Team Cuba Set for International Play

Peter C. Bjarkman*

Cuba finished second at the 2008 Haarlem, The Netherlands tournament.

HAVANA TIMES, June 2 — Recent announcements released by the Cuban Baseball Federation have been filled with both good and bad news for fans of the island national pastime.

On the downside of the ledger is a recent admission that the much anticipated renewal of a long-defunct “second season” Selective Series will not be held in June as originally announced.  A reduced eight-team Selective Series “summer season” was regularly staged between 1975 and 1995 and on several occasions was actually of greater length (in number of games played) than the traditional National Series campaign. The second season concept was briefly revived with a short-lived Super League (2002-2005) earlier in the past decade and rumors circulating earlier this year had suggested a true renewal of the original super-provincial Selective Series during the month of June.

However, the idea apparently fell by the wayside due to a complex of factors that included the island’s sliding economy, the South African World Cup soccer matches (likely to divert fan interest in Cuba as elsewhere), and a need to conserve cash for the requirements (uniforms, equipment, travel) of several important upcoming international tournaments that remain a major focus of Cuban baseball.

On a more positive note, Cuba’s Federation last week announced “pre-selection” rosters for two major international events to be staged in July.  The list of 64 athletes named verifies that the Cubans will again send potent contingents to a series of international events that open next month in The Netherlands with the 25th edition of the Haarlem Honkbalweek and wrap up in Asia during early November with a renewal of the recently dormant IBAF-sponsored Intercontinental Cup Championships.

Also on the docket this summer and fall are the World University Games baseball tournament slated for Tokyo (August) and the crucial Pan American Games Baseball Qualifier to be hosted by San Juan (October).  The latter tournament—the high point of the 2010 international season—will determine baseball entrants for the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico, as well as qualifying several hemisphere countries for the 2011 IBAF Baseball World Cup at a yet-undisclosed venue.

As the first step in preparations for this summer’s international calendar, Cuban officials have revealed two 32-man “pre-selection” lists that will compete for 22 openings on rosters bound for both Haarlem (July 9-18) and Tokyo (July 30-August 9).  Those familiar with Cuban baseball will immediately note the absence from these rosters of a number of top stars that have been national team mainstays for much of the past decade.

Nowhere to be found here are names like Freddie Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel, Ariel Pestano, Pedro Luis Lazo, Norge Vera, Michel Enriquez, Jonder Martínez, Yosvani Peraza, and Yulieski González.  Those names can most certainly be expected to reemerge in September when selections are announced for the more vital and prestigious events in San Juan (Pan American Qualifier) and Chinese Taipei (Intercontinental Cup).  In the meantime an only slightly less-talented mix of other Cuban stars and novices (veterans like Alfredo Despaigne, Alexei Bell, José Abreu, Miguel Angel González, and Yadier Pedroso, plus emerging prospects like Donald Duarte, Yorbis Borroto, Alex Guerrero, and Freddy Asiel Alvarez) will be given plenty of opportunities in mid-summer action to showcase their own credentials for inclusion on top Cuban squads that will battle to uphold the nation’s honor later this fall.

While North American press accounts continue to focus narrowly on the reputed damage to  island baseball by the recent flight of such celebrated prospects as Aroldis Chapman, Leslie Anderson and Yunieski Maya, the two Cuban rosters announced this week easily demonstrate just how healthy Cuban League baseball in truth remains. Even without  such recent World Cup or World Baseball Classic heroes as Cepeda, Pestano, Gourriel or Lazo—who are all being given the summer off—Cuban teams heading to both Haarlem and Tokyo next month will carry a solid enough mix of glowing prospects and seasoned veterans to be competitive if not perhaps dominant in any IBAF-sponsored international event. Germán Mesa (skipper of National Series #49 champion Industriales) will head the Haarlem delegation, while the Tokyo squad will play under the guidance of veteran bench boss Eduardo Martin (manager of runner-up Villa Clara). Both managers must trim their current rosters of 32 prospects to a final count of 22 before heading overseas next month.

Alexei Bell and his big bat.

The preliminary roster for the Haarlem tournament in particular suggests a much stronger Cuban entry than earlier anticipated by this reporter.  Commissioner Higinio Vélez commented earlier this summer that the Haarlem team would most likely be manned by young National Series prospects getting their first tastes of international baseball combat.

An earlier revelation that an NAIA all-star college club and not any professional version of Team USA would represent the Americans in Haarlem fueled further speculation that Cuba would likely also settle for sending a less than potent ball club.  But such veterans of Team Cuba wars as sluggers Alexei Bell (Beijing Olympic batting champion), Eriel Sánchez and Joan Carlos Pedroso, along with hurlers Maikel Folch, Freddy Asiel Alvarez and Norberto González (also a standout on  the Beijing Olympic squad)—all named to the Haarlem squad—are anything but mere novices to the top levels of international play.

