Peter C. Bjarkman (*)
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 28 — An important epoch of Cuban baseball history reached its end at Pinar’s Capitán San Luis Stadium on Sunday, December 26, 2010. That balmy afternoon was witness to a heated battle between traditional league rivals Pinar del Río and Havana Industriales that brought to an end the first month’s action for historic National Series #50 (league games now being suspended until after the New Year’s holiday).
But far more significant than any on-the-field Sunday afternoon action—for the packed house on hand as well as for Cuban aficionados around the globe—were the brief pre-game ceremonies marking formal retirement for Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching victories—legendary #99, Pedro Luis Lazo.
For two full decades Lazo anchored the mound corps of one of the league’s most successful ball clubs, while at the same time erasing numerous pages etched into the island record books by such earlier Vegueros legends as Rogelio García, Julio Romero, and Faustino Corrales. For the last dozen years of his illustrious 20-season career the gigantic Lazo (towering in both legendary stature and physical frame) also dominated international diamonds as a highly effective and intimating closer for Cuba’s remarkably successful national team.
Perhaps a single notable irony surrounding the long-anticipated retirement of the revered “Cuban Skyscraper” was the fact that its official celebration came only a handful of days after one of the true milestone pitching performances of Pinar del Río club history—the near “perfect game” no-hitter tossed on Thursday by former teammate Vladimir Baños. Such a no-hit game was one of the few distinctions that managed to escape Pedro Lazo’s otherwise incomparable lifetime resume.
Cuba’s best known hurler had hinted at retirement two years back (November 2008) in an informal chat with this author at his home in Pinar del Río; but that wish to replace the role of active athlete with his often-expressed dream of coaching Cuban youth ballplayers never materialized quite on schedule. One reason may well have been an unspoken desire to finish on top as Cuba’s all-time winning hurler (a feat which he has now achieved with his 257 National Series and post-season victories) and also as all-time strikeout king (where he would fall ever so short, ultimately trailing Rogelio García by single digits, 2426 to 2499).
Nearly two full years after our “off-the-record chat” in Pinar, Lazo finally seized an opportune moment to inform the public of his departure. The occasion was a downtown Havana public ceremony (in August 2010) honoring the release of a new celebratory biography (Pedro Luis Lazo, El Razcacielos de Cuba by José A. Martínez de Osaba); there the longtime Pinar de Río mainstay revealed that he would finally hang up glove and spikes for good at the conclusion of a pair of upcoming October international IBAF tournaments. Formal recognition of the retirement would (as is traditional in Cuban baseball) not actually come until a customary festive celebration of Lazo’s career could be staged during a Pinar home contest at the outset of a landmark fiftieth National Series season that would open in late November.
Pedro Lazo ranks in almost any estimation as the greatest hurler in the half-century of post-revolution Cuban baseball. While one-time fellow Pinar ace José Contreras opted to flee the island in 2003 for the lure of big league dollars, Lazo remained at home to rewrite the Cuban League record books. He has now amassed a truly formidable statistical legacy for generations of new hurlers to aim at in future campaigns. In addition to his rank at the top of the heap in wins (more than 20 ahead of 46-year-old and still active runner-up Carlos Yanes) and strikeouts (second behind García), he also stands in the career Top Ten in complete games (fifth), starts (sixth), winning percentage (seventh), and total innings pitched (second, trailing only Yanes). Only Yanes (27), Misael López (24), Faustino Corrales (23), Gervasio Miguel Govin (22), and Adiel Palma (21) have logged more National Series seasons than has Pedro Luis Lazo.
While an ace starter on the domestic front in Pinar, Lazo became over the years a dominating presence in Team Cuba’s bullpen and thus one of the most feared closers found on the international scene. His most memorable moments came in San Diego in March 2006 (where he closed out the WBC semifinals versus Dominican big-leaguers) and in Grosseto and Florence (Italy) last September (where he shut down first Australia and later Canada on the road to the most recent World Cup finals).
One of Lazo’s rare poor showings came in his final outing a year ago at the September 2009 World Cup event; perhaps overused during a week-long run up to the gold medal match, Lazo was unable to quell a fateful six-run Team USA seventh-inning uprising that began against Norge Vera and ultimately cost Cuba a world championship. It was that highly forgettable showing (in what could have been his final international outing) that likely convinced Lazo to return for one more crack at the foreign tournament circuit.
Disappointingly, however, the towering right-hander largely failed in a couple of final chances to erase the memory of his ineffective meltdown a year earlier in Nettuno. Lazo made only a pair of rather-less-than-noteworthy appearances during this past summer’s IBAF World Cup Qualifier event staged in Puerto Rico and was later left off the gold-medal-winning club that recaptured Cuban prestige during Taiwan’s Intercontinental Cup matches.
Cuba has not only lost its most accomplished pitcher this winter, but the Cuban League has now also bid a fond farewell to one of the most colorful characters of island baseball history. Perhaps only Victor “El Loco” Mesa holds a similar stature in the five decades of post-professional Cuban baseball. The image of the huge bear-like Lazo lumbering out of the national team bullpen has long struck fear into the hearts of enemy batters. But the “Cuban Skyscraper” (one of his many rather colorful nicknames) has long been equally as renowned on his native island for his personal charm and unorthodox style as for his blazing fastball and unhittable sinker.
My own personal memories of Lazo will always be vividly colored by a pair of moments during the June 2009 Cuban League post-season playoffs. The first was his departure from the mound after a failed attempt to claim career victory number 250 at Nelson Fernández Stadium (Habana Province) in what seemed at the time to be potentially his final career outing; the behemoth hurler had already stripped off both his uniform jersey and under sweat garment to the delight of a howling grandstand throng long before disappearing into the Pinar dugout. A second indelible image is Lazo’s repeated presence hanging over the dugout railing during that same series puffing on a huge black cigar in full view of the entire grandstand audience.
In a brief post-game Sunday interview granted to local Pinar journalist Elena Milián Salaberri the normally quite laconic Lazo seized the opportunity to downplay his own stature in island baseball lore. Pressed to name Cuba’s greatest all-time hurler Lazo was quick to suggest that Rogelio García, Braudilio Vinent and Jorge Luis Valdés (whose records he eventual overhauled) all merited more respect as the island’s greatest. It was of course the most dignified and honorable thing to say about one’s own legendary stature.
But for this journalist, at least, Lazo was on this final public occasion somewhat off the mark with his delivery. García, Vinent and Valdés—perhaps other earlier Cuban legends like José Antonio Huelga, or Juan Pérez Pérez, or Lázaro Valle—may indeed loom large in island lore. But none of those earlier greats faced big-league-level hitters of the superior stature now being produced in the modern-era; none faced the offensive challenge of sluggers like Despaigne, Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel, Osmani Urrutia and Alexei Bell. And none battled the North American, Caribbean or Asian professional batsman encountered in today’s twenty-first century international tournament venues.
Nostalgia may cast a heavy vote for earlier stars from early decades—those facing hitters bolstered by aluminum bats or those mowing down international rivals who were usually little more than North American or Asian collegians and industrial leaguers. But hard cold statistics and the undeniable realities of international baseball in the current decade cast the deciding vote for Pedro Luis Lazo as the greatest all-around hurler that island baseball has so far witnessed.
(*) 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.