Managerial Musical Chairs Highlight Recent Cuban League Off-Season

by Peter C. Bjarkman | Senior Writer at BaseballdeCuba

September 2, 2007 

The current off-season has been one of the most active of the last two decades in terms of managerial changes throughout the 16-team National Series circuit. Cuban commissioner Carlitos Rodríguez and his team of technical commission advisers have seemingly burned the midnight oil all summer long to come up with fresh blood for several of the circuit’s more lackluster or underperforming ball clubs. The result has been a changing of the guard for six (and possibly seven, depending on the Santiago situation) of the Cuban League ball clubs. The biggest buzz throughout June and July among island fans and the Cuban baseball press attached to the celebrated switch in Sancti Spíritus. There former national team slugger and five-year veteran manager Lourdes Gourriel voluntarily relinquished his post, on the heels of several disappointing post-season collapses by his talented squad that features a bevy of top national team stars. But there was also significant news coming out of Ciego de Avila, on the eve of the Río-based Pan American Games, when it was announced that popular veteran backstop Róger Machado had unexpectedly taken the reins of a team he had anchored for 13 seasons as one of the league’s top defensive specialists. 

Roger Machado

The heralded transition in Sancti Spiritus—from Gourriel to former catching great Juan Castro—drew most of the summertime attention, especially since the two-month gap between Gourriel’s announced resignation and Castro’s surprise appointment was filled with endless and even sometimes wild speculations about a probable replacement skipper. Lourdes Gourriel had suffered through a stormy up-and-down five-winter career in charge of an underachieving ball club that featured national team headliners Yulieski Gourriel (the manager’s own son), versatile catcher Eriel Sánchez, and slugging outfielder Freddie Cepeda—one of the best one-two-three batting punches found anywhere in the league. Sancti Spíritus, representing one of the island’s smallest provinces, burst on the scene in 2002, reaching the championship finals for only the second time in team history. That 2001-02 club, the first under Gourriel’s direction, showcased 20-year-old pitching phenom Maels Rodríguez, who dazzled fans and rewrote the récord books with a pair of 200-plus season-long strikeout performances. But Maels soon fell victim to career-ending injury and there was wide criticism of Gourriel for possibly over-using his star hurler. In the past two seasons the Sancti Spiritus team has struggled in getting back to the top, and Gourriel’s squads have collapsed in the playoffs at the close of each of the last two National Series, both times versus arch-rival Industriales. Again it was Gourriel, as expected, who took much of the heat for his team’s failure to turn the corner at season’s end, especially after two final embarrassing defeats at home during games six and seven of the May 2006 league semifinals. 

For several weeks this past summer there was rampant speculation as to exactly who the new manager of the orange-and-blue-clad Gallos (Roosters) might finally be. Half-a-dozen names were prominently mentioned on the Radio COCO Cuban League website, and these included some of the biggest headliners of Cuban baseball. The most prominent and perhaps most surprising figures advanced were a celebrity trio of past greats: former Pinar del Río backstop Juan Castro (considered by many the greatest-ever Cuban national team catcher), former Industriales shortstop nonpareil Germán Mesa (also lately rumored as a likely replacement for Rey Anglada with Industriales), and one-time Villa Clara star Pedro Jova (field boss of a Villa Clara club that walked off with three consecutive National Series crowns in the mid-1990s). Also thrown into the mix was Santiago’s Higino Vélez, who could also boast three straight national championships (1999-2001) and who is best known off the island as the colorful leader of Cuba’s highly successful runner-up in the 2006 MLB World Baseball Classic. 

The naming of Juan Castro to fill the post in late July came as a mild surprise perhaps, in view of those rumored candidacies of such luminaries as Jova, Vélez and Mesa, but certainly not because Castro himself lacked sufficient credentials for the post. It seemed only a matter of time, in fact, until the former Pinar catching great seized his opportunity to manage once again at the top level in the National Series. Castro had enjoyed an earlier shot at directing a National Series club when he managed Forestales (Pinar del Río Province) for three winters (1989-1991), but was saddled that first time around with a team demonstrating only sparse talent; a decade later he managed another Pinar outfit (Vegueros) that won back-to-back titles (1998-1999) in the Developmental League (Cuba’s version of the minor leagues). Now looking forward to his new assignment in Sancti Spíritus, Castro predicted to Radio COCO columnist Yasel Porto that his new club would continue to build its attack around the power game (as opposed to speed) as Gourriel’s teams had done in recent years. He assumed his biggest immediate challenge would be to fill the crucial shortstop position, where a number of young prospects are expected to contest holdover veteran Omar Arrozarena. 

