Peter C. Bjarkman (*)
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 27 — Whereas last winter’s Cuban National Series opened with one of the most remarkable and explosive batting displays found anywhere in baseball history—a pair of first-inning grand slam homers authored by Santiago’s Alexei Bell—the first month’s highlight of the year’s Golden Anniversary Cuban League campaign has arrived in the form of pitching mastery rather than slugging prowess.
The most attention-grabbing achievement of this season’s opening has been the near-perfect-game no-hitter tossed on December 23 by veteran Pinar del Río right-hander Vladimir Baños. No-hit games are nowhere near as commonplace in Cuban League action as they have lately proven to be on North American professional diamonds.
And a Cuban League “perfect game” (no base runners allowed and thus a minimum of 27 batters faced) has remained the very rarest of island diamond occurrences. The masterful Baños outing (involving a minimum 27 hitters despite a single base runner) was perhaps all the more remarkable simply because it occurred against the backdrop of an offensive-laced opening month that has already witnessed home runs flying out of Cuban League ballparks in record numbers.
The recently completed 2010 MLB season was dubbed by many North American baseball journalists as “the true year of the no-hitter” in light of a remarkable half-dozen masterpieces—including a pair of rare “perfectos” (by Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay), two no-hit gems during a single season by the same pitcher (Roy Halladay) for only the sixth time in modern big-league annals, and also only the second post-season no-hitter on record (again Halladay).
The 2010 big-league no-hitter outburst represented the most such games in a single season since the seven tossed in the American and National Leagues way back in 1991. The majors have now witnessed a grand total of 21 no-hitters (four of them “perfect games”) during the first decade of this new century while the somewhat more offense-minded Cuban League has experienced a mere ten such games over exactly the same time span.
Granted that Cuban League seasons are only slightly more than half as long as are big league campaigns, and twice as many ball clubs in the two MLB circuits also means approximately twice the number of daily games. Nonetheless the modern major leagues have now produced a grand total of 269 “official” nine-inning “gems” or an average of 2.5 per MLB season.
This number includes only “sanctioned” MLB no-hitters in which a game must last a full nine innings and the pitcher authoring the gem must also be the game-winner. (When Andy Hawkins of the New York Yankees no-hit the Chicago White Sox in July 1990 and lost the game 4-0 on errors, he was not credited with a no-hit effort since (1) he was not the game winner, and (2) the home team Sox batted only eight times and not nine since they had the lead.) If we add-in such losing effort games (there have been three), weather-shortened gems of less than nine frames (there have been 23 since 1903), plus games in which no-hitters were broken up in extra innings, after the first nine frames were hitless (13 of these), then the MLB total soars to 308 and the ratio to 2.878 (almost three) MLB no-hitters per season. Of 49 Cuban National Series now in the record books, only a mere three (those ending in 1968, 1969 and 2000) have witnessed as many as three different no-hit efforts.
Despite the indisputable difference of season-length (and thus total number of games played), it can nonetheless be reasonably argued that Cuban baseball’s modern-era (post-1962) has experienced the occasional no-hit game as a decidedly rarer phenomenon. While Cuban seasons are admittedly shorter, a total of only 51 no-hitters have been scattered across not only 49 National Series campaigns (NS#50 is now but one-month old) but also 21 Selective Series (SS) seasons (ranging from as few as 45 games per team in 1984, and again in the early 1990s, to as many as 64 games per team in late-1980s), two 30-game Revolutionary Cup Series in the late 1990s, and four much shorter Super League seasons involving only four or five teams in the early years of the current decade.
Over this total of 77 Cuban League campaigns of various lengths (the National Series has been a 90-game season since the fall of 1997), 51 total no-hitters means a frequency of but 0.72 gems per campaign—i.e., three such games for every four seasons played. To draw out the comparisons a bit further, one could also consider the following facts. Of 51 Cuban no-hitters, 4 have been shortened to less than nine frames by the ten-run “mercy rule” which thus leaves only 47 Cuban gems that would meet MLB’s nine-inning requirement. While 107 MLB modern seasons have brought 20 “perfect games” Cuba has witnessed only one such truly ultimate pitching performance (by Maels Rodríguez in December 1999). And while MLB has now had a pair of post-season gems (Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay in the 2010 NLCS) Cuba has to date witnessed no such post-season occurrence since the current National Series playoff format was first introduced in the mid-eighties (with NS#25).
In tossing his masterful whitewash against hitless Matanzas on Thursday of this past week (December 23) Vladimir Baños became only the fourth Pinar del Río hurler to claim such a rare masterpiece, the third to perform the feat during National Series action, and the first in nearly two full decades. Earlier Vegueros (Pinar) aces to turn such a trick were Raúl Alvarez (NS#8 versus Camagüey), Julio Romero (SS#9 also versus Camagüey), Rogelio García (twice, in the same season during SS#13), and lefty Faustino Corrales (NS#31 against Isla de la Juventud).
Laboring in the small provincial Hermanos Saíz ballpark located in the Pinar municipality of San Juan y Martínez (before a near full house of 4,500 spectators) Baños cruised through the Matanzas lineup, striking out eight, issuing no free passes, and permitting only a single base runner via an infield error in the fifth frame. The unfortunate boot by shortstop David Castillo prevented Baños from perhaps achieving true “immortality” by matching Maels Rodríguez with only the second-ever perfect-game masterpiece in the half-century Cuban annals. Baños did, however, face only the minimum 27 opposition batters since Lázaro Herrera (after reaching first on Castillo’s fateful misplay) was quickly erased by a pitcher-to-short-to-first bang-bang-style double play.
Several additional statistical footnotes regarding Cuban League no-hitters might prove of some interest here. Of the 49 National Series seasons staged so far, 23 (nearly half) have transpired without a single no-hit game being thrown. While Baños provided the first Cuban masterpiece since January 2009 (nearly two years back), the longest stretch of consecutive National Series seasons without a single no-hit game remains five (NS#23 through NS#27).
The most productive no-hit season was National Series #7, with five “gems” being tossed during that single campaign (four in the month of January and two on the very same day). The only Cuban League hurler with three such games during his career is Juan Pérez Pérez, whose trio of masterpieces were the only three such oddities during the long stretch of three campaigns between 1972 and 1975.
Regarding team achievements, Pinar del Río now matches Camagüey (with 5) as the single team authoring the most no-hit games, but the Camagüey ballclub also ironically holds the distinction of standing on the receiving or losing end of the most no-hit spectacles (7 times). Havana’s Latinamericano is the most fertile ground for hitless games (having hosted 13) while Holguín’s Calisto García and Havana’s Changa Mederos (Metropolitanos) remain the only current regular league ballparks never to host a no-hit game. But perhaps the most ironic fact of all is that the first two Cuban League no-hitters were tossed nine days apart in January 1966 (NS #5) during back-to-back starts by diminutive Centrales southpaw Aquino Abreu. Abreu thus launched the no-hitter phenomenon for the modern-era Cuban League by immediately duplicating the one-time-only big league feat of 1938 by Cincinnati Reds lefty Johnny Vander Meer.
Note: A complete listing of all Cuban League No-Hitters is available at www.BaseballdeCuba.com
(*) Peter C. Bjarkman is the author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past three-plus years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.