While one crack Cuban squad plays in The Netherlands in mid-July, another will prepare for the World University Games scheduled for Asia at the end of the same month. And that second team (at least in terms of recognizable star power) might be even stronger than the one slated for duty in Europe. Manager Martin will lead a University Games club showcasing two-time league MVP and home run champion Alfredo Despaigne, along with recent World Cup pitching holdovers Miguel Alfredo González, Vladimir García, and Yadier Pedroso. Despaigne will man the outfielder in Tokyo alongside World Baseball Classic teammates Yoennis Céspedes and Leonys Martin. And half of the September World Cup starting infield— José Dariel Abreu (first base) and Héctor Olivera (second base)—will also grace the university level club.

The preliminary roster for the Haarlem event features Cuba’s 2010 “comeback player of the year” Alexei Bell.  Bell exploded on the Cuban baseball scene three seasons back with a then-record 31 homers (since bested by Despaigne) and still-record 111 RBI (during a 90-game season). The speedy and compact right-handed slugging outfielder then encored as Beijing Olympic batting champion in October 2008. Bell’s mammoth homer in the Honkbal semifinal that same summer (perhaps the longest blast ever witnessed in Pim Müller Stadium) dramatically lifted Cuba into a 2008 Haarlem finals showdown with eventual champion Team USA.  But Bell’s career took a sudden turn on National Series opening day in November 2008 when a Yunieski Maya fastball stuck his eye and ruined his entire 2008-09 season. The accident not only kept Bell on the sidelines for most of the domestic campaign but ruined his chances of playing for Team Cuba in the 2009 MLB Classic as well as the European World Cup event last September.

Bell ironically launched a remarkable comeback exactly one year after his tragic accident when he underscored his return with the unprecedented feat of belting two grand slam homers in the very first inning of the season and his first two at-bats of the year. The remarkable feat made him the only known player at the top levels of professional baseball ever to slug two grand slam homers in a single inning on two different occasions in his career and also to boast three base hits in a single inning on yet another occasion.

For icing on the cake, Bell continued on last season two smash a Cuban League record seven grand slams during the recent National Series campaign. The remarkable comeback of Alexei Bell should be one of the top storylines of the upcoming Haarlem tournament; certainly Bell promises to be the most talented ballplayer on display in this summer’s twenty-fifth renewal of festivities in Haarlem.

Haarlem Baseball Week Cuban Roster (Pre-Selection of 32 Players*)

*22 Players will be selected for the July tournament (Cuban League teams in parentheses)

Catchers (4): Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba), Osvaldo Arias (Cienfuegos), Yulexis La Rosa (Villa Clara), Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus)

Infielders (10): Yunier Mendoza (Sancti Spíritus), Yoennis Southeran (Guantánamo), Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), Mario Jorge Vega (Ciego de Avila), Danel Castro (Las Tunas), Vismay Santos (Guantánamo), Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), Dainer Moreira (Guantánamo), Alexander Ayala (Camagüey)

Outfielders (6): Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), Andy Zamora (Villa Clara), Ariel Sánchez (Matanzas), Reutilio Hurtado (Santiago de Cuba), Edilse Silva (Holguín), Serguey Pérez (Industriales)

Pitchers (12): Angel Peña (Sancti Spíritus), Luis Borroto (Ciego de Avila), Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Yoelkis Cruz (Las Tunas), Yoandry Portal (Industriales), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara), Maikel Folch (Ciego de Avila), Robelio Carrillo (Villa Clara), Raudel Lazo (Pinar del Río), Norberto Goinzález (Cienfuegos), Duniel Ibarra (Cienfuegos), Alberto Soto la O (Granma)

Manager: Germán Mesa (Industriales), with Coaches: Bárbaro Marín, Gerardo Simon, Julio Romero

The squad bound for Tokyo will boast plenty of heavy hitting and some strong pitching, though the mound corps may not quite measure up to the one bound for Haarlem. Despaigne, Céspedes and Olivera in the heart of the order will make Martin’s club an explosive outfit. And Pedroso and Miguel Alfredo could be the two best Cuban starting pitchers being showcased overseas this summer. Vlad García was Cuba’s top closer in last fall’s World Cup, but this past winter he was transformed into an effective starter by Ciego de Avila manager Roger Machado. One of July’s most intriguing questions will be how  Martin and his staff chose to utilize García: will they continue to remake him into a future national team starter, or will he again be groomed as a future replacement for one-time invincible Team Cuba closer Pedro Luis Lazo?