Another respected ex-catcher also made headlines only a few weeks before Juan Castro, when it was announced that veteran national team backup receiver Róger Machado would take charge of the Ciego de Avila club, the team for which he has played the past dozen seasons. Barely 30 years of age, Machado becomes one of the youngest skippers in National Series history; having announced his retirement at the end of the recent National Series XLVI, Machado is also the first in league history to occupy a manager’s slot in less than one year after his retirement as an active player. Having been carefully groomed for a managerial post in the past year (serving as a bullpen catcher and part-time coach for the national team during the WBC action in San Juan and San Diego), the popular Machado inherits a young Tigres roster filled with promising talent but unable to reach its potential and perform up to expectations under a series of recent managerial changes, especially in the second half of the most recent season under the direction of Onesio de León. 

Still another new managerial appointee was no stranger to a spot on the end of the bench during the National Series. Carlos Martí has returned to the top slot as director (the Cuban term for team field manager) of a Granma squad which is one of the league’s most improved outfits and also boasts two of the country’s top young outfield prospects in Yoennis Cespedes and Alfredo Despaígne. The venerable Carlos Martí owns the Cuban League’s longest managerial tenure, having remained at the helm of the Granma Alazanes (Stallions) for 23 seasons and having also served as the club’s first skipper back in 1977-78. The long tenure was broken two seasons ago when Martí briefly retired, but his replacement Marcos Fonseca was not popular with local fans, and worse yet his two Granma “editions” both fared poorly in late season, dropping four straight to Santiago in the 2006 semifinals and failing altogether to classify for the post-season this past spring. Martí’s promising young club on tap for the new season features not only the one-two slugging punch of Cespedes and Despaígne but also one of Cuba’s best pitchers in Ciro Silvino Licea (last year’s league ERA champion). It very much appears that the seasoned Martí may be returning to the scene at precisely the moment when the Granma ball club is well prepared finally to hit its full stride in 2008. 

Much speculation also surrounded unfilled managerial slots on several other league clubs, especially the four teams making up Group D in the Oriente portion of the four-division circuit. Yet when the dust finally settled a number of familiar faces were back at their old posts in the eastern sector of the island. Antonio Pacheco may have weathered his late season health crisis of last April. Carlos Martí’s return was anything but a surprise in Granma. And Héctor “Tico” Hernández was perhaps the most noteworthy returnee when he was named to his former role with Holguín, a club that surprised with a rare league championship in 2002 but has been sliding toward the cellar ever since. “Tico” Hernández stepped down after his league title in 2002, and on the heels of his brief shot at being national team skipper during the International Cup matches in Havana later that same year. But Tico’s string of replacements (René Vera, Carlos Rodríguez and Manuel Cabrera) have turned in nothing but disappointing results in subsequent campaigns at the helm of a Holguín Cachorros (Cubs) team that fell eleven games under .500 this past campaign under Cabrera. 

Things remained more tranquil on the managerial front in the western half of the island, as six of eight managers reclaimed their spots in the two groups of teams comprising the Occidentales region of the Cuban League. The biggest surprise here may have been the survival of Roberto Rosique, whose Matanzas team has become the league’s worst doormat of late and won the league’s fewest games (only 26) this past season. Jorge Millán’s Havana Metros club didn’t perform much better (claiming but 29 wins) but did show some marked improvement over a more disastrous 2005-2006 outing. In the cases of current national team skipper Rey Anglada, with perennial powerhouse Industriales, or former national team manager Jorge Fuentes, with always strong Pinar del Río, no one could possibly have expected change, despite all the constant rumors afloat in baseball-crazy Havana that local hero Germán Mesa is being readied to step into Anglada’s heavy shoes. 

The roster of Cuban managers, heading into National Series XLVII (2007-2008), thus now lines up as follows. Changes in team directors/managers are indicated in bold print, and last season’s managers that have been replaced are given in parentheses. Teams are listed in the order of last year’s finish within each group. 

