Revitalized Team Cuba Regains Some Much-Needed Glory during Opening Days of Mexico’s Central American Games

Team Cuba

Cuba’s top ballplayers strolled onto the field at Beto Avila Stadium in Veracruz this past week attired in classy new uniforms and also brimming with apparent confidence on the eve of a Central American Games tournament they have virtually dominated across the past nine decades (15 championships in 18 appearances). But the current squad led by frenetic skipper Victor Mesa was for all its historical trappings still more of a mystery and a puzzle than the apparent juggernaut outfit of the not-too-distant past. The Cuban forces have been lately stripped of some of their biggest offensive guns and top pitching arms from the past half-dozen seasons. They also admittedly remained a  ball club (albeit with slightly different personnel) that has lately sputtering under a controversial manager who has so far repeatedly failed to rekindle the glories enjoyed under the bulk of his most recent predecessors (Antonio Pacheco, Rey Anglada, Alfonso Urquiola and Higinio Vélez). The undeniable truth remains that a once nearly invincible Cuban baseball powerhouse has been more often than not a sputtering also-ran at recent top level international events. This year’s team therefore seemingly stood in rather desperate need of a complete face-lifting – a totally revamped image and not merely a colorful set of replacement red and white jerseys.

The presence of top-level professionals on opposition rosters after 1999 was a first near-fatal blow to Cuban dominance during the opening decade of the new century. But if the Cubans were no longer unmolested kingpins after the loss of Olympic Gold at Sydney back in 2000, they nonetheless were still imposing challengers, posting runner-up finishes in the inaugural World Baseball Classic (2006) and also in the final three editions of the now defunct IBAF World Cup tournament (2007, 2009 and 2011). For those who enjoy their cup half full, these continued inspired but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying showings against seasoned big leaguers only seemed to underscore just how strong the modern-era Cuban national baseball program actually still was. But occasional early round single-game losses and a string of Gold Medal Game defeats nonetheless did little to pacify a largely spoiled Cuban domestic fandom weaned on an endless stream of 1970s, 80s, and 90s championship sweeps against opposition teams featuring mostly inexperienced university and semipro athletes. After Sydney 2000 (or at least after the near miss at the 2006 inaugural World Baseball Classic) much of the earlier luster seemed to have rubbed off the face of once-proud Cuban baseball.

Then the bottom seemed to fall out of the Cuban program altogether last February during a long-anticipated return to the showcase Caribbean Series staged in neighboring Venezuela. Despite much optimism surrounding a renewed opportunity to confront Caribbean rivals in a legitimate winter league championship showdown, a seemingly respectable Cuban squad comprised of National Series Champion Villa Clara and a half-dozen hefty reinforcements (including World Baseball Classic holdovers Despaigne, Gourriel, José Miguel Fernández, Ariel Pestano and ace hurler Freddie Alvarez) was literally run off the field in three straight outings by eventual champion Mexico (9-4), also-ran Venezuela (8-5) and an understaffed squad of Dominicans (9-2), barely managing to save some belated face with a final single victory earned over Puerto Rico (2-1) on the strength of a gutsy complete game pitching performance by aged and fading veteran Camagüeyano Vichyohandri Odelin. You can count on one hand the number of senior level tournaments over the past half-century (the precise six-decade span of the Cuban Revolution) in which any Cuban squad had been sent packing before the semi-final or championship matches, and the debacle in Isla Margarita last spring was the most embarrassing and heart-wrenching setback of all. 

