By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES – The debate took place a few days ago on a television program, and although it was brief, it reveals the dissatisfactions that exist among specialists regarding the performance of Cuban baseball players in the international events of recent years.
A little over a decade ago, Cuba had the titles in all major amateur baseball tournaments in the different categories, but little by little it was giving ground and nowadays it does not exhibit any.
What is worse, it has not even advanced to the decisive games in the major events of the last decade including the World Baseball Classics, Premier 12 tournaments or Pan American Games. All this taking into account that in all these contests the rest of the teams do not make squads with their full potential, for different reasons.
The center of the controversy was that one of the commentators refused to talk about a crisis, because he considered that Cuban baseball players who play in the Major Leagues show their quality almost daily, season after season.
While this is true, we shouldn’t forget that those who shine today in MLB were part of the national team, that is, they were the best of the talent existing on the Island at that time. Likewise, all of them went through the adaptation processes and spent more or less time in the Minor Leagues before being called up to the Majors.
In addition, let’s not forget the fact that for these approximately 30 players who now have a secure position in the rosters of the majors, there are more than a hundred that over the years have had only sporadic appearances, and some have not even been able to dress an MLB uniform.
With this I don’t want to take any merits away from those players, but just put in perspective that yes, there is talent, but taken from the best of the best, and then polished in the United States.
On the other hand, the existence of talent does not imply that there is a development of baseball [or other sports] in Cuba, and the best proof is in history, because even when in this country sports was little less than nothing, there were always figures of international relevance, like the fencer Ramon Fonst, the sprinter Rafael Fortun, the chess player Jose Raul Capablanca or the boxer Kid Chocolate, just to name a few of the most prominent examples.
The underlying issue, and in that yes all the specialists agreed, is that the methodology currently applied in Cuba is too stiff. Likewise, management methods are flawed; there is little stimulation to the players, among other issues.
International events held in the last decade have shown that our players do not arrive well prepared, especially batters, accustomed here on the island to face a shallow pitching, with low speed, poor control and little variation.
In spite of the fact that practically all signs [at the international events] are given from the bench, the mistakes of pitch selection and location have been repeated at specific times, which has led to blowing more than a few potential wins.
Add that the batters fail again and again to hit the ball in key moments, which does not always mean achieving a good connection. Sometimes a sacrifice fly or a touch of the ball is enough to advance the runners. That has been very common, sometimes in a game where the opponent does those things well, simply by applying the basic fundamentals of baseball.
The methods of management (I do not mean the manager) are increasingly worrying, with a baseball federation that is eternalized in office despite the bad results that are harvested year after year. Directors hand-picked without proper preparation, and constant improvisations that range from the national baseball season calendar to the selection of the national team coaches.
The low stimulation of the players is a key factor in the crisis of results. Their salary was increased a few years ago, but it is still insufficient to live with dignity in this country, especially when they know that because of their potential they can aspire to important contracts in other countries.
There have been attempts to find alternatives in some Leagues, but a player must always go through the Cuban Baseball Federation, and meet certain “requirements” to be considered. Many players have tried to contract out on their own, because they have the contacts and conditions, and have clashed with the veto of the authorities. Several of them have had to withdraw from the Cuban League in order to fulfill their dream of playing elsewhere.
In this sense, it is worth rescuing the initiative to allow players who left in search of other horizons to return to the main domestic tournament, which is being applied since last season, and has shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena as its main banner at the moment.
The experience accumulated by these players during their passage, fleeting or not, in the Major Leagues, is invaluable for their teammates and should be taken into account by the technicians in their respective provinces and by the national team staff. The latter remains to be seen, if the egos do not get in the way of good intentions.
But the basis of everything has always been, and should continue to be, to work seriously from the lower categories. Tournaments reduced to the slightest expression, and where the fundamental weight of expenses is held by the parents of the players, cannot be the basis on which Cuban baseball is intended to be rebuilt.
With poor conditions to train, and little time to perfect the ABCs of the game, players arrive with many gaps to the Cuban baseball season, where many of them end up playing very little because their teams are eliminated in the first round, and that therefore delays their preparation.
These are just some ideas that emerged from the television debate. In the next installment we’ll learn what the fans think, because I collected interesting criteria in the traditional corner of Havana’s Central Park.