www.baseballdecuba.com is now featuring an all-English-language page for fans of Cuban League baseball who don’t read Spanish and yet wish to follow every detail of the new Cuban League season. National Series #47 opened on Sunday and the 90-game regular season will stretch through early April. Video highlights of Sunday’s opening game (Santiago 6, Industriales 3) are only one of the many features found on the new English-language page. Just open the main site for baseballdecuba.com (above) and then click on the link for the English page in the upper right corner of the top bar. My weekly columns on the Cuban League pennant race are all available here, as well as on the main Spanish-language home page on our Official Cuban League Website. And for those of you outside of the state of Florida (where Cuban internet sites are still being jammed) there is also a new English language page available from the most impressive Havana-based www.radiococo.cu Cuban League site. Make sure to check out the Radio COCO Cuban League page, which actually has more colorful graphs and videos available (on both its Spanish and English pages) than anything currently found on mlb.com. And it is all pure baseball news, without a single commercial advertisement anywhere in sight.
With the 2007 World Cup event on the horizon in Taiwan (November 6-18) and a new Cuban League season soon to start (National Series XLVII, opening December 2 and running through April), readers interested in Cuban baseball action can now follow the Cuban League scene on the USA-based "official" league website (the best available), found at www.baseballdecuba.com. My own columns (in English) appear regularly on this site and provide updated information and opinions on both the league pennant races and the international triumphs of the world champion Cuban national team. Some of my columns on that site have appeared first on this blog, yet others have not. The BASEBALLDECUBA website also provides a wealth of historical detail about the Cuban League and intriquing historical video clips for download. Last spring the site also offered live video feed from Cuban television of the league championship playoff games between Industriales (Havana’s favorite team) and Santiago de Cuba (2007 champions). Spanish readers can also enjoy the insightful columns and news reports of webmaster Ray Otero, or pursue the special pages devoted on daily reports on this years Pan American Games in Rio (July), World Port Tournament XI in Rotterdam (August) and World Cup XXXVII in Chinese Taipei (November). The BASEBALLDECUBA site will also soon have a full English-language page up and running and linked to the main website.
Freelancer Jim Albright (www.baseballguru.com) has recently provided an interesting if controversial article which purports to answer the question "Who Have Been the Top Players in Cuba in the Castro Era?" Albright is to be praised on at least a couple of counts here. Foremost, he calls attention to Cuban League baseball, which is so often totally off the radar screen in the North American media. And secondly, he bases his assessments on what certainly appear to be three most reputable sources: my own A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, the 1999 Cuban League Guide, and "the official website of Cuban baseball" (the link for which unfortunately does not open in his article). Because of the faulty link it is not possible to tell exactly what Albright selects as "the official site of Cuban baseball"–it might be the INDER site, that produced by JIT, the Radio COCO site, or www.baseballdecuba.com. There is a major question, of course, about why the author would rely on the 1999 League Guide and seemingly ignore the seven published for subsequent seasons (they are not that difficult to find, and the 2006 Guide is available on-line from at least two of the sites mentioned above). And his use of my own book is welcomed here not out of pure ego-interest but rather because of the fact that it is indeed, without much question, the most thorough available English-language discussion (especially in Chapter 11) of contemporary Cuban ballplayers.
The problem with Albright’s article is at least two-fold. First, like most SABRmetric-style analyses it is one-dimensional, relying almost exclusively for its rankings on offensive and pitching stats (in this case the overall career records and the numbers of times that individual players have appeared in the listings of National Series league leaders). In short, it ignores the Cuban baseball establishment’s own assessment of its ballplayers in terms of selections for spots on the Cuban national team (the equivalent of the national all-star team); it downplays the highest level of competition in top international tournaments (where Cuban players have undergone their severest tests), and it also ignores first-hand assessments of these ballplayers by those who have witnessed their performances up close (i.e. Cuban journalists, MLB scouts, or the handful of Americans like the present author who have witnessed the Cuban stars perform during island play over the past decade or two).
Albright’s selection of "Cuba’s best since 1962" includes the following position players: Lazaro Junco, Pedro Jose Rodriguez, Osmani Urrutia, Enrique Diaz, Orestes Kindelan, Javier Mendez, Victor Bejerano, Michel Enriquez, Victor Mesa, Fernando Sanchez, Luis Casanova, Omar Linares, Antonio Munoz, Wilfredo Sanchez, Romelio Martinez, Antonio Pacheco, and Luis Ulacia. The list of pitchers is as follows: Omar Ajete, Lazaro de la Torre, Santiago Mederos, Jose Luis Aleman, Wilfredo Ruiz, Jorge Luis Valdes, Pedro Luis Lazo, Braudilio Vinent, Rogelio Garcia, Carlos Yanes, Faustino Corrales, and Jose Ibar. Those wishing to study Albright’s rankings or assess his arguments can pass directly to his article found at www.baseballguru.com; I will not take up space repeating his analysis here in any detail. Some of the choices are beyond debate no matter what measures are used. But there are some odd choices here indeed. Carlos Yanes with 208 career losses? Javier Mendez and Lazaro Junco with lengthy careers as league mainstays but no significant appearances on Team Cuba in the big international events? Omar Ajete who was a talented enough southpaw but spent much of his career injured and was hardly anything approaching a national legend? Where is the truly legendary Jose Antonio Huelga (victim of a tragic auto accident that ended his life at mid-career) with his seven-year lifetime 1.50 ERA and career .695 winning percentage? Where are Orlando Hernandez (Cuba’s all-time winning percentage leader) and Jose Ariel Contreras (the most successful Cuban hurler ever in big-time international matches with a perfect 13-0 mark), both of whom later proved their world class status in the majors? Where are Juan Castro and Ariel Pestano, the subjects of endless debates about who was Cuba’s all-time greatest catcher? And where is German Mesa, acknowledged as a near-clone of Ozzie Smith by just about every MLB scout who ever saw him play? Perhaps such omissions are to be expected in an article penned by an author who scans National Series records but has never been to Cuba to witness a league game or talk with Cuba’s knowledgeable fans. But even an assessment of major league players using this methodology of examining yearly league leaders would likely leave out the likes of Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski from any discussion of "Who Have Been the Top Players in the USA in the Eisenhower-to-Bush Era?"
