Canada: Panthers sign Cuban players

In a country obsessed with baseball, it’s a deal that’s got everyone talking.

The Kitchener Panthers have signed star Cuban catcher Frank Camilo Morejon to play for the 2016 season, completing a trifecta they hope can win them their first Intercounty Baseball League championship in 15 years.

Morejon, 30, will join pitchers Noelvis Entenza and Ian Rendon as the first Cubans to play in the Intercounty Baseball League with the permission of their government.

The news made waves across Cuba this week, as the three signed formal contracts with the Panthers. Under the deal, they’ll spend the summer in Canada, then return to Havana, where they’re teammates on the storied Industriales of the Cuban National Series.

Until recently, the only way for Cubans to play baseball abroad was to defect. The team says the deal opens the door to more Cuban players coming to the Intercounty Baseball League, an independent circuit that has been around since 1919.

Morejon is a household name in Cuba, where he’s considered one of the best defensive catchers in the country. He’s been a staple of the Cuban national team, appearing on the World Baseball Classic, World Baseball Cup and 2015 Pan American Games teams.

He’s not known for his bat — his career batting average is .243 in 12 seasons in Cuba — but Morejon’s defensive stats are second to none. He was a Gold Glove catcher in the 2013-2014 season, fielding .998 and throwing out a league-best 29 runners in 39 attempts.

“He’s the guy right from the get-go that we wanted,” said Panthers general manager Scott Ballantyne. “When they finally gave the go-ahead, we were pretty excited.”

Although he’s best known for his defense, Morejon found his swing this past season, hitting ‎.303 for his Havana team. He was also the starting catcher in last month’s historic game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, playing in front of the U.S. and Cuban presidents.

Frank C. Morejón

The catcher is the last piece of the puzzle for the Panthers, who previously announced they’d struck a deal with Entenza and Rendon. It gives the team an all-Spanish battery, in a game where communication between the catcher and pitcher is crucial.

“He was that last piece we were trying to get,” said the Panthers manager, Dave teBoekhorst. “I’m excited from a baseball standpoint. His defensive stats are just ridiculous.”

The Cubans are expected to arrive in Kitchener next week, just days ahead of the Panthers’ season opener May 7 in Barrie. The team’s home opener is Sunday, May 15, at 2 p.m. at Jack Couch Park.

The manager says he plans to use the Cubans in games right away, but expects it’ll take a few weeks for everyone to get familiar with each other.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re Cuban or a junior call-up, when it comes to learning how to handle these guys. There’s still a learning curve,” he said.

“But I’m excited to see what they bring, and it gives people another reason to come watch the Kitchener Panthers to see these guys go to work.”

Morejon, whose wife is an Olympic silver medalist on the Cuban national judo team, will leave his family behind for the summer. The couple have a two-year-old daughter together.

The deal was the result of months of negotiations between the Cuban Baseball Federation and Panthers board member Mike Boehmer, son of Pat Boehmer, a star pitcher with the Panthers in the 1940s and 50s.

Boehmer has essentially acted as the Panthers’ scout in Cuba, building inroads with Cuban baseball officials on repeated visits to the island nation. He described Morejon’s work behind the plate as “outstanding.”

Under Intercounty rules, import players can’t be paid, but they can be given money for their living expenses. They’ll also be put up in graduate student housing at the University of Waterloo, and reportedly plan to send as much money as they can back to their families in Cuba.

Bill Pegg, the team’s president, said the Cubans should bring a more competitive, professional edge to the Panthers, who made it to the league finals in 2015.

“We’re doing our damnedest to put the best team we can on the field, using the resources we’re allowed to use under the league rules,” he said.

“We get good support in the community, and we owe it to everybody to let them know we’re all-in. Last season was a good year. But this year, we’ve taken it a step further.”

Morejon, meanwhile, says he’s eager to come north to help Kitchener win a league championship, something that has eluded the team since 2001.

“I’m psyched to do things well to support the interest of the club to win the (championship),” he told the Cuban media in a press conference Thursday, in Spanish.

Exhibition games

The Panthers will host two exhibition games at Jack Couch Park as they prepare for the regular season, which begins May 7 in Barrie. On Sunday, May 1, they host the Brantford Red Sox at 2 p.m. On Tuesday, May 3, they’ll play the Guelph Royals at 7:30 p.m. Admission to the games is $2 or a donation to the food bank.