weaker Group A, Team USA has risen to the top, dispite a single lackluster performance and upset loss at the hands of an Italian squad manned largely by unheralded Single A players from organized baseball. Chinese Taipei (loser only to Mexico) trails the Americans in Group A, and these two frontrunners will battle for the top slot in their Tuesday 5 am preliminary round finale. The remaining two qualifying slots in Group A are up for grabs in a dogfight between Italy (3-1), Panama (3-2), Japan (3-2) and Mexico (2-3). Crucial remaining games for these clubs will be the Tuesday Japan-Italy collison and the Italy-Mexico game on Wednesday.

MartiperfectoCuba’s 5-0 start has been highlighted by the mentioned dramatic 3-2 extra-inning comeback in the opener with Australia, a game which saw the heavy favorites down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth before Freddie Cepeda cruched a dramatic homer which rescued the islanders and sent the game into extra frames. Cuban then salted away victory on a walkoff homer by Osmani Urrutia in the bottom of the tenth. The pitching-rich Australians have been the week’s biggest surprise, bouncing back from their disappointment versus Cuba to reel off consecutive victories over Venezuela, Canada, Thailand and Korea. The Cardiac Kid Aussies have won three of their victories via the “walk-off” route, meaning that all of their games minus one (the 26-1 rout of Thailand) have gone down to the final at-bat. Canada, Korea and the Netherlands (all currently 3-2) are battled for the final medal-round assignments from Group B. Cuba’s most recent victory this morning (a 10-0 seven inning knockout of Caribbean rival Venezuela) featured the near perfect-game pitching of WBC hero Yadel Marti (pictured here), who lost his masterpiece when he yielded a tame two-out single in the final frame.

FctaiwanblastCuba’s pitching has so far been masterful, yet the biggest story to date in the Cuban camp has been the power display of switch-hitting left field Frederich Cepeda. I have long argued that Cepeda (remembered by some MLB fans for his homer in the late innings of the WBC final versus Japan) is currently the best all-around player on the planet not affiliated with American pro baseball, and Cepeda has done nothing to weaken that claim with his perfomance in Taipei. (Readers of this blog might also be interested in my October 12 column on www.baseballdecuba.com entitled “Evaluating Cuba’s Top Hitters in the Major International Tournaments” where I make the case in detail for Cepeda as Team Cuba’s top offensive weapon.) Cepeda’s week in Taipei began with the dramatic face-saving homer (pictured here) stroked off a delivery from Australian minor league hurler Brad Thomas. Overall he is batting a tournament-best .579 after five contests; has stroked two game-winning hits in addition to his game-saving circuit blast; and has two doubles, two triples, and six RBI (trailing only teammate Yoandry Urgelles in the run production department). Urrutia, a six-time Cuban League batting champ and all-time BA leader on the island with a .371 career average (see my blog entry of June 5, 2007) has also made his presence felt with his game-winner againt Australia and a week-long .313 hitting spree.

Fans interested in following the remainder of World Cup action (thru November 18) as we charge toward next week’s exciting single-elimination championship medal round are again reminded that I am providing daily detailed English-language reports on our Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. That same site is also providing live video feed of four games daily (two at 11 pm EST and two more at 5 am EST), plus an archive in which all previous games my be viewed on-line from start to finish. All that is required is Windows Media Player. The Cuba-Australia (Cepeda’s homer), Cuba-Venezuela (Marti’s masterpiece), USA-Italia (the big upset), and Canada-Australia (dramatic extra-inning walkoff for the bold Aussies) are all worth watching in replay format. It is baseball with a clear difference, of course–no endless jabber from Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, no stream of non-stop commercials, small crowds and players who have never been featured on ESPN Sports Center–in other words, perhaps a bit boring for most MLB addicts. But for some of us it is indeed true baseball paradise!

World Cup Action Opens Tonight in Chinese Taipei

This blog has been silent of late since I have been on the road in Havana during the past week, a visit which included an appearance on Radio COCO for a live roundtable discussion of the upcoming National Series season, a visit with several Cuban National Team stars before their departure for Taipei and World Cup XXXVII, and attendance at the finals of the Cuban Developmental League (Cuba’s highest-level minor leagues). But now we swing back into action with the opening of World Cup XXXVII in Taiwan, where Team Cuba shoots for its tenth consecutive world championship and 26th in 29 entries at the showcase event.