Albright’s work, like so many SABR-genre approaches, is based heavily on number crunching and thus provides a very stilted picture of Cuban baseball. Any listing of the island’s top players for the past quarter-century or half-century simply HAS TO INCLUDE German Mesa (pictured) and Norge Vera, just to give two of the most obvious examples. Mesa was likely the best defensive middle infielder I have seen in any league on any continent, and almost any North American expert who saw him even in late career (often playing on less than MLB-manicured carpets) has claimed that Mesa was the near-equal to Cooperstown’s Ozzie Smith. If there was a Cuban Leaguer anywhere that could have stepped right in and played successfully in the majors it was Mesa (Cubans to the last man will tell you that Mesa was head and shoulders above Rey Ordonez, who defected from Cuba largely because both Mesa and Eduardo Paret blocked his route onto the national team.) But because he does not boast big offensive numbers (his .286 16-year career BA was solid but not eye-popping) Mesa does not appear on Albright’s list. Less than a decade ago former big leaguer Conrado Marrrero (who is now in his 90s and saw both Martin Dihigo and Willie Miranda play) told this writer that German Mesa was easily the best glove-wizard he had ever seen, including his time in the majors with the Washington Senators during the era of Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto.
Santiago right-hander Norge (Nor-Gee) Vera (perhaps remembered by USA fans for his stellar May 1999 performance versus the Orioles in Baltimore), has been the best pitcher in Cuba over the past ten years (anchoring one of the best staffs in the circuit) and even a look only at the numbers will certify that. Vera has always been "on another level" above Jose Ibar (an Albright selection) in both league and international contests and a description of some of his accomplishments (such as winning both the semifinal and final games of the 2003 World Cup in Havana) are outlined in Chapter 11 of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. The only two Cuban hurlers of the past decade to rival Vera in overall talent are Jose Contreras (Cuba’s most dominant ace ever in big international competitions) and Pedro Lazo (national team stopper of the past five years after Contreras’s departure). Note here that Contreras does not make Albright’s listing either, probably because he left Cuba at the height of his career and also because the Albright numbers reflect National Series and not national team performances. But Vera stands by himself, even numerically, with his 127-50 mark (.718 W-L Pct. that trails only El Duque Hernandez) and a 12 year 2.63 ERA entering the past National Series season. It is most puzzling and most telling that while Vera is nowhere to be found in the Albright ranking, recently retired Carlos Yanes makes the cut with his career .500 ledger of 208-208, apparently on the strength of 200 wins. (This kind of sounds to me akin to ranking Wlbur Wood ahead of Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez on the basis of some kind of longevity standard.) Yanes has almost no significant national team experience and I doubt any Cuban–from the league commissioner down to any fan in Havana’s Parque Central–would ever hand him the ball ahead of Vera or Contreras to face Team USA or Team Japan in the Olympics or World Cup. I personally haven’t seen any better pitcher in Cuba (one owning clear big league prospects) than Vera. Right behind him in recent years has been Granma’s underrated Ciro Silvino Licea (last year’s ERA leader). Certainly Maels Rodriguez had the best arm I ever saw in Cuba (or maybe anywhere else) before injuries ended his career at age 22-plus. But Carlos Yanes is a journeyman who might have pitched at the AA level in the USA at best. Perhaps Jim Albright knows something about Carlos Yanes that I don’t. I wonder if he has ever seen him pitch?
The two players most surprisingly absent from the Albright evaluation of Cuban talent are perhaps in the end Ariel Pestano (pictured) and Eduardo Paret. This might be obvious to anyone watching World Baseball Classic games in March 2006 on television, even if they had never set foot in Cuba. Pestano is Cuba’s best-ever catcher and Paret is viewed by just about any scout who has seen him as a sure-fire big leaguer. Juan Castro (Pinar del Rio star of a couple decades back and the new manager at Sancti Spiritus) has his supporters among old-timers and veteran CL watchers as perhaps Cuba’s best defensive backstop, and those claims may have considerably merit. But Pestano has starred in Olympic tournaments for nearly a decade during an era when the competition level and ballplayer quality is much higher, now that other countries are using professionals, than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. Pestano doesn’t boast exceptional batting numbers for his 15-season National Series career with Villa Clara (.290 BA, 94 HRs) but he has been the mainstay and on-field leader of the national team for a decade, and also has come up huge offensively in the big international tournaments (e.g. as Athens Olympics MVP). He is expert at handling Cuba’s top pitchers in the high-tension international matches; he has an accurate gun of an arm, and he is a recognized "second manager" on the field of play. For me Pestano is hands-down the best catcher Cuba has developed in any decade going back to Christopher Columbus (not just back to the arrival of Comandante Castro). To leave him off the list is symptomatic of compiling any such ranking by lumping together all position players and then relying on yearly OFFENSIVE numbers to make your selections.
