PETER C. BJARKMAN*
HAVANA TIMES, March 10 – For the umpteenth time Freddie Cepeda did it once again on the international stage in Cuba’s opening game of the World Baseball Classic. He slammed stinging home runs to deep left and right fields on two of the first three pitches he saw from South Africa’s towering right-hander Barry Armitage, in the 8-1 win on Sunday.
The blows launched Cuba’s 2009 World Baseball Classic dream, and Cepeda himself commented on their true importance at a post-game press conference.
“Psychologically it’s very important, especially with the outcome we achieved,” observed Cuba’s biggest opening day star. “To be able to start on top and stay on top demonstrates our strength and confidence. A positive attitude always assists in achieving victory,” said the left fielder.
Cuba’s second WBC game is on Tuesday night against Australia, hot off a 17-7 thrashing of host Mexico.
There is no argument in this camp about who the number one Cuban national team star is now, and has been for most of the 2000s. Frederich Cepeda gets this writer’s vote hands down and thumbs up.
Cepeda has long been one of the most solid if underrated performers in the Cuban National Series. If the Sancti Spíritus switch-hitter doesn’t rank in the top ten career lists for most offensive categories (he is tenth only in lifetime slugging percentage, a shade behind Michel Enriquez), he nonetheless normally paces the circuit in walks and on-base percentage.
These are, of course, two highly underestimated categories, and they signal a rare athlete who perfectly combines raw power with exceptional discipline at the plate. Freddie’s career numbers on the island are very solid if not always quite spectacular (.324 batting average, .542 slugging average, 157 homers, 201 doubles, 612 runs batted in). But unlike so many free-swinging power hitters, he rarely cancels out occasional productive blasts with all-too-frequent rally-killing strikeouts.
Clutch Hitting is the Prize Stat
Cepeda also has never topped the national circuit in a single major offensive category. But those who have watched for the better part of a decade know that the muscular outfielder is one of the island’s most truly complete ballplayers. He is not only a remarkably disciplined batsman as noted, but he is more than solid defensively in left field.
He slugs from both sides of the plate with equal power and equal skill. And if more were needed, is a soft-spoken clubhouse leader with his Sancti Spíritus ball club. And Cepeda is one of those players who always seem to reach a special level of accomplishment when the biggest league and post-season games roll around.
When it comes to major international tournament play-the bread and butter of Cuban baseball-Frederich Cepeda always seems to perform on another level altogether. This is a special talent displayed by few of our greatest athletic heroes, many of whom often appear to diminish rather than loom large during the tensest championship moments.
It is precisely here, in the brightest spotlight, that this native son of Sancti Spíritus has specialized as Cuba’s most reliable run producer and rally igniter. And beyond the mere lofty numbers registered in world class tournaments, Cepeda is more remarkable still for the bulk of times he has come up with game-saving performances at the most vital moments of recent Cuban baseball history.
The list of Freddie Cepeda’s memorable international “spotlight” moments is perhaps a feature story in itself. For those who may have forgotten, or who do not follow the island sport that closely, here is a mere listing of the top half-dozen moments from the noteworthy Cepeda “highlight reel.”
1. Two homers yesterday in Cepeda’s first two at-bats, igniting the first phase of Team Cuba’s 2009 World Baseball Classic campaign. While plenty of offense from teammates soon opened a comfortable gap versus South Africa, Cepeda was again the reliable spark to ignite Cuba on perhaps its biggest stage ever.
2. The homer versus Venezuela that triggered Cuba’s run to the finals of the first WBC. Cepeda’s early blast in the opening second round game turned the tide against the Venezuelan big-league all-stars and proved a catalyst for a miracle run in San Juan that landed his team in the San Diego finals.
3. The late-inning homer that put his team back into the game versus Japan in the WBC 2006 championship match. Cepeda’s solo shot in the eighth brought Cuba all the way back from a disastrous first inning start and cut the deficit to 6-5, lifting his team into contention before their eventual ninth-inning collapse.
4. The two homers that were the difference in a 4-2 gold medal victory over Panama during the 2003 World Cup. With the deciding game in Havana’s Latin American Stadium tied 2-2 in the middle innings, Cepeda single-handedly determined the outcome with solo round trippers in his last two at-bats.
