By PETER C. BJARKMAN*
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 6.- A new baseball season has opened to enthusiastic crowds in Havana and across the entire island of Cuba, and this forty-eighth edition of the Cuban National Series promises to be one of the most exciting 90-game campaigns in decades.
Last winter’s National Series #47 was indeed “one for the record books” since it featured a string of truly landmark performances. Included were Pedro Lazo’s climb to the top of the heap in career pitching victories, Yulieski Gonzalez’s perfect (and unprecedented) 15-0 pitching ledger with Habana Province, and Alexei Bell’s previously unmatched 31 home run smashes and 111 runs batted home for champion Santiago. It will be a most difficult act to follow. And yet a new winter season for the island’s 16 “big league” teams and their rabid supporters already promises much more of the same.
This year’s National Series features a slew of organizational changes, such as a season split into three segments (to accommodate the March World Baseball Classic festivities) and a return to the two-division pennant structure abandoned back in 1992. There is also the promise of more record-setting individual performances by such emerging slugging stars as Olympic heroes Alexei Bell and Alfredo Despaigne, as well as potentially tight pennant races featuring Pinar del Rio and Sancti Spiritus in the Zona Occidente (Western Division), and defending champion Santiago de Cuba and Villa Clara in the Oriente (Eastern Division).
For North American or European visitors to the island, a stop at a Cuban baseball game is almost “a must item” for those who want to experience the full flavor or the nation’s native culture. And for those who might be planning an upcoming trip it is now possible to prepare in advance and even preview the spectacle first-hand through the convenience of your own personal computer.
The newly revamped North American-based website found at www.baseballdecuba.com now offers every rich detail of the Cuban baseball scene-historical records and statistics, weekly pennant-race analysis, and even daily television and radio game broadcasts. Yes, that is right, through this website devoted fans of the island sport, as well as novices wishing to find out what Cuban baseball is all about, can conveniently view nightly game broadcasts from any corner of the global by merely switching on their personal laptop computers.
The miracle of the internet now makes it not only possible but even convenient for North American fans to follow all the intriguing nightly action of the world’s “second best league” from its beginnings in early December through the exciting post-season battles of late May. Complete Cuban League information is available in both Spanish and English on the www.baseballdecuba.com site, where daily box scores and complete game stats-as well as insightful in-depth analyses and breaking news items-allow fans to uncover every corner of the island’s rich national pastime.
Nightly “live” Spanish-language radio broadcasts offer the selected games transmitted from Havana’s Radio Rebelde. But non-Spanish speakers can also visually experience games firsthand with delayed-transmission televised rebroadcasts relayed from Cubavision International at 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time five nights weekly, as well as on most Sunday afternoons. North American and European fans thus now have more complete up-to-date access than ever before to the unparalleled thrills and raw passions of the unfolding Cuban League pennant race.
For those who might actually be contemplating an island tour in coming months, the complete Cuban League 2008-2009 schedule is also available for download in Adobe format. Thanks to the efforts of www.baseballdecuba.com and its talented webmaster Ray Otero, there is no longer any excuse for remaining “in the dark” about some of the highest level baseball played anywhere on the planet. And for those fans anxiously anticipating the upcoming World Baseball Classic staged by Major League Baseball, here is a perfect opportunity to prepare your own personal scouting reports and ballplayer assessments for the Cuban national team stars that will undoubtedly represent one of the strongest challengers in the showcase spring 2009 WBC international tournament field.
*Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 and is currently completing a second book on the storied history of the Cuban national baseball team.