There are several smaller but not unimportant issues with Albright’s article that trouble me. He claims that one of his three sources is the 1999 Cuban League Guide. Why write an article in 2007 using the 1999 Cuban League Guide? What happened to the Guides for the past seven winters? (This reliance on out-dated material may explain the absence of players like Pestano, Paret and Vera from the list.) He also refers to the "official Cuban League website" (it is not clear which one, as mentioned above) as his data source, yet the current Guides provide much more detailed numbers (top ten rankings, complete team stats, etc.). At any rate, Albright’s work (in my opinion at least) would have benefited substantially by some infusion of first-hand reports from scouts and writers who had actually seen these Cuban stars perform over the years. Albright writes: "I am sure that if I had the top tens for each season that my choices would have been better"; but of course these "top tens" are indeed available year-by-year in Guides published regularly since the 1998 National Series.
Perhaps one final comment is in order here. In ranking the best players in Cuba over recent decades one certainly should not ignore the opinions of the top Cuban coaches and league administrators/officials (the technical commission, which usually includes former players) who select their own very best players each summer in the effort to win yet more gold in the top international tournaments. It isn’t a perfect process (often causing much debate on the island) but it is indeed a rigorous selection process of league all-stars and the Cuban baseball brain trust takes it very seriously. The measure of the success of these selections is tied directly to the incredible success of the Cuban team in dominating Olympic-style tournaments (even after the introduction of major and minor leaguers to such competitions following 1999). It is thus a bit odd to find any list (like this one) of all-time Cuban greats of the past nearly fifty years that contains players like Carlos Yanes, Javier Mendez, Lazaro de la Torre, Lazaro Junco, Victor Bejerano, and Romelio Martinez–all of whom were rarely selected for the vaunted national team (or who rarely performed a major role on the few occasions when they got there). That is to say that Javier Mendez or Rogelio Martinez (plus the others mentioned) were almost never judged among the superstars by the Cuban brain trust itself. (Again Albright appears to know something here that veteran Cuban League watchers and insiders don’t!) Vera and Pestano and Paret, on the other hand, have anchored those Olympic and World Cup championship teams for years and played a most significant role in many of Cuba’s greatest victories ever. It is more than a mere aberration that these three, for example, don’t make the cut in this exceptionally narrow-viewed SABRmetric analysis. This fact in itself seems to reveal the most cogent flaw imbedded in Albright’s "outsider’s" analysis of Cuban baseball.
Baseball’s leading trivia guru Peter Morris has come to the rescue and suggested firm evidence that the early 20th-century “cup-of-coffee” ballplayer known as Chick (Charles) Pedroes most likely WAS indeed born on the island of Cuba. Morris points to research done recently by Rich Malatzky of SABR which reveals that Pedroes (whose actual last name may have been PEDRO) was born on October 27, 1869, in Havana. The Chicago 1880 and 1890 census data lists Chick Pedroes as having moved to Chicago in 1871 (when less than two years old) and the 1900 census has his occupation as “ballplayer”. Thus all previous lists of Cuban ballplayers (including my own own in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 and in Diamonds around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball) have been in ever-so-slight error by not including Pedroes (debut in 1902) on the list between Esteban Bellan (debut 1871) and both Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans (debuts in 1911). The addition of Pedroes to the Cuban ballplayer list is an important (if not earthshaking) one and seemingly underscores my point in the earlier blog entry that this was probably more interesting informartion than Leonte Landino’s intended revelations about Jud Castro. Most Latino baseball scholars have long since included Castro on the list of Latin-born early 20th century big leaguers; more important, most of these scholars have long ago reached wide agreement that Esteban Bellan of Cuba (debut in the NA in 1871) was by any measure the first Latin American big leaguer. Bellan was a young adult and not an infant when he came to the US to attend Fordham (though he likely learned his baseball skills on the Fordham campus and not in the streets of Havana); and the National Association was the top American professional baseball circuit when he first joined it. The case for Steve Bellan as the first Latino big leaguer seems altogether untarnished.
But then what are we to do with the cases of earlier Latin-born (but US raised and trained) ballplayers Jud Castro (likely born in Colombia but arriving in the US when only eight) and Chick Pedroes (born in Havana of a Cuban father and American mother, but brougtht to Chicago when little more than a year old)? My contention is that both are best assigned to that beloved record-book category of the always-convenient asterisk. They are Latino pioneers only by special case: they are North American ballplayers who happen, by a quirk of fate, to have been born outside of American soil. None of their baseball talents, styles of play, or athletic heritage had anything whatsoever to do with their seemingly non-existent “Latino” heritage.
When we boast today of the impact of Dominican shortstops, Cuban hurlers or Venezuelan sluggers on the misnamed “American” national pastime we are talking about ballplayers (like Tony Fernandez, Orlando Hernandez, or Bobby Abreu) who were first inspired by the game on their own Caribbean native soil and later recruited by organized baseball to be part of the “internationalization” of major league baseball. It is quite a stretch to think of either Jose Canseco or Rafael Palmeiro (yes, born in Cuba, but wrenched from the island when less then two years old and thus products of a Miami baseball education, not a Cuban one) as truly “Cuban” ballplayers. Miami-Cuban or Cuban-American ballplayers, perhaps, but not Latin Americans in the same sense as the hundreds who now come annually to the US minors and majors hardly speaking a word of English and facing the hurdle of American fast food as well as big-league fastballs.
