Por Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES – Like all aspects of life in the rest of the world, Cuban baseball will suffer from the effects of Covid-19, specifically the 60th National Baseball Series.
Action is still set to begin on September 12th in Matanzas, with last season’s champions receiving Camagüey, its rival for the title in the finals. Necessary measures for the start-up had already been taken after the outbreaks that occurred in recent weeks in the west of the country.
Up until then, Havana was the only province still affected, but outbreaks emerged in Artemisa and Mayabeque, and this endangers what was previously reported.
As a result, the duels between the monarch and the runner-up will be the only ones based in western Cuba during the first four series of the baseball league.
In the particular case of Havana, it is directly affected with respect to the rest of the provinces. It’s now official that Industriales will not play at home at the Latin American stadium until further notice.
The idea is to isolate the capital, the main focus of the pandemic, and that means that the other teams won’t be visiting. This complicates the task for Industriales, having to play all its games on the road. But the Havana team isn’t alone. This disadvantage will initially affect all the western Cuban teams.
But the most probable, or desirable, is that as the weeks pass, the epidemiological situation normalizes, and there can be games in Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque and Matanzas. However, the case of Havana seems much more complex and could cover the entire season.
Even if they can host games at some point in the Latin American stadium, it was already said that it would be behind closed doors, a decision that has not been made official for the rest of the country.
The rosters of all the teams have already been released. The only surprises are the incorporation to Holguin reliever Raudelin Legra joining Industriales; that of the left-handed Camagüey pitcher Dariel Gongora now with Matanzas, and Granma slugger Yordanis Samon playing with Camagüey. In addition, pitcher Vladimir Baños will return with his native Pinar del Rio team.
The suspension of the Mexican League has allowed some teams to keep their main figures. Granma stands out, as it will be able to count on righty Lazaro Blanco and its stellar outfielders Roel and Raico Santos, from the beginning of the season.
Francisco Martinez (Holguín), Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila), Eriel Sanchez (Sancti Spíritus), Jose Antonio Garcia (Villa Clara), Alexander Urquiola (Pinar del Río) and Michael Gonzalez (Mayabeque) will debut as managers, and Agustin Lescaille (Guantanamo) and Guillermo Carmona (Industriales) will make a return to their respective squads.
Reports appearing in different press media reveal optimism among the protagonists, backed by the logical desire to do what they enjoy the most. However, they will obviously be facing a very atypical season.
Closed-door workouts began earlier this month, with just 45 athletes per team, and with an emphasis on physical preparation. Some exhibition games were authorized, but so far none have been carried out.
Nor has a final decision been made on public entry to stadiums, when that has been prohibited in most of the world. This could greatly influence the results, because over the last few seasons we have seen some teams that perform much better when they feel the heat of their fans. Others are adversely affected by fan pressure, so this will be a real unknown, if ultimately, they decide to play behind closed doors.
Predictions are already starting to come out and almost everyone agrees that at least the four finalists from last year will most likely be near the top again (Matanzas, Camagüey, Las Tunas and Industriales). I have my reservations regarding the Havana team, due to the difficult conditions in which they will face the season.
With the suspension of the Mexican League where several Cuban players were contracted, Granma is once again a very complete squad. Likewise, Santiago de Cuba, showed signs of recovery last season and I see them among those making it to the second round.
The other two places of eight first round survivors must be hotly contested between Cienfuegos, who played well last year, Villa Clara, Pinar del Río and Ciego de Ávila.
In any case, the strange circumstances in which the season will take place can cause more than one surprise, and if unfortunately there is a Covid-19 case among the members of a squad, as has happened more than once in the Major Leagues, everything would get much more complicated.
If the season starts up as planned, each team must play 75 games in a free-for-all system, with back-and-forth home-visitor series. The games will take place on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, while Monday and Friday will be the travel and rest days.
After the closure of the regular calendar, scheduled for December 27, eight teams will qualify for the postseason, and will face each other through the crossed system (1st place against 8th, 2nd with 7th, 3rd with 6th and 4th with 5th), in best of five series.
Subsequently, four reinforcements will be selected for the 7-game semifinal and final series, scheduled to be played between January 17 and February 5.
Everything, I reiterate, depends on several factors including the pandemic and the damage that may be caused by Tropical Storm Laura, causing perhaps another delay.
Players and fans alike are crossing their fingers so that everything comes out in the best way and to hear the voice of Play Ball! which makes many Cubans so happy.