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Action opens tonight and can be followed in detail on our website at www.baseballdecuba.com, where the visitor will find not only my daily English-language summaries of tournament events but also live video webcasts of most tournament games (including all the contests involving Team Cuba). Tonight’s game is the highly anticipated Cuba-Australia match at 11pm EST. For those desiring a truer dose of "Cuban baseball flavor" the site will also carry live radio broadcasts of all Cuban games from Havana’s Radio Rebelde, featuring Piti Rivera and Roberto Pacheco (the long-time radio voices of Cuban League baseball). Open the site on your laptops and desktops and let the game begin.

Cuba Captures Chaotic Venezuelan World Cup Tune-Up Tournament

Before it ever got started, the so-called inaugural Latin American and Caribbean League Tournament proved to be something of a promotional and public relations disaster. And before it was over, the make-shift event nearly turned into an on-the-field embarrassment of gigantic proportions for the defending world champion Cuban national team. But after a much-delayed but nonetheless exciting week of spirited play, the Cubans reigned once more as expected champions of still another international baseball spectacle. And the Venezuelan national team, for its own part, saved some face for local organizers by proving to be a sharp thorn in the side of the heavily favored Cuban nine, and also by demonstrating that they might well be capable of a few surprises of their own in the upcoming November Taipei World Cup matches.

Industrialeswallpaper_6Alex Mayeta (l) and Yoandry Urgelles (r) paced the Cuban offense in Caracas

The tournament itself was surrounded by a dense cloud of mystery and an avalanche of disorganization. Initially it was announced as a showcase seven-team round robin match (including Panama, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua among the eventual no-shows). Action was scheduled to open on October 2 and was billed as a possible long-term replacement for the traditional (but now troubled) professional winter league playoffs known as the Caribbean Series. It eventually sputtered open on October 10-11 as a much reduced three-team "friendship series" with only weak-sister Colombia joining the Cubans and the host-nation Venezuelans. Initially it was billed as I Liga Latinoamericana y Caribena de Beisbol (First Latin American and Caribbean League), then simply called the Primera Liga del ALBA (First ALBA League) in an embarrassed recognition of its reduced status. There was no website for the event (remarkable in today’s cyber world), and once play began in stadiums in Caracas and nearby Maracay (the original site was supposed to be the city of Valencia) there was little press coverage and almost nothing reaching the outside world in the way of box scores, pitching match-ups, or even game summaries. Even the Cubans (who give such prominence to the games of the cherished national team) had to work exceedingly hard just to follow this under-promoted spectacle.

The much-troubled and over-hyped "tournament" eventually opened inauspiciously to little fanfare, with Venezuela coasting past Colombia 6-1 in caracas on Wednesday (October 10), and Cuba drubbing the Colombians 9-0 a day later, via a rain-shortened three-pitcher no hitter. Cuba’s pitchers for the initial whitewash game were Elier Sanchez (who opened and hurled three frames), Jonder Martinez (two innings), and southpaw Norberto Gonzalez (who breezed through the final inning). The absence of electric lights at the Maracay Stadium combined with the rain to bring an early amd merciful end to the proceedings. Cuba’s offense was paced by Ariel pestano (two hits, a double, and three RBI) and Yoandry Urgelles (who also contributed three runs-batted-home and an additional two-bagger). All seemed to be unfolding just about as expected when Cuba pounded Venezuela 10-3 in Caracas’s Jose casanova Stadium on Day Three, mainly on the strength of a Pestano homer in the fifth, followed by a five-run game-deciding eighth-inning uprising. The heavy hitting compensated for a shaky outing by veteran lefty Adiel Palma, whose lack of control permitted an early Venezuelan 3-2 lead after only three frames. Cuba’s bullpen-by-committee (Yunieski Maya, Arley Sanchez, Pedro Lazo and Jose Garcia) held Venezuelan hitting at bay after the early frames.