If we want to talk accurately about Latin Americans invading the majors then the history in the 20th century assuredly begins with Marsans and Almeida, recruited into the US first by barnstorming Negro league clubs and then signed up in 1911 by Clark Griffith to play for his NL Cincinnati Reds. To include every athlete born on Latin soil (but not raised there), or worse yet, all those whose parents or grandparents might boast a Cuban or Dominican heritage (as does Cesar Lopez in his Cuban player lists on www.cubanball.com) is merely to inflate the numbers only to satisfy an urge for boasting about one’s ethnic heritage. Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Luis Tiant all brought a Cuban baseball experience and a Cuban style of ballplaying to the majors, and therefore significantly impacked the sport’s international flavor. Ryan Freel or Brosnson Arroyo have not, and that likely should be our primary measuring stick.
Baseball fans dearly love the “trivial” side of the international pastime, especially when that trivia involves “firsts” (or what Stephen Jay Gould once astutely discussed as the diamond sport’s preoccupation with myth-shrouded “immaculate conceptions”). This is an especially hot topic, seemingly, when the issue of “firsts” involves ethnic pioneers. For years we have been debating the issue of who might have been the first legitimate “Latino big-leaguer” and despite rather wide agreement among scholars that Cuba’s Esteban Bellan (pictured to the right) holds the place of primacy (having appeared in 1871 in the-then-big-league National Association) the issue hardly seems dead. In a just-released issue of the SABR Latino Baseball Committee newsletter (La Prensa del Beisbol Latino, Vol. 4:1, Summer 2007) a new claim is staked for Colombia’s Luis “Jud” Castro as the true pioneering Latin American native to first reach the pinnacle of the sport in the U.S. major leagues.
This recent SABR article by Leonte Landino (www.eljuegoperfecto.com), while entertaining (and admittedly informative on at least a few issues surrounding “Jud” Castro), unfortunately raises more questions that it ever presumes to answer. It also seems to muddy the waters with a number of unsubstantiated or even inaccurate claims, as well as avoiding an needed attempt to clearly define the working assumptions behind our efforts to label “Latino” ballplayers (as opposed to American ballplayers of Hispanic heritage, such as Alex Rodriguez). There is indeed a significant difference (or at least I think there should be, when boasting about an athlete’s ethnic heritage, or a Latin nation’s claims to producing talent for U.S. professional baseball) between a ballplayer like Ozzie Virgil (who was born in the Dominican Republic but left at an early age and learned all his baseball skills on the North American mainland) and Felipe Alou (who came to organized baseball directly from his native island nation, having learned his baseball in the dusty sugar cane fields). Virgil is widely credited as being the first Dominican big leaguer (1956 with the NY Giants) but he was signed off the streets of New York City; it was Alou (SF Giants, 1958) who was in truth the first ballplayer sent straight to the big time directly from Dominican shores.
There are, of course, a number of ways to define “national origins” or “ethnic heritage” and I have thus taken the absolute “high road” in several of my own recrent books and opted to define an athlete’s national of origin strictly by the land of his birth. For me Ozzie Virgil IS indeed a Dominican ballplayer (though I always try to qualify the difference between his case and that of Alou) whereas A-Rod is NOT a Dominican ballplayer. A-Rod is a New Yorker, by both birthrite (my criterion of choice) and cultural background. If one is to claim A-Rod on the list of Dominican ballplayers, then why don’t we list Joe DiMaggio as a ballplayer from Italy (where his parents were born) or Lou Gehrig as Germany’s earliest big league superstar? DiMag and A-Rod are both Americans, no matter what their ancestoral history might have been. Bobby Thomsen was Scotch (he was indeed born there) but Lou Gehrig is not German.
But there are those out there writing about Latino baseball heritage who choose–in their enthusiasm to claim Latino roots for as many big leaguers as possible–to take the obvious “low road” and classify ballplayers by the birthplaces of their parents or even their grandparents. Thus Cesar Lopez on his oherwise excellent Cuban Baseball webpage (www.cubanball.com) currently tracks the daily big league performances of such “Cuban” ballplayers as Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Freel, Raul Ibanez, Jorge Posada, and Mike Lowell, among numerous others, even though most of these athletes have never even set foot on the island of Cuba (a few don’t speak much Spanish); Posada and Lowell are especially interesting cases since both were born to Cuban-exile parents in Puerto Rico. So why does Cuba (or Cuban enthusiasts) get to claim either instead of Puerto Rico. The same “error” (from my point of view) is also made by authors Martino, Fernandez, and Valero in their recent tome entitled Jonron: Crecimiento y Logros del Pelotero Latinoamericano y Caribeno en el Beisbol de Las Grandes Ligas. These authors (ironically Puerto Ricans themselves) also assign Posada and Lowell to the Cuban camp rather than to the Borinquen nation of their birth; furthermore they also claim Al Cabrera (2 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1913) as one of the earliest “Cuban” pioneers, although Cabrera was unquestionnably born in the Spanish Canary Islands.
