By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, March 25 — It’s still not known who will wind up being the championship team of this 50th “Golden Series” of post-revolution Cuban baseball, but for many here in the capital, the season has already come to its end.
The Industriales — the current national champion, the pre-eminent team of Cuban baseball, the most winning team in the history of the National Series — failed to qualify for the playoffs.
In Cuba, when someone has lost a fight they’ll usually say, “There’s nothing like tomorrow,” The expression is loaded with vengefulness, or perhaps a halo of hope in the face of adversity.
Now we might say, “There’s nothing like next year.” On this same day in 2010 Cubans felt pretty secure about their jobs; they didn’t think too much about their “suitability”; there didn’t seem to exist the possibility that new licenses would be issued for self-employed work. Life ticked by without much hope for change.
The regular baseball season was in its final phase, and it seemed that the Industriales wouldn’t make the cut. This wasn’t strange to anybody – they hadn’t been champions since 2006. The steamrolling Santiago team had squashed them in the finals the following year. Likewise, in 2008, the Industriales went down in the record books for having given up the most runs in a playoff game when the team from Pinar del Rio batted 23 runs against them.
In 2009, the first championship in which German Mesa acted as the team manager, they again failed to make it into the finals. And in 2010 we didn’t have to wait long for a string of defeats. Yet, incredibly, in the last game of 90-game season the Industriales did in fact qualify – in eighth place, but at least they qualified.
Only in the movies
Obviously that didn’t mean they would win. Things like that only happen in movies like Major Leagues I and II. In the real world, when a team qualifies in eighth place it won’t win the championship. The most that we fanatics could do was breathe a sigh of relief when they won the first game against Sancti Spiritus. At least they couldn’t be sweep in four games.
But they won against Sancti Spiritus and found themselves contending for first place in the Western Regionals with the other team from Havana, which had the best pitching staff in the country. Of course the Industriales couldn’t win; we would be satisfied with them playing respectably well. But — incredibly enough — they did win! And they then went on to the finals to face Villa Clara. Though this had been the most stable team in Cuban baseball in the last several years, they never won championships. Plus, they were still hurting from the Industriales having trounced them in the finals in 2003 and 2004.
But things were different now. There’s nothing like another year. Villa Clara had a solid team; besides good pitching its batting lineup included experienced sluggers like Ariel Pestano and the speedy leadoff hitter Leonis Martin.
The Industriales had their usual crew of injured players and a pretty beat-up collection of pitchers, though it also had Armando Rivero and Dennis Suarez. Nevertheless they lost the first two games as was expected. It seemed it was Villa Clara’s year.
In the capital, the Lions gave a couple of swipes to show they weren’t dead…that they would go down with their claws swinging. However, they lost the fifth game and returned to Villa Clara. Logic would dictate that when you go on the road with a 3-2 disadvantage your chances are pretty slim to win two straight.
That was Villa Clara manager Eduardo Martin’s thinking: “I told you this would be over in six games,” he bragged to journalist Julia Osendi.
But the reality proved different. The Industriales won the sixth and seventh games. What would have been hard to believe in the movies happened in real life. “It’s that they’re not baseball players,” a friend told me, “they’re playoff players.”
That’s why when the current season began, no one worried about them losing the first few games. “That’s how champions are,” some people said, “they start out losing.”
Hope for a repeat
And time continued going by. In a different game, life in the country was gradually taking a different form: the announcement of mass layoffs started turning into a reality; new licenses began being issued for self-employment as numbers of people created little eateries in their own houses or in rented spaces, while others have already closed down and turned in their licenses.
People are optimistic: Things change. When the Industriales had won one game and lost three, people remained optimistic. Even when the Industriales were four games down to Sancti Spiritus but were able to win their first game in the second series against Ciego de Avila, you could hear: “Now is when they’re gonna get going. The other teams better beware because now they’re movin’ on up,” or: “There’s nobody who can stop them. If they make the playoffs they’ll win.” Even when there existed only the most remote mathematical possibility of qualification, people in the street said: “If they qualify they’ll win.” But they didn’t. This is now the reality.
Some attribute this to their not getting better pitchers. The savior of the last year’s team (Rivero) and the hero of the final game (rookie Johan Socarras, who was able to dominate the heart of the Villa Clara lineup) were caught trying to leave the country.
At least that is what’s said at bus stops, in the line at stores and in the sports debates of fans that congregate in Central Park. Our official press doesn’t say anything, but we’re used to that (nor did they explain the exclusion of team captain Frederic Cepeda from the lineup that participated in the Intercontinental Cup in Taipei, China).
What’s certain is that the batting of the Industriales crumbled, though it had been among the best during the regular season. There are some who think that Guantanamo surrendered some late season games to Sancti Spiritus so that the Industriales couldn’t qualify? Others simply say that “the capital Blues are jerks, they always let us down.” The spectacular victory of the last campaign is now behind us, lost in time. Life changes from one year to the next.
Now, with the playoffs beginning on Friday, little is said in Havana about baseball. To people here it doesn’t really matter which one of the teams will win. What’s important is that the Industriales — the Cuban team with the most followers and detractors — is out of the running. In the street you can hear: “It’s not the same any more. Without Industriales there’s not the same grace,” or: “The post season has already lost its color” (as if the sole color of Cuban baseball were blue). The faces of fans show looks typical of those returning from a funeral.
It makes me sad to go by 26th Avenue on the bus. There I can see a building with the first letter of the Industriales proudly painted in blue, huge, that “I” running up its facade. Will they paint it over? Similarly, when I return home on the P-6, P-8 or the P-9, and the bus goes along October 10 Street, I can see the banner of the Blues and a sign reading “Industriales: Champions.” And in smaller words below: “next year”.
See the Cuban baseball playoff schedule here.