Cuban League baseball—the variety played across the 90-game National Series schedule each December through May—is unique for its special structure as well as its colorful style of play. Cuban ballplayers don’t change teams, except on the rarest of occasions. Each athlete plays for the squad representing his own province and remains with that club throughout his entire Cuban League tenure. Only in special circumstances will league official reassign an athlete to another club, as has happened at times when fan-favorite Havana Industriales has been strengthened with prospects from the capital city’s less popular Metros squad. But Cuban League managers are the clear exception to the rule. They don’t always hail from the province claiming the squad they direct, and many are sports-academy trainees and not former league players. Often a veteran manager—as with the recent cases of Pinar del Río skippers Jorge Fuentes and Alfonso Urquiola—will leave the league (and the country) for several seasons for a tenure “on loan” as a manager or coach for other national baseball programs, like those in Colombia, Nicaragua, Italy, Guatemala, Panama, or Japan. 

Group A (Occidente)

Isla de la Juventud - Armando Johnson

Pinar del Río - Jorge Fuentes

Metropolitanos - Jorge Milián

Matanzas - Rigoberto Rosique

Group B (Occidente)

Industriales - Rey Vicente Anglada

Sancti Spíritus - Juan Castro (Lourdes Gourriel)

Habana Province - Esteban Lombillo

Cienfuegos - Unnamed (Dessy Lomba)

Group C (Oriente)

Villa Clara - Víctor Mesa

Las Tunas - Ermidelio Urrutia

Camagüey - Miguel Borroto

Ciego de Avila - Róger Machado (Onesio de León)

Group D (Oriente)

Santiago de Cuba - Antonio Pacheco, or Luis Danilo Larduet

Granma - Carlos Martí (Marcos Fonseca)

Holguín - Héctor Hernández(Manuel Cabrera)

Guantánamo - Unnamed (Rolando Quebrún)

One major question mark remaining on the 2007-08 managerial roster is the situation with defending league champion Santiago de Cuba. Here Antonio Pacheco may yet have to sit out the coming season due to health problems which popped up during the final stages of the 2007 playoffs, and if Pacheco rests the likely replacement would be assistant Luis Danilo Larduet. Pacheco had been mentioned as a possible national team manager after the glorious finish of his young Santiago team in the 2007 post-season. But the Cuban League’s career base hits leader subsequently had to sit out both Río de Janeiro and Rotterdam while his health repaired. (Pacheco was briefly hospitalized with an apparent heart irregularity in the penultimate week of the most recent post-season.) And as of late August the ball clubs in both Cienfuegos and Guantánamo were still without official directors/managers for the rapidly upcoming season. 

Even on the national team front the managerial picture is still not all that crystal clear, even as the next World Cup matches loom on the horizon. World Cup XXXVII is slated for Taipei on the mid-November eve of a new National Series and will be the highlight of Cuba’s so-far-successful 2007 international schedule. Rey Vicente Anglada has successfully handled the national team post since Higinio Vélez was surprisingly reassigned to technical commission duty following the 2006 World Baseball Classic. There was some speculation on Havana street corners that Anglada would be replaced by Pacheco, or perhaps Victor Mesa, for the Pan American Games, but this clearly didn’t happen. Anglada’s team won in Río as expected, but Cuba A didn’t show much spark, especially on the offensive side of its game. Victor Mesa’s B Team in Rotterdam for the World Port Tournament a month later was more than impressive (twice easily handling the very same USA squad the pressed Cuba A during the Pan Am Games finale), a fact that might improve the Villa Clara skipper’s chances for grabbing the most prestigious post in Cuban baseball. Lourdes Gourriel was removed from his slot in the National Series (resigning under apparent pressure) but nonetheless successfully handled a third Cuban team at this summer’s Italian Baseball Week. And Armando Johnson of Isla has also recently been picking up valuable international experience with the AA-level national squad. And in the wings sits 1998 World Cup Team Cuba manager Alfonso Urquiola, fresh from directing Panama in the Brazil-based Pan American Games. 

When it comes to the fortunes of Team Cuba, Commissioner Carlitos Rodríguez seems to have an embarrassing wealth of choices at hand. If Cuba still has more than enough front-line stars to man perhaps two impressive national team rosters, the reigning international baseball champions also seem to display no apparent shortages when it comes to high quality managers. 

 

Peter C. Bjarkman’s analyses of Cuban baseball can also be followed on his website at www.bjarkman.com, on his personal blog at www.bjarkmanlatinobaseball.mlblogs.com, and on the Cuban League site found at www.radiococo.cu (English-language page). His new book entitled Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2007 will be published by McFarland at the end of the coming year.