But back to Leonte Landino’s recent article and the case of Jud Castro. The case for Castro as the first Latino big leaguer, as Landino emphasizes, has long hung on two not easily resolved issues. First is the question of whether or not Esteban Bellan (having played in the 19th century and in the National Assoication) should be considered as a true big leaguer. Landino states incorrectly that Bellan was “hired and brought from Cuba by the Troy Haymakers of the American Association in 1871” (it was of course the NA here and not the AA); Bellan actually had come to the US earlier to attend college and play baseball at Fordham University, and he was thus recruited from the Fordham campus and not from the streets of Havana. But that is not the crucial issue here. Landino asserts that Bellan doesn’t count simply because “MLB history does not recognize the NA stats or players as part of their system.” But what kind of revisionist history is this? The standard encyclopedias such as the Big Mac and Total Baseball have always listed the NA players and thus also Bellan. And the NA was certainly considered the “big leagues” of North America at the time when Bellan strapped on his spikes and glove. So simply discounting the nineteenth century does not seem to make much sense. But let’s leave that debate aside for the moment.
The second issue surrounding Jud Castro has always been the question of his own birth site. If he was born either in Colombia or Panama (as many have speculated) then his 42 games with Connie Mack’s 1902 Philadelphia A’s would stake his claim as the first Latino major leaguer of the 20th century (assuming we scuttle 19th century big league history for whatever reasons). If, on the other hand, Castro was born in New York City (as some have speculated) than the claim is suspect (unless we are a “low roader” like Cesar Lopez or Edwin Fernandez and assign a ballplayer’s national origin according to his father’s birthplace and not his own). Landino now appears to have resolved this issue once and for all, having reportedly turned up evidence (thanks to researcher Nick Martinez of Las Vegas) that young Castro is in fact listed on the passangership register of a vessel arriving in NYC on October 16, 1885 from Colon, Panama, then a part of the Republic of Colombia. The youngster was reported on that list as the son of one Nestor Castro and also as being 8 years old at the time. Case closed; Jud Castro was born in Colombia and came to NYC when he was but eight years old. But now we still have several problems that may yet loom larger than Landino admits here. First off, we still have no hard evidence of birthplace, such as a birth certificate (how do we know, for example, that Castro wasn’t born in NYC, sailed with his father to Colombia, and then sailed back?). And indeed if Castro arrived in the US when he was but 8, then he clearly must have developed as a ballplayer on the streets of NYC. That is, his case is more akin to that of Ozzie Virgil than that of Felipe Alou. Jud Castro was not a Colombia ballplayer, he was an American ballplayer born in Colombia. Fine distinction, perhaps, but enough to still leave the claims for Cubans Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans (pictured here) sitting on fairly strong grounds. It was indeed the pair of Cubans, Marsans and Almeida, when they debuted for Cincinnati in 1911, who were the first true Latino imports brought to the US specifically to play ball. First “Latin American” imports to the major leagues during the 20th Century? I would still have to vote for Marsans and Almeida myself; they were in every sense “Cuban ballplayers” imported by the majors and thus unarguably the first of their kind.
But there is still one more intriguing issue buried in Landino’s article. It is the following truly revolutionary claim: “if he (Castro) was born in New York, then we will have to place our directions (sic) to Chick Pedroes, who played two games for the Chicago Orphans in August 1902, and was born, according to the official baseball records in Havana, Cuba.” Now if this claim about Charles Pedroes is true than it is indeed a bigger breakthrough than any recent discoveries about Jud Castro’s murky origins. Never before have I seen Pedroes claimed as a Cuban; all encyclopedia entries that I have ever seen list Pedroes as having been born (and died) in Chicago). The very name Charles “Chick” Pedroes does not raise much hope for a Cuban birthright. No Cuban historians have ever claimed him as their own, nor has he ever appeared in any “Latinos” big league list that I have ever seen (including the log provided by Martino and Fernandez in Jonron). Now I may have missed something here, and I certainly stand more than willing to be convinced. But where is the evidence for the surprise announcement that Chick Pedroes was a native Cuban? The biggest mystery raised by the Landino article now seems to have nothing at all to do with his announced subject, Jud Castro, but rather with another newly resurrected “mystery man” named Chick “El Cubano” Pedroes.
A recent email exchange with fellow SABR member Leslie Heaphy (an expert on both women in baseball and Negro leagues history) brought to mind a notable feature of the contemporary Cuban League which seems to merit an immediate blog entry. The Cuban League once again seems to far outpace the majors when it comes to groundbreaking innovations aimed at stripping away the sport’s atrocious record (at least at the North American professional level) when it comes to including black ballplayers, black managers, black executives, and (God forbid!) female ballplayers or umpires onto its playing fields or into its male inner sanctums.
At the beginning of the recent 2006-2007 Cuban National Series season the league welcomed its first woman umpire into its highest level of national professional baseball. Yanet Moreno Mendinueta, 32-year-old native of Santa Clara, made her league debut in the season’s lid-lifting game between Matanzas and Villa Clara on December 6, 2006. In May of 2007 she successfully completed her inaugural season with the league and all indications are that she will be welcomed back for a sophomore campaign during Series Nacional XLVII, which kicks off this coming December. A far cry from the sad saga attached to one-time MLB umpiring hopeful Pam Postema.