But things seemed to unravel for some surprisingly porous Cuban pitching over the next several days, resulting in a pair of shocking losses at the hands of the highly motivated Venezuelans. The sudden Cuban setbacks seemed to put the hosts on the doorstep of a remarkable tournament upset. The initial Venezuelan victory on Sunday (October 13) was a 7-2 drubbing keyed by Manuel Ramirez, who slugged a solo homer that opened the scoring in the second, then later contributed a two-run single in the fourth. National team rookie right-hander Vladimir Banos (Pinar del Rio) opened on the hill for Team Cuba, but the loss was suffered by replacement lefty Yulieski Gonzalez, the bullpen hero of the August Rotterdam tournament. A pair of Habana Province hurlers, Jonder Martinez and Jose garcia, also worked late-inning relief, and a two-run shot by Yoandry Urgelles provided the only two tallies for the losers. Venezuela again surprised the Cubans a day later by a comfortable 5-1 count, this time mainly on the strength of a Sal Torres homer stroked off a delivery from closer Pedro Lazo. Not only had the Cuban pitching gone quite sour, but in this second defeat the normally potent Red Machine lineup managed only four largely harmless base hits against right-hander Marcos Castillo. Had anyone been following these games from USA Baseball (the USA national team)–but most likely they were not–they had to be smiling, with the Cubans suddenly looking anything but invincible in front of a Venezuelan club that also notably handed the Americans their only setback in last summer’s IBAF Americas Region Pre-Olympic Tournament in Havana.

At the end of a week the now-suddenly competitive ALBA tournament showed the following scoreboard. Games played: Venezuela defeated Colombia 6-1 (Oct. 10); Cuba defeated Colombia 9-0 in 6 innings (Oct. 11); Cuba defeated Venezuela 10-3 (Oct. 12); Venezuela defeated Colombia 15-7 (Oct. 13); Cuba defeated Colombia 21-0 in seven innings (Oct. 14); Venezuela defeated Cuba 7-2 in seven innings (Oct. 14); Venezuela defeated Colombia, with the final score never reported (Oct. 15); Venezuela defeated Cuba 5-1 in seven innings (Oct. 15). Standings: Venezuela (4 wins, 1 loss); Cuba (3 wins, 2 losses); Colombia (0 wins, 5 losses). The stage was now set for a final showdown in Caracas on Wednesday evening between the increasingly confident host Venezuelans and the seemingly dazed but still favored Cubans.

YondermartinezJonder Martinez was the pitching hero of Cuba’s ALBA championship victory over Venezuela

If history was any predictor (and in international baseball, "history" almost always means dominance by the usually invincible Cubans) the final match-up should not have been much of a contest, and in the end it certainly wasn’t. With their pride seemingly a bit wounded, the rey Anglada-managed nine rolled over their opponents on Wednesday evening by a 9-1 coount that didn’t tell the whole story. Venezuelan bats were shut down effectively by opener Elier Sanchez (three innings) and reliever Jonder Martinez (four innings). Pedro Lazo permitted his second homer of the week in the eighth (this time to Denis Torres) but that was only enough to ruin the shutout. The offensive charge for the revived Cuban forces was led by new national team second baseman Hector Olivera (with a solo homer in the fifth) and slugging first sacker Alex Mayeta (with a game-busting grand slam in the sixth. Much of the damage came against reliever Beiker Gratol, who pitched briefly in the majors (1999) with the Detroit Tigers. The lopsided game might have been even more one-sided had it not been for several questionable umpiring decisions (as reported by Havana’s Radio Rebelde in its inning-by-inning updates on the game from Caracas), missed calls on an outfield catch (that wasn’t) and a home-plate tag-out (that wasn’t) that definitely robbed the Cubans of of a handful of additional tallies. In post-game ceremonies the honored top players were Venezuela’s Manuel Ramirez (with two homers in the event) and Cuba’s Yoandry Urgelles (who stole six bases and also contributed one of Cuba’s four total long balls).