If the spectacular improvement in the level of international competition wasn’t a large enough setback for the Cuban forces, it has also been abundantly clear in recent months that the island national game itself has been sagging due to constant and demoralizing ballplayer attrition. The departure of dozens of young prospects fleeing the island nation in search of promised riches in North American professional baseball has sapped league rosters to such a degree that radical changes in long-standing National Series structure (in form of a two-part season with only eight teams included in the championship round) have been needed in order to maintain competitive balance and improve national team preparations. And the biggest blow of all has been the increasing stream of top-level stars “defecting” from the Cuban baseball scene. In the past year alone the 2013 World Baseball Classic roster has been gutted by the loss of Joé Dariel Abreu, José Miguel Fernández and Erisbel Arruebarrena from the starting infield, the disappearance of reinforcements Yasmani Tomás and Guillermo Heredia from a big-league-quality outfield contingent, and the subtraction of Odrisamer Despaigne, Diosdany Castillo, and Rasiel Iglesias from a once-solid bullpen corps. Unless one could find pride mainly in the distant headlining exploits of newly minted major leaguers José Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Rusney Castillo, it hasn’t been a very heady time of late to be a baseball fan back in Havana, Santiago or Pinar del Río.

Alfredo Despaigne
Alfredo Despaigne. (Photo by I. Francisco)

It therefore goes without saying that Cuban baseball found itself in truly desperate need of not only a solid showing but nothing short of a Gold Medal victory at this month’s Central American and Caribbean Games in Vera Cruz. The new squad picked to carry the banner into battle in Mexico was therefore largely a veteran contingent of the type reserved for top international events. Freddie Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne – all fresh off summer-long loan to the Japanese Leagues – would anchor the heart of the lineup. The pitching staff was headlined by Freddie Alvarez and Norge Luis Ruiz, a pair of top-flight starters who both failed in Isla Margarita last winter. A veteran catching corps composed of Frank Camilo Morejón, Yulexis La Rosa, and the rehabilitated Yosvani Alarcón all boasted considerable big-event experience. The primary newcomers this time out would be starting infielders Luis Yander la O at the hot corner and Dainer Moreira at shortstop, plus rapidly emerging centerfield talent Roel Santos. Some of the pieces (especially Santos, the whole left side of the infield, and backup pitchers Yasiel Sierra, Vladimir Gutiérrez and Cionel Pérez) were admittedly largely untested, but this was likely the best current lineup that Victor Mesa and his advisors could now patch together from still-available island forces.  

Given all this pressure and all this backdrop of looming doubt, what happened across the first few days of competition in Boca del Río, Vera Cruz has to be classified as a major surprise and even an inspiring turnaround. The fancy stylish replacement uniforms and some of the batting order names may have seemed novel to television viewers back in Havana, but the action on the field looked much more like a throwback to the memorable days of Omar Linares, Antonio Pacheco and Orestes Kindelán than like any disarming view into an unsettled future. Cuban bats immediately came alive, Norge Luis Ruiz appeared to be something of a reincarnation of Norge Luis Vera, and Cuba was once again suddenly rolling over what was supposed to be challenging opposition in a fashion not seen in nearly a decade.

An opening Saturday afternoon contest in Beto Avila Stadium quickly set the tone for such surprising Cuban domination. Norge Luis (who couldn’t survive the third inning of his disastrous crucial Caribbean Series start against Venezuela nine months back) surrendered a harmless single in the fourth frame and then allowed only two additional base runners (both walks) across eight brilliant innings to slam the door on a Puerto Rican nine that provided altogether little opening day challenge. The Cuban offense displayed just enough timely punch against starter Luis Cintron and his trio of relievers to allow Ruiz (with six strikeouts) to coast from wire to wire; veterans Gourriel, Alex Mayeta and Alarcón each registered a pair of base knocks and Freddie Cepeda largely sealed the deal with a ringing homer in the home half of the seventh. And right-hander Héctor Mendoza (also recently recalled from Japanese league service) closed out the final frame in all-too-proficient fashion.

