Trends in Cuban Baseball
Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno
HAVANA TIMES — A number of details about Cuba’s upcoming baseball season have come to light in recent days. One piece of information that has been made public is the schedule, which anticipates a number of breaks owing to the holding of two other sporting events – the Central American Games and the Caribbean Series.
The fact this calendar was made public indirectly discredited rumors that the head of the National Baseball Commission, Higinio Velez, had been dismissed from his position. The rumor had spread through sporting forum and informal discussions, to the delight of many aficionados who are critical of the work of this administrator.
Details about the situation of baseball players with contracts abroad (with the National Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute, or INDER, as intermediary) were also clarified. The players who have signed these contracts are Yunieski and Yulieski Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne, Frederich Cepeda and Hector Mendoza. The former is playing in the Canadian leagues, while the others are playing with Japanese teams.
These baseball players will not participate in the first half of the Cuban season, as the teams who hired them will be playing during that time. When free from their commitments, they can join the Cuban teams they belonged to, in the event these qualify for the second half of the season. If their teams do not qualify, other Cuban teams that have moved on to the second stage of league play may request their services as reinforcements.
This situation affects Cuba’s different teams differently. Havana’s Industriales team – where the Gourriel brothers play – will clearly suffer the absence of one of the best batters in Cuban baseball today (Yulieski). That said, the Cuban capital provides this team with enough resources and sporting infrastructure to cover the loss of this player to a certain point. That is precisely how it has managed to survive the hemorrhaging that the systematic migration of its best players has meant. This year, to mention only the most recent cases, it will no longer enjoy the services of the powerful batter Yasmani Tomas and the young, talented pitcher David Mena.
The provinces of Granma and Isla de la Juventud, on the other hand, will have a harder time replacing the offensive power of Alfredo Despaigne and the performance of pitcher Hector Mendoza. Sancti Spiritus’ team will similarly be short one of its offensive pillars, Frederich Cepeda.
Despaigne is the Cuban player currently holding the country’s home-run record, matched only by another player from the same province now playing with Boston in the Major Leagues: Yoenis Cespedes. Mendoza, from Pinar del Rio, is a young talent whose super-sonic speed will be much missed in the bereaved bullpen of the Isla de la Juventud Pirates. Without these figures, the chances of these teams qualifying are rather slim.
The National Series will begin at the close of September. The championship for players under 23 – a novel sporting event with potential and weaknesses that are being debated at length by aficionados and managers – will have come to an end before then. The event has consolidated the impression that Cuba’s eastern provinces are behind in sporting matters. The representative of the region during the semifinal stage of the (U-23) tournament, Santiago de Cuba, razed its opponents to qualify for the finals. However, when pitted against teams from Cuba’s central and western provinces, it has been unable to come out victorious in most matches.
Another development that is slowly taking shape in Cuban baseball – and not without meeting resistance – is the possibility of having baseball players play on teams from other provinces than where they reside. This year, pitcher Jonder Martinez will move from Artemisa to Matanzas. Apparently, Dany Betancourt and Yaumier Sanchez, from Santiago de Cuba, were about to do the same, their province having failed to recruit them. This stirred up more controversy around the team and its more-than-controversial manager Victor Mesa. At the last minute, however, Santiago de Cuba decided to include these two players in its team.
Cienfuegos pitcher Noelvis Entenza is leaving his team and joining Havana’s Industriales. There are other inter-provincial movements of this nature, but these are the most notable ones. Speaking of Industriales, we have also been informed that Havana’s Latinomamericano stadium – the traditional venue of the club – will be ready for the opening date, even though the repair work on the roof will not be completed by then. The facility may open its doors to the public with some limitations in terms of bleacher capacity.
The migration of players and the U-23 series anticipate future changes to Cuba’s national sport. The opinion that there are far too many teams in Cuba’s top baseball league for such a small country and that a new first division with around eight teams should be created has been gaining more and more strength for some time now.
This suggestion has never been well received by authorities in the field, who stick to the principle of having one team representing each province. These authorities have argued that previous tournaments between teams that have represented several provinces have not been very popular. However, the continuous migration of players towards foreign leagues and the economic deterioration of many regions seem to condemn several provinces to the sorriest of ranks under the current system.
The division of Cuba’s baseball series into two divisions and allowing players to switch between these could be an alternative. At any rate, we are again hearing rumors, divulged even by the press, that we are on the eve of new changes in the structure of Cuban baseball that will be seen in upcoming seasons.
See the Cuba Baseball Season calendar.