World University Games Cuban Roster (Pre-Selection of 32 Players*)

*22 Players will be selected for the July tournament (Cuban League teams in parentheses)

Catchers (3): Yaismel Alberro (Matanzas), Yosvani Alarcón (Las Tunas), Frank Camilo Morejón (Industriales)

Infielders (11): José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos), Lerys Aguilera (Holguín), Dary Bartolomé Vega (Camagüey), Héctor Olivera (Santiago de Cuba), Yoilán Cerce (Guantánamo), José Miguel Fernández (Matanzas), Adonis García (Ciego de Avila), Dayán García (Habana Province), Yorbis Borroto (Ciego de Avila), Alexander Guerrero (Las Tunas), Aledmis Díaz (Villa Clara)

Outfielders (6): Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), Leonys Martin (Villa Clara), Yoennis Céspedes (Granma), Henry Urrutia (Las Tunas), Ramón Lunar (Villa Clara), Jorge Johnson (Las Tunas)

Pitchers (12): Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila), Miguel Alfredo González (Habana Province), Yadier Pedroso (Habana Province), Ismel Jiménez (Sancti Spíritus), Odrismer Despaigne (Industriales), Alexander Rodríguez (Guantánamo), Arley Sánchez (Industriales), Dalier Hinojosa (Guantánamo), Miguel Lahera (Habana Province), Armando Rivero (Industriales), Yunier Colón (Guantánamo), Yander Guevara (Ciego de Avila)

Manager: Eduardo Martin (Villa Clara), with Coaches: Luis Jova, Omar Linares, José Elosegui

In this author’s view the Haarlem roster is by slight degrees somewhat stronger than the Tokyo-bound team, despite the presence of Despaigne, Olivera and Céspedes in the hefty university squad lineup. Despaigne and company should hit more long balls, and the starting mound trio of Vlad García, Miguel Alfredo and Pedroso is formidable.  So is Lahera out of the bullpen.  But Mesa’s club seems to have more pitching depth and more international experience (Licea and Freddy Asiel especially), as well as perhaps the two best lefties on the island in Folch and Nortberto González.

If there was a single reason Cuba lost the World Cup showdown with the Americans in Nettuno last fall it may have been the absence of Norberto’s southpaw savvy in the bullpen, an absence which forced the overuse of Lazo in the final two contests.  Mesa also can command the better catchers (Sánchez and Meriño) to handle his pitching staff.  While the university team has Abreu and Olivera in the infield, the Haarlem interior defense is solid enough, and it is likely that players like Duarte, Castro and Reyes may be more motivated to shine given their status on the cusp of the potential September national team. The same motivational factor may be huge with Alexei Bell who has been on in early 2010 tear as he fights his way back into the limelight.

Cuba should rank as an overwhelming favorite to walk off with the title in Haarlem, especially given the news that no one else seems to be sending a top level squad to The Netherlands shootout.  The Cubans don’t like losing and their domination of international tournament play over the past half-century is truly unparalleled in either professional or amateur sport.  Cuba owns three gold medals and two silvers in five Olympic tournaments; they have finished first or second in every World Cup event since the mid-fifties.

Haarlem is the only tournament where Cuban ball clubs have at times seemed quite beatable. They have won this tournament only four times in ten tries and have not claimed a title there in a dozen summers. Despite the rationale that the Olympic-bound squad was using Haarlem as a mere training grounds in 2008, the gold medal loss last time around to a talented USA university all-star squad (one featuring top MLB prospects Stephen Strasburg, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Minor) stung deeply back home on the island.  That fact alone may explain the rationale behind sending so many veterans with international experience back to Haarlem for this year’s renewal.

Past Haarlem Baseball Week Tournament Results

Cuba’s Haarlem tournament tally: 4 Gold Medals (1972, 1974, 1996, 1998), 4 Silver Medals (1990, 2000, 2006, 2008), 2 Medals Bronze (1978, 2002); no finish lower than 3rd place in ten tournaments attended.

