By Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, May 4 – When Alexei Bell smashed 31 homers and knocked in 111 runs in National Series #47 (2007-2008) he obliterated two long-standing Cuban League slugging records. But one of Bell’s new marks didn’t hold up for long.
Twenty-three year old Granma phenom Alfredo Despaigne has feasted on weak league pitching throughout the current campaign and roared down the stretch run following the World Baseball Classic recess to quickly erase Bell’s short-lived home run standard.
The new record came in dramatic fashion on one of the most dramatic final days (and final weekends) of Cuban National Series history. On Friday evening (May 1) Cuba’s lifetime batting average leader Osmani Urrutia announced his surprise early retirement from the game after but 16 seasons; Urrutia, who will not turn 33 until mid-June, now walks away from the sport with an unmatched .369 lifetime hitting mark.
But Urrutia’s premature departure was buried by the on-the-field drama of the campaign’s final tense hours. On Sunday afternoon (May 3) Michel Enríquez (Isla) and Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus) entered the last day of league action in a virtual dead heat for this season’s coveted individual batting title. And the biggest piece of drama was provided by Despaigne, who had been sitting on 31 homers all week long since matching Bell’s 2008 output eight days earlier.
Batting in the unusual leadoff spot on Sunday (in an effort to increase his possible at-bat opportunities) Despaigne was zero for one (plus one walk) entering the fifth frame when he finally exploded for his landmark homer with two aboard, as part of an 11-run Granma uprising versus four Villa Clara hurlers. Six RBIs in the contest also left the slugger only three short of becoming the second Cuban league to reach 100-plus in a national Series campaign (Bell became the first last season).
The historic homer not only established a new single-season standard but also left the rising national team star as the first Cuban slugger to reach the century mark for round trippers during his first five national series seasons. The closest to achieving that distinction were Yulieski Gourriel with 99 and Despaigne’s Granma teammate Yoennis Céspedes, who had recorded 96 by the close of his own fifth campaign during the 2007-2008 season.
Despaigne has also now teamed with Céspedes (who has blasted 24 this winter) to write a new standard for a single-team slugging tandem. Last winter Despaigne (24) and Céspedes (26) became the first pair of teammates to reach the combined figure of fifty round trippers in a National Series campaign. They have now extended last year’s achievement by a half-dozen, thus rubber-stamping their ranking as the greatest single one-two home run punch in the nearly half-century annals of Cuba’s revolutionary baseball.
Bell, for his part, last winter became the first National Series batsman to reach the 30-homer plateau when he overhauled the previous record of 28 clubbed by Joan Carlos Pedroso in 2002-2003. Orestes Kindelán (Cuba’s career leader with 487 before his retirement in 2001) had originally reached the 30-homer plateau during 1986 Selective Series play (the now-discontinued “second season” which at the time was 63 games in length). Bell’s breakout 2008 campaign also featured the only 100-plus RBI season, a mark which Despaigne has now missed equaling by the narrowest of margins.
Previous Top Cuban League Home Run Seasons
32 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2009 National Series #48 (90-game season)
31 Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), 2008 National Series #47 (90-game season)
30 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1986 Selective Series #12 (63-game season)
28 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1988 Selective Series #14 (63-game season)
28 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2003 National Series #42 (90-game season)
27 Joan Carlos Pedrsos (Las Tunas), 2005 National Series #44 (90-game season)
27 Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), 2006 National Series #45 (90-game season)
27 Lázaro Junco (Matanzas), 1993 National Series #32 (65-game season)
Cuban League home run records (unlike the tainted productions of a recent generation of major leaguers) are assuredly not the product of any chemical assistance, as one can easily gather by looking at photos of the undersized Despaigne and Bell, or the muscular yet slender Gourriel. Nor are they ever accompanied by (or diminished by) a qualifying footnote like the infamous Roger Maris asterisk.
Since both the current National Series and now defunct Selective Series (Cuba’s “second season” from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s) have regularly varied in length-of-season over recent decades, the number of games played to achieve record production has never been a point of serious discussion.
Looking at that factor of games played (such a preoccupation of number-crunching MLB fans), Kindelán’s two top seasons in the Selective Series would appear to stand as the more legitimate Cuban League record, challenged most closely by Junco’s output in 1993 (NS #32). But there is a mitigating factor here and that is the non-level playing field produced by the usage of aluminum bats. The dividing line between metal “rocket launchers” and legitimate baseball lumber is 1999 (National Series #38) and only Bell Despaigne, Pedroso and Yulieski Gourriel have posted record or near-record numbers for long balls in the more recent “wooden bat” epoch.