Yanet Moreno was the suject of a brief but revealing December 10, 2006 Granma Cuban press interview authored by Jose Antonio Fulgueiras. In that piece she revealed that she grew up playing street baseball in her Alamar neighborhood but failed to show much promise as a player in either hardball or softball. She later was encouraged a female softball instructor who suggested her switch to umpiring. The transition proved so successful that Yanet earned a spot in the Cuban national umpiring academy and rapidly worked her way up the ladder by officiating school, national youth league and eventual top category provincial league (Cuba’s minors) games. Yanet’s debut National Series game in Matanzas in December proved something of a trial-by-fire, as she worked behind the plate and was nearly kayoed by a foul tip in the early innings. But she survived that early scare and earned nothing but respect for her work as the season progressed.
When asked in the early-season Granma interview for her views on advantages and disadvantages of a female umpire she provided a most interesting observation. "All the players were born to a woman and all thus have a lot of respect for woman, who after all are always much stricter and also much more impartial."
Cuban baseball’s very charm for those of us who know it well lies in large part in the throw-back aspects of the sport: viz. its recapturing of the days when the sport was played in small and more intimiate parks and was far more of a pastoral drama and far less of an television-orchestrated electronic sideshow. But at least with the case of Yanet Moreno, Cuban League baseball seems to have already moved far into the future when compared to its commercial big league cousin.
A week-long stay in Havana earlier this month (May 14-22) found the Cuban baseball scene–in the immediate aftermath of one of the most exciting National Series post-seasons in recent years–to be overflowing with the usual euphoria that has reinvigorated the island’s national sport since the March 2006 World Baseball Classic. A special mid-May excitement also surrounded the official release of the 35-man player roster that comprises Cuba’s national team for this summer’s series of top-flight international competitions. The 35 invitees will train in Havana and Panama throughout June and early July for the mid-July Pan American Games tournament in Rio de Janeiro, the early August Netherlands-based World Port Invitational Tournament in Rotterdam, and the eventual World Cup XXXVII to be held in mid-November in Chinese Taipei. An additional warm-up tournament designed as a preliminary to the Pan Am Games (one involving Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba) will also be staged in Panama City during early July.
Twenty players only will be selected from the original 35 trainees for the limited Pan American Games squad that will visit Rio (a severe roster restriction that somewhat diminishes this particular tournament); Cuba will be defending a Pan American gold medal in Brazil that it has won in each of the last nine editions of this event (since 1971). In November the crack Cuban club will also be attempting to stretch its unbroken string of World Cup titles to nine (Cuba did not attend the 1982 competitions in South Korea, and has not lost on the field since 1951 in Mexico City). Cuba’s Rotterdam and Taipei rosters will also be selected from the 35 ballplayers currently in training for the Rio matches.
Cuba’s national team roster for 2007 (as announced on May 16) is as follows (with National Series teams indicated in parentheses): Catchers Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara), Eriel Sanchez (Sancti Spiritus), Yovani Peraza (Pinar del Rio) and Osvaldo Arias (Cienfuegos). Infielders Alexander Mayeta (Industriales), Jose Julio (Santiago), Hector Olivera (Santiago), Alexei Ramirez (Pinar del Rio), Luis Miguel Navas (Santiago), Eduardo Paret (Villa Clara), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spiritus). Outfielders Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas), Georvis Duvergel (Guantanamo), Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spiritus), Yoandri Urgelles (Industriales), Yohennis Cespedes (Granma), Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), and Alexei Bell (Santiago). Pitchers Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio), Yunieski Maya (Pinar del Rio), Vladimir Banos (Pinar del Rio), Adiel Palma (Cienfuegos), Norberto Gonzalez (Cienfuegos), Jonder Martinez (Habana), Elier Sanchez (Camaguey), Vicyohandri Odelin (Camaguey), Norge Vera (Santiago), Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Jose Angel Garcia (Habana), Aroldis Chapman (Holguin), Yolexis Ulacia (Villa Clara), Felix Rivera (Santiago), Alberto Bicet (Santiago) and Arley Sanchez (Habana). Manager Rey Vicente Anglana (Industriales).
I was privileged to watch the first two closed practices of the new national team contingent held in Estadio Latinoamericano (May 19-20) and was quickly convinced that the blend of WBC veterans (Gourriel, Cepeda, Lazo, Paret, Pestano, Palma, etc.) and emerging young talent (especially promising outfielders Bell, Cespedes and Urgelles) will make this perhaps an even stronger outfit than the one that surprised with a WBC silver medal in San Diego fifteen months back. The most noteworthy features of this Cuban roster are perhaps the return of Rey Anglada as manager (despite a disappointing loss in the National Series finales at the helm of heavily favored Industriales), the move of league home run champion Alexei Ramirez to second base to clear some space in an over-crowded outfield, and the re-emergence of veteran Norge Vera as anchor of the exceptionally strong and experienced pitching staff. Rumors circulating in Havana last week suggested that Santiago skipper Antonio Pacheco had been the top choice as team manager but that minor health problems had keep Pacheco (who collapsed after one recent playoff game) stuck on the sidelines.
Now it is time to put aside the objective reporter’s stance and get a bit opinionated and even somewhat controversial. No, I am not about to advocate the advantages of a socialist baseball system that functions without owners, corporate franchises, player agents or free agency, like the one found in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. That argument (or at least my views on some of the plusses of the Cuban baseball system) will take up space on this page in the near future. My rant here is against those who argue that honoring Roberto Clemente’s impact on MLB history with a number retirement such as that afforded Jackie Robinson would either be out of line with Clemente’s overall contributions to the game, or perhaps might even in some way diminish Robinson’s historical achievement. I find both lines of thinking bogus and have already argued Clemente’s claim on immortality in an article about to be published in the 2007 summer edition of SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) journal The National Pastime. Let me only briefly summarize the gist of my own position here.