The road only seemed to get smoother after Day One successes. Monday evening’s much anticipated headliner matchup with host Mexico packed Beto Avila Stadium (a sellout of almost 7,000 patrons) but witnessed most of the local faithful heading for the exits painfully early. The free-swinging Cubans plated tallies in each of the first five frames and coasted to a 10-1 victory that was actually even more one-sided than it looked on the scoreboard. Victor Mesa’s charges amassed 17 base hits and also left a dozen runners stranded in what might easily have been a shortened mercy-rule victory. Yulieski Gourriel knocked home five runs on the strength of his trio of singles; Dainer Moreira enjoyed a perfect four-for-four outing in the leadoff spot, and Alfredo Despaigne clubbed Cuba’s second homer of the week – a two-run shot upping the margin to 6-0 in the top of the second frame. Staked to the big lead, Freddy Asiel Alvarez worked five uneventful innings, allowing a sole run (the only one of the entire qualification round surrendered by strong Cuban pitching) while permitting three safeties and striking out a pair. Vladimir Gutiérrez, Yasiel Sierra and Héctor Mendoza split the four final mop-up innings out of the bullpen.

A third contest with hapless and outclassed Guatemala was even more of a cakewalk, lasting but seven innings and producing another ten Cuban tallies (plus an equal number of additional stranded base runners). The Guatemalans eked out three singles against starter Yosvani Torres and a corps of four relievers while every Cuban offensive starter in turn hit safely, Yadiel Hernández owned the most productive bat (a double and four RBIs), and Freddie Cepeda crushed his second homer of the week. When the dust settled at the end of four days of classification-round play Cuba was the only undefeated club left standing and the domination was visible enough to recall those regular “laugher” victories from the nostalgia-inspiring bygone eras of Marquetti and Muñoz or Linares and Kindelán.

Norge Luis Ruíz
Norge Luis Ruíz. (Photo by I. Francisco)

Mesa’s ball club has to be the overwhelming favorite as the tournament moves into its semifinal round on Thursday afternoon with Cuba facing the Group B runner-up Dominicans and Puerto Rico squaring off with Nicaragua. In addition to three consecutive victories in which hardly a sweat was broken, Cuba’s statistical domination over the field was almost laughable. As a unit the Cubans are now batting .483 against tame opposition pitching in Veracruz, the mound corps has surrendered only 9 total enemy hits (and better still, issued only 4 free passes) and also posted a dreamlike 0.36 ERA. Aces Norge Luis and Freddie Asiel are poised to return on the hill for the two final crucial matches and Mesa has been able to give his entire relief corps token tune-ups without taxing a single bullpen arm.

Of course anything can happen on the baseball diamond and victory is hardly ever a foregone conclusion. Naysayers may also carp that these early successes can only be attributed to overly weak opposition. Nonetheless it might be underscored here that the Puerto Rican ball club now competing in Veracruz under skipper Edwin Rodríguez (manager of the Borinquen runner-up squad at the 2013 World Baseball Classic) is an all-star contingent from the island’s winter league (the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League). It was the champions of that same rival Puerto Rican league that outlasted Cuba (reaching the finals via a tie-breaker rule) in last winter’s disastrous return visit to the historic Caribbean Series. And the Dominican rivals in Friday’s semifinal will open with a one-time top New York Yankees prospect (right-hander Jairo Heredia) on the hill. Competition is certainly no weaker here than it was in so many of the similar tournaments that brought Cuba so much international glory and such regular boasting rights in past decades.

Victor Mesa went out on a limp on the eve of the Veracruz outing by affirming that Cuba could afford to be satisfied with nothing short of a Gold Medal triumph, one that might reverse so many disappointing setbacks suffered in recent international campaigns. So far the sun has shown brightly on the Cubans in Mexico. A rousing Central American Games sweep likely won’t do much to convince the hordes of recent skeptics who persist in repeating a now-familiar mantra about the near demise of the national sport in the wake of so much star player attrition. But two more triumphs in Mexico should send a clear message that the death knell has perhaps been sounded a bit prematurely and that there is still plenty of firepower left in the constantly renewing Cuban baseball arsenal. 

 

Peter C. Bjarkman is Senior Writer at BaseballdeCuba.com (since 2007), widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball history (both pre- and post-revolution) and author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) among numerous other titles.