5. The home run that put Cuba on top to stay in the 2004 Athens gold medal game with Australia. Cuba took a crucial early lead on Cepeda’s two-run blast and hung on for the 6-2 gold medal triumph.
6. The two-out ninth inning homer that rescued Cuba in the 2007 World Cup opener with Australia. Trailing 1-0 and down to their last batter, with no base runners, Cuba survived with Cepeda’s solo blast. This memorable roundtripper opened the door for Osmani Urrutia’s game-winning hit one inning later.
Cepeda is far from the top slugger in Cuban League history, especially when measured by pure record book numbers. The “Pride of Sancti Spíritus” is never discussed by Cuban fanatics in the same breath with sluggers like Kindelán, Linares, Antonio Muñoz, Lázaro Junco, or Luis Casanova.
Yet he does trail only Joan Carlos Pedroso in the number of homers slugged in league play since the return of wooden bats for the 1999 national Series campaign. But when it comes to game-winning or game-saving blasts in the biggest international games no one else even comes close.
And even when he doesn’t grab headlines, it is usually Cepeda who is smack in the midst of heroic late-inning international performances. Slowed by a thumb injury that forced him to bat only right-handed, Cepeda experienced his worst outing at the 2005 World Cup in Holland.
Nonetheless Freddie scored the game-winning run of the finale with South Korea. And if Gourriel’s ninth-inning roller in Beijing’s gold medal game had moved a few inches in either direction (resulting in a game-winning outfield single rather than a game-ending double play), it was none other than Freddie Cepeda who was streaking toward home plate with what would have been the gold medal clinching run.
Mixing Veterans with Youth Prospects is Cuba’s Forte
The true secret to Cuba’s amazing half-century of international tournament success has been the uncanny ability of the national baseball program to maintain the needed mix of talented veterans with outstanding newcomers. There are plenty of both once again on the current version of Team Cuba.
Despaigne, Cespedes, Olivera, Martin and Peraza are the likely stars of the future. But the current club is still anchored (as it has been for much of the decade) by Pestano behind the plate, Paret in the infield, Lazo on the mound, and Cepeda manning the outfield.
During the first WBC I was asked repeatedly by North American and Asian writers who I would say was the “cream of the crop” among potential Cuban big leaguers. My answer then was Cepeda in the outfield, Paret in the infield, Pestano as a starting catcher for any big league outfit, and Pedro Lazo as a sure-fire MLB closer.
Three years later, with the careers of Paret, Pestano and Lazo all winding down, I would have to revise my listing somewhat. Aroldis Chapman makes any big league scout drool with his blazing 100 mph fastball.
Alfredo Despaigne and Yoennis Cespedes are youngster who would likely require little if any minor league seasoning to break into big league lineups. Olivera is a “can’t miss” major leaguer at any of the four infield positions (yes, that includes first base).
And Michel Enríquez and Yulieski Gourriel both have huge potential in need of only a modicum of further seasoning. But 29-year-old Freddie Cepeda still sits squarely at the top of my “best Cuban player” short list.
Cuba has known its legions of great stars over the decades, most of them island legends nonetheless virtually unknown to North American fans. Omar Linares was often labeled by experts and professional observers throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s as the best third baseman found outside the major leagues.
No lesser a judge than star St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols labeled Pedro Lazo’s slider (at the first MLB Classic in 2006) the most devastating pitch he had ever faced. Orestes Kindelán still owns almost all the island’s top records for power hitting and likely will for some years to come. And a new generation of stars is now on the horizon with names like Despaigne, Céspedes, Chapman and Leonys Martin.
But it is Cepeda that still best fits the standard definition of true “money player”-the one batter that most Cuban fans and any Cuban manager would most want to have standing at home plate with the biggest international tournament game squarely on the line.
International baseball fans wanting to savor the very best of island baseball tradition during the second World Baseball Classic could make no better choice than to keep their attention focused squarely on Team Cuba’s muscular number 24.
*For more coverage on the World Baseball Classic see Bjarkman’s site: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/WBC.asp