Haarlem Honkbalweek #1 (July 22-30, 1961)

Winner: Alconbury Spartans

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #2 (June 29-July 7, 1963)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #3 (August 6-14, 1966)

Winner: California Stags (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #4 (July 20-28, 1968)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #5 (June 21-29, 1969)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #6 (June 26-July 5, 1971)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #7 (June 30-July 9, 1972)

Winner: Cuba

Best Hitter Trophy: Silvio Montejo (Cuba)

Best Pitcher Trophy: José Antonio Huelga (Cuba)

MVP Trophy: Félix Isasi (Cuba)

Haarlem Honkbalweek #8 (July 12-21, 1974)

Winner: Cuba

Other Teams: (2nd) U of Arizona Wildcats, (3rd) Sullivans (USA), (4th) Netherlands, (5th) USAFE

Haarlem Honkbalweek #9 (June 25-July 5, 1976)

Winner: University of Arizona Wildcats

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #10 (August 13-22, 1978)

Winner: Japan

Other Teams: (2nd) South Korea, (3rd) Cuba, (4th) Netherlands, (5th) Australia

Haarlem Honkbalweek #11 (August 12-22, 1980)

Winner: USA

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #12 (August 11-20, 1982)

Winner: University of Miami Hurricanes

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #13 (July 14-22, 1984)

Winner: Canada

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #14 (August 13-21, 1988)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #15 (July 21-29, 1990)

Winner: Sullivans (USA)

Other Teams: (2nd) Cuba, (3rd) Netherlands, (4th) Taiwan, (5th) PAC-10 All-Stars (USA)

Best Hitter Trophy: Carlos Kindelán (Cuba)

Best Pitcher Trophy: Ivan Alvarez (Cuba)

Most Popular Trophy: Rafael Acebey (Cuba)

Haarlem Honkbalweek #16 (July 10-19, 1992)

Winner: Japan

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #17 (July 15-24, 1994)

Winner: Japan

Cuba did not participate

Haarlem Honkbalweek #18 (June 28-July 17, 1996)

Winner: Cuba

Other Teams: (2nd) Netherlands, (3rd) Sullivans (USA), (4th) Japan, (5th) Aruba

Best Hitter Trophy: Carlos Tabares (Cuba)

Haarlem Honkbalweek #19 (July 10-19, 1998)

Winner: Cuba

Other Teams: (2nd) Australia, (3rd) Sullivans (USA), (4th) Netherlands, (5th) Nicaragua, (6th) Japan

Haarlem Honkbalweek #20 (August 4-13, 2000)

Winner: USA

Other Teams: (2nd) Cuba, (3rd) Netherlands, (4th) Japan, (5th) Italy, (6th) Chinese Taipei

Haarlem Honkbalweek #21 (July 19-28, 2002)

Winner: USA

Other Teams: (2nd) Netherlands, (3rd) Cuba, (4th) Chinese Taipei, (5th) Japan, (6th) South Africa

Best Hitter Trophy: Rolnier Varona (Cuba)

Haarlem Honkbalweek #22 (July 23-August 1, 2004)

Winner: Netherlands

Other Teams: (2nd) Cuba, (3rd) Japan, (4th) Chinese Taipei, (5th) Italy, (6th) Reno Astros (USA)

Haarlem Honkbalweek #23 (July 21-30, 2006)

Winner: Netherlands

Other Teams: (2nd) Cuba, (3rd) USA, (4th) Japan, (5th) China, (6th) Chinese Taipei

Haarlem Honkbalweek #24 (July 4-13, 2008)

Winner: USA

Other Teams: (2nd) Cuba, (3rd) Chinese Taipei, (4th) Japan, (5th) Netherlands, (6th) Dutch Antilles

This year’s Haarlem event can not hope to measure up to the 2008 edition in crowd appeal; the 2008 affair featured both a crack USA university squad (headlined by Strasburg’s pitching and the slugging of Pedro Alvarez) alongside the Beijing-bound Cuban Olympic squad fronted by Cepeda, Urrutia, Gourriel, Despaigne, Lazo, Maya and Yulieski González among others.  But perhaps more can be expected from Cuba’s entry in The Netherlands this time around.

There is the already mentioned motivational factor represented by a string of second and third place finishes across the current decade.  And while Cuban players back in 2008 for the most part had their roster spots in Beijing assured (although Urrutia, Maya and Yulieski González were eventually cut) and were thus in The Netherlands more for training than winning, this year’s group should all have their eyes set squarely on earning possible Team Cuba posts for the more prestigious events on the horizon in September. This year’s outfit in Haarlem will come very well prepared to do what most Cuban international squads have become accustomed to doing—winning the top prize and also usually sweeping through the entire field undefeated in the process.

*Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.

2 thoughts on “Team Cuba Set for International Play

  • Very interesting. I will recommend this site to everyone. Congratulations

  • ohh yeah , we can see that Cuban baseball is at their peak…..
    Are you people insane, at their peak? and they haven’t won a major tournament back to ?
    They just made a ridiculous apperance at Haarlem, losing against Japan and the Netherlands…in a tournament they should have won easy…
    now they are sending a super squad to japan…for what? to play some kids from other countries?
    it will be really reallt pathetic if the Cuban lose this too…that would be una total verguenza, mas de la que ya han hecho

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