Past weeks have been filled with formal MLB-orchestrated celebrations of Jackie Robinson’s April 1947 crossing of organized baseball’s abhorrent "color line" in Brooklyn; these celebrations have found numerous players and even whole teams donning the "42" jersey which MLB moguls decided to premanently retire in 1997 (the 50th anniversary date) in appropriate honor of Jackie’s courageous and pioneering 1947 performance. One subtle irony of the entire affair, of course, was that a great majority of modern-era black big leaguers who have benefitted so drastically from Robinson and Rickey’s noble experiment likely didn’t know what JR’s number was (or much about the man himself) before "42" was resurrected and hung on stadium walls all around the majors. Another irony, of course, is that last month’s onfield celebrations of JR’s door-opening achievement were played out against a backdrop of numerous stories in the print and electronic about the diminishing presence of black athletes (read here African-Americans) on the big league scene. In fact, it seemed quite apparent at the time that one prime objective of the recent media campaign attached to Jackie’s memory was indeed an effort to combat the lost prestige of the diamond sport among youth in today’s African-American communities (if not in the larger North American community itself).
Let me underscore here in bold print that I do not wsh to deny or denigrate Jackie Robinson’s achievement (or its historical significance) here for an instant. The retirment of JR’s "42" is in all ways justified. My contention is only that Clemente played every bit the same roll for Latino ballplayers and fans (and thus for the cultural diversity and racial justice of the sport and the larger society) as did Robinson for African Americans. In one sense at least Clemente’s legacy is more deep-seated with the Latino community than Robinson’s among our black communities. If many of today’s black players have indeed forgotten JR’s legacy and impact, this can hardly been said of Latino aficionados and Clemente. For several decades Latino stars have elected to wear Clemente’s number in honor of their heritage (Jose Guillen, Sammy Sosa, Ruben Sierra, and Esteban Loiaza provide a handful of examples) whereas one is hard pressed to think of a single African-American star who has opted to wear "42" for its historic significance. And while baseball has apparently by all reports faded in the nation’s African American and inner-city neighborhoods, this is certainly no so of the game’s hold on Latino communities. In fact the claim that there are few blacks now entering the game is quite bogus in itself; the truth is that there are as many black stars now as ever before. It is only that they are in the great majority Afro-Latinos and not Afro-Americans. As huge as the Afro-American impact was on baseball in the 1950s (Aaron, Mays, Newcombe, Doby, Frank Robinson etc.), it was no larger or more significant than the Latino impact on the game in the 1990s and 2000s (Big Papi, Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Vlad Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez etc.). American blacks saved MLB in the fifties and Latinos have been doing so in the past two decades. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Clemente’s inspiration to young Latino athletes since the mid-fifties has been the game’s sole salvation in the the late-twentieth century. Without Latino and other international stars MLB might well today be on life-support. MLB has paid much lip service of late to recognizing its future as an international game. Perhaps nothing would clinch that point any better than honoring the number "21" of the sport’s first true international star.
Afro-Cuban Tommie de la Cruz pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944, three series before Jackie Robinosn’s debut in Brooklyn.
I have devoted space in the upcoming SABR TNP article to laying out Clemente’s Cooperstown credentials vis-a-vis the dossier of JR, and I will thus save those details for readers of the article itself when it appears. Clemente’s claim on Cooperstoen was made as both a pioneer (like Robinson) and as an onfield non-pareil (where he far outstripped JR). Some have argued that Clemente does not deserve the same treatment as Robinson because he was not, after all, the game’s (MLB’s) first Latino. But JR was not the sport’s first black pioneer either; a handful of Latinos (Afro-Latinos like Cubans Roberto Estalella and Tomas de la Cruz or Venezuela’s Alex Carrasquel) got there a number of years earlier; but with hardly a notice since they could be easily and conveniently dismissed as mere "foreigners" and thus not unwanted true blacks. Robinson’s immortality has not ever rested on an historical quirk of primacy, but rather on the actual psychological impact of his debute upon the edntire North American nation. The same can and should be claimed for Clemente, who launched with his inspiration a Latino invasion and heritage in major league baseball which is likely to far outstrip (if it has not already) the African-American influences upon what has long been the Pan American and not just the North American national pastime.
On the heels of a successful National Series #46, which wrapped up in late April with a thrilling title clash between perennial favorites Industriales and Santiago, early May ushered in a week of nothing but bad news for Cuban League baseball circles. First came the announcement of the passing of Owen Blandino (pictured here), one of the earliest heroes of post-revolution league and national team triumphs. This was followed by an official declaration of a one-year ban for star national team third baseman Michel Enriquez. And then there was the lackluster silver-medal performance of Team Cuba during the second edition of the ALBA friendship games staged in Caracas, Venezuela.
Blandino, a star third baseman for Azucareros, Las Villas and finally Sancti Spiritus during the first two decades of Cuban League action, succumbed in his hometown of Sancti Spiritus on May 3rd. Known as the "Gallo de Cabaiguan" (his native village), Blandino capped his career in the lineup of Sancti Spiritus’s only National Series championship team in 1979. A decade earlier he was a star performer (tournament leader in BA, runs and hits) during one of Cuba’s greatest international triumphs over Team USA at the Santo Domingo Amateur World Series of 1969. In 18 years of league action Blandino compiled only an unspectacular career average of .258, but his offensive performance at the 1969 World Cup matches (20 hits in 40 AB) was one of the truly great clutch performances of Team Cuba’s legendary international tournament heritage.