Despaigne’s 2008-09 Home Run Log
#32 (May 3, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Augusto César Sandino Stadium, Villa Clara) Game #90
#31 (April 25, 2009) vs Isla de La Juventud (Cauto Cristo Stadium, Granma) Game #83
#30 (April 22, 2009) vs Pinar del Río (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #80
#29 (April 17, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76
#28 (April 17, 2009) vs Villa Clara (Mártres de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #76
#27 (April 15, 2009) vs Ciego de Avila (Mártires de Bardados Stadium, Granma) Game #74
#26 (April 14, 2009) vs Ciego de Avila (Mátires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #73
#25 (April 12, 2009) vs Pinar del Río (Capitan San Luis Stadium, Pinar del Río) Game #72
#24 (April 8, 2009) vs Isla de la Juventud (Cristobal Labra Stadium, Nueva Gerona) Game #68
#23 (April 5, 2009) vs Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #66
#22 (April 3, 2009) vs Sancti Spíritus (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #64
#21 (March 31, 2009) vs Cienfuegos (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #61
#20 (March 29, 2009) vs Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) Game #60
#19 (March 28, 2009) vs Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59
#18 (March 28, 2009) vs Holguín (Báguanos Stadium, Holguín) Game #59
#17 (March 27, 2009) vs Holguín (Calixto García Stadium, Holguín) #58
Six-Week Break for World Baseball Classic
#16 (February 8, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57
#15 (February 8, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium, SCU) Game #57
#14 (February 7, 2009) vs Santiago de Cuba (Guillermón Moncada Stadium) Game #56
#13 (February 5, 2009) vs Guantánamo (Nguyen Van Troi Stadium, Guantánamo) Game #54
#12 (January 30, 2009)) vs Camagüey (Wilfredo Páges Stadium, Manzanillo) Game #49
#11 (January 20, 2009) vs Habana Province (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #40
#10 (January 18, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #39
#9 (January 17, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #38
#8 (January 16, 2009) vs Metros (Latinoamericano Stadium, Havana) Game #37
#7 (January 15, 2009) vs Matanzas (Victoria de Girón Stadium, Matanzas) Game #36
#6 (December 28, 2008) vs Holguín (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #24
#5 (December 23, 2008) vs Guantánamo (Mártires de Barbados Stadium, Granma) Game #19
#4 (December 16, 2008) vs Las Tunas (Julio Antonio Mella Stadium, Las Tunas) Game #13
#3 (December 7, 2008) vs Cienfuegos (5 de Septiembre Stadium, Cienfuegos) Game #6
#2 (December 4, 2008) vs Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4
#1 (December 4, 2008) vs Sancti Spíritus (José A. Huelga Stadium, SSP) Game #4
Several noteworthy facts about Despaigne’s lengthy string of long balls might also be recorded here. Foremost is the fact that the Granma slugger has bunched his homers in a number of clusters throughout the season, including one string of five straight games in January, a second of six consecutive home run games overlapping the World Baseball Classic recess, and then a third cluster of four games out of five (with five total homers in those five contests) in mid-April.
Half of his total (16) was achieved in the 57 games before the WBC hiatus and an equal number (16) in the mere 33 games that followed the shutdown. Thirteen of the homers have come in home ball parks with 19 stroked on the road. Despaigne’s favorite park as expected was Granma’s main venue at Mártires de Barbados Stadium in the provincial capital of Bayamo, where he bashed ten NS #48 dingers, but he also whaled three in both Guillermón Moncada (Santiago de Cuba) and Latinoamericano (all versus Metros, with surprisingly none against shaky Industriales pitching).
Despaigne’s longest homer-less string was 11 games during the first two weeks of January, followed by the eight just before season’s end. His favorite victims have been Holguín (5) and Sancti Spíritus (4), but he also had three each versus the Metros, Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Santiago clubs, and has thus homered against every team in the circuit except Havana’s proud Industriales (with a pair each against Pinar del Río, Guantánamo, and Isla de La Juventud, plus single homers off of Matanzas, Las Tunas, Habana, and Camagüey).
But unlike Alexei Bell a year earlier, Despaigne’s slugging will not carry over as a main storyline during the upcoming Cuban post-season, as his last-place Granma ball club trailed the entire eight-team pack in the Eastern Division, barely edging out Havana’s Metropolitans (tail ender in the Western Division) to avoid an ignoble distinction of owning this winter’s worst overall league record.