After a week of Caracas-based tune-ups for the Taipei World Cup (which opens November 6), a pair of intriguing questions now remain very much open. Were the two Cuban losses a mere aberration (part and parcel of a sport in which the Cuban winning skein featuring a nearly 90% success rate seems to defy all baseball logic?), or was this a needed wakeup call for a defending world champion Cuban club that may well have its hands full with the American, Dutch, and Japanese challengers at World Cup XXXVII? Also, will future editions of this disappointing inaugural ALBA tournament show enough improvement (especially in organization and scheduling) to become the important date on the international baseball calendar that it was originally announced to be? It does seem more likely that the Cuban national team will get its act together far more easily next month in Taiwan than the Venezuelan Baseball Federation will by next summer in Caracas. I am not willing to bet, at this point, that the Liga del ALBA will have a very bright immediate future in the over-crowded field of Olympic-style international events. But I would certainly still put my money on the Cubans next month in Taipei. The Cubans are uncanny when it comes to always winning big-time when the chips are down (as last night in Caracas). Cuban national teams have now reached the finals in every major international tournament they have entered since 1959; this string now numbers 48 events and includes the Olympics, MLB World Baseball Classic, World Cup, Intercontinental Cup and Pan American Games. In the World Cup alone the defending champions will be shooting for their tenth straight title dating back to 1984 (when the event was still called the Amateur World Series). This is a recorded unparalleled in the history of baseball or any other sport for that matter. In short, everyone should be prepared for those remarkable records to once more be extended in Asia newxt month. It seems like only one team can beat Team Cuba, and that is Team Cuba itself.

Cubans Encounter Little Challenge in Venezuela

If the original promise of an inaugural Latin American and Caribbean League pre-World Cup tournament proved a major disappointment–due to the organizational ineptitude of the Venezuelan Baseball Federation–the three-team round robin that finally replaced it has not offered much to crow about either. There has so far been little in the way of thrills for Cuban fans back on the island, or even much in the way of needed stiff competition for the Cuban team preparing to snag a tenth straight World Cup crown next month in Taiwan. In its opening three days the set of one-sided Caracas "friendship" games between the host Venezuelans and visiting Colombians and Cubans have resulted in a pair of Cuban romps notable only for a six-inning three-pitcher no-hit, no-run game on Thursday evening. In that lid-lifter a trio of Cuban hurlers–Elier Sanchez (3 innings), Jonder Martinez (2) and Norberto Gonzalez (1)–whitewashed an overmatched Colombian contingent 9-0 in a game mercifully shortened to six innings. The early ending came as a result of a stadium power outage, one more minor "disaster" surrounding an event that the Venezuelans were touting only a week or two ago as a potential replacement for the springtime winter league professional Caribbean Series (which has itself lately been threatened by the collapse of the Puerto Rican winter circuit). The hitting stars for the Cubans in their opener were numerous: veteran catcher Ariel Pestano smacked a double and knocked home three runs; multiple-year Cuban League batting champion Osmani Urrutia also doubled and accounted for a pair of RBIs, while center fielder Giorvis Duvergel registered three hits in four trips to the plate, and outfield mate Yoandry Urgelles also doubled and knocked home three.

Ariel_pestano_1The one-sided loss to Cuba was the second straight for the weak-sister Colombians, who also fell rudely to host Venezuela in the Wednesday opener by a 6-1 count. Cuba was again untested in Caracas on Friday evening, when they streaked past the host nation 10-3 on the strength of a solo homer by Ariel Pestano (which tied the game at three apiece in the fifth) and an outburst of three more markers in the same frame against Venezuelan reliever Ivan Campos. Venezuela used seven pitchers before the night was over in a futile attempt to shut down the Cuban attack; the defending world champions, in turn, opened with veteran southpaw Adiel Palma (whose shaky control allowed the Venezuelans to build their early and temporary 3-2 lead) and followed with a relief corps of Yuniesky Maya, Arley Sanchez, Pedro Luis Lazo and Jose A. Garcia. Manager Rey Anglada was obviously trying to give a number of his pitchers need tune-ups during a one-sided match that didn’t require much bullpen aid. It so far seems that the Cuban fans and the Cuban national team forces would have been much better served to remain on home turf and stage more competitive tune-up games in Havana’s Latin American Stadium, perhaps featuring a showdown between the two Cuban contingents that carried the nation’s banner earlier in the summer: Cuban A managed by Anglada (winners of the gold medal in the Rio Pan American Games) and Cuba B under Victor Mesa (which a month later streaked through the competition undefeated at the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam).

After three days the hardly competitive Caracas-based round robin shows the following standings and results:

Team          Record     Runs Scored/Runs Permitted

Cuba           2-0          19 to 3

Venezuela   1-1           9 to 11

Colombia     0-2          1 to 15

Venezuela 6, Colombia 1

Cuba 9, Colombia 0 (6 innings)

Cuba 10, Venezuela 3