Two days after Blandino’s passing the office of Cuban baseball commissioner announced (after a long process of deliberation that national team third sacker and 2006 batting champion Michel Enriquez (left) would serve a one year suspension as the result of an ugly dispute in mid-March with veteran league umpire Jose Perez Julien. Enriquez (who played in the WBC and Athens Olympics and ranks behind only Osmani Urrutia and Omar Linares as third in Cuban League lifetime BA) was apparently suspended from a home game in Isla de la Juventud on March 13 and latter expelled for the remainder of the National Series season. (At the time he was again on the heels of Urrutia in a tight batting race.) While the Cuban press was largely mum on what actually happened between the ballplayer and umpire after the former’s on-field ejection on the 13th, there were reports that Julien had been sent to Havana for treatment of a broken arm (apparently received in a later off-field scuffle). Enriquez, known for his usual soft-spoken demeanor and always hot bat, hit at a .447 pace in National Series #45 to interrupt Urrutia’s previous string of five consecutive batting titles.
The week of embarrassment concluded with Team Cuba’s silver medal finish in the second ALBA games in Caracas, where a young "backup" national squad compiled an identical 7-1 record to that of gold medal-winning Panama, yet lost a 3-1 decision in the lidlifter to the champions managed by former Cuban national team skipper Alfonso Urquiola (Cuban manager in the 1998 Italy World Cup). The Cubans won seven straight after slipping against Panama, but they were hardpressed to edge Colombia, Brasil and Venezuela (a 3-2 10-inning game which clinched the silver medal). While this Cuban roster did not carry its biggest stars (Urrutia, Gourriel, Cepeda, or home run champ Alexei Ramirez) it did nonetheless featured several veterans of international play (Leslie Anderson, Juan Carlos Moreno, Joan Carlos Pedroso, and veteran hurlers Norge Vera and Ciro Silvino Licea). The loss to Panama in Venezuela was just one more mild disappointment in a somewhat unsettling opening to a chaotic month of May.
Santiago de Cuba’s red-clad Avispas (Wasps) rode a late-season offensive outburst to earn their seventh overall National Series championship and second league crown in the past three seasons as Cuba’s National Series #46 wound down in the final days of April. Behind manager and former national team star Antonio Pacheco, Santiago survived a dramatic seven-game semifinal series versus Villa Clara with impressive 16-3 and 18-8 knockout victories in the final two games, then opened the best-of-seven title round by clubbing defending champion Havana Industriales 19-6 on home turf. Industriales and Santiago have now alternated as champions for the past five seasons.
This year’s championship match-up also had some historic overtones, with final round games in both Santiago’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium and Havana’s Latin American Stadium being streamed live on the internet to the U.S. and the rest of the wider world via Cuba’s Radio COCO website. If the novel internet access (which came with a technical assist for the Havana-based Japanese Embassy) rekindled Cuban league interest stateside, emotions ran especially high in the island’s two largest cities as fan support for the National Series post-season reached a level not previously seen during the past decade.
Despite its one-sided knockout of Industriales (via the Olympic 10-run rule which stops lopsided games at the end of seven frames) in the title-round opener, Santiago’s championship was in the end won mainly with clutch pitching. The series turned on a stellar game-five hurling performance by veteran national team ace Norge Vera (12-5). Vera broke the back of a two-game Industriales rally in Latin American Stadium, logging 5.2 strong innings of a crucial 6-4 tie-breaking victory on enemy soil. Santiago closed out the series back home in Guillermon Moncada in game six with an 8-2 romp also keyed by Alberto Bicet’s (10-1) strong 7.2-inning scoreless relief stint.
The Santiago-Industriales post-season showdown capped a Cuban League campaign that also featured a pair of noteworthy individual performances by Las Tunas outfielder Osmani Urrutia (below) and veteran Granma right-hander Ciro Silvino Licea (pictured right). National team right-fielder Urrutia continued to establish his substantial credentials as one of the best hitters in any league by posting a National Series record sixth batting title in seven years. During his 2001-2005 string of five consecutive hitting crowns Urrutia amassed a composite .422 average and is now Cuba’s career BA leader with a .370 lifetime mark. Urrutia’s run to another batting crown (.370, matching his career mark) was aided, however, by the surprise suspension of last year’s leader Michel Enriquez (.368 at mid-season) after an altercation with a veteran umpire put the starting national team third baseman on the sidelines for the season’s final full month. Licea, for his part, nearly pulled off the rarest of feats by leading the league in both ERA (1.15) and innings pitched (132.2) simultaneously. (Has such a thing ever happened in the big leagues?) Licea missed the rare double when he missed out on the top spot in innings logged by a mere 2/3 of a frame.
Readers wanting seasons’ recaps for every Cuban League "amateur" season and post-season stretching back to inaugural National Series I (1962)–along with all the post-1962 shorter Selective Series and Super League campaigns and all the professional pre-1961 seasons as well–can find them all, and much, much more in my new book, A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, which has stood at the top of the McFarland Publishers best-sellers list for the past three months. Those seeking the book should visit either amazon.com or the McFarland Publishers website.