By Tomas Armenteros Crespo
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 25.— Cuban baseball is around the corner with the new season getting under way on Saturday November 29th. Sixteen teams will play a 90-game regular season divided in the Western and Eastern Divisions. Later the top four teams in each will begin the playoffs leading to the national championship series.
The 2008-2009 season begins at a time when baseball as a sport is fighting for a return to the Olympic program in 2016, after being excluded at the London 2012 games.
In Cuba, baseball is a highly colorful and emotion packed affair. It’s the national sport, and as such, fans around the country are once again asking about the real chances of their favorite teams, first to make it to the playoffs and later to win it all.
Santiago de Cuba last year’s champs and Villa Clara are the favorites in the Eastern Division with Pinar del Rio, runner-ups, and La Habana, picked to lead in the West.
Several teams have new managers this season including Matanzas with Wilfredo Menendez, Camaguey with Luis Ulacia and Villa Clara with Eduardo Martin Saura.
Two teams play out of the Latinoamericano Stadium in the capital, Industriales and Metropolitanos, but by far the most popular is Industriales. This year the team has a new manager, German Mesa, and batting coach, Omar Linares, both baseball legends themselves.
Industriales will be seeking revenge against Linares’ old team Pinar del Rio, the team that eliminated it in the quarterfinals last season including an embarrassing 24-0 rout that demoralized the players and fans.
However, German Mesa’s job is not going to be easy and it will be considered a disaster by the fans if his team doesn’t make it to the finals in 2009. The situation became harder after losing two of the team’s key players, Yadel Marti (the best right-hander) and Yasser Gomez (starting right fielder) who were both recently suspended from Industriales for an act of indiscipline.
Baseball fanatics love statistics and a novelty this year involves a new system developed by students at the Information Sciences University (UCI), to be used for the first time.
Frank Romero Rodriguez, vice president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said the system is known by the name “Scauting”, a basic tool for top level baseball, which offers the teams a daily description of the status of each squad.
The data will provide managers and coaches detailed information on the strengths and weaknesses of each player they face during the season.
Meanwhile, work continues to repair the stadiums in the cities of Holguin, Matanzas, Camaguey and Isla de la Juventud -damaged by hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma.
Santiago de Cuba faces Pinar del Rio in the opening game on Saturday. Then on Tuesday December 2 all the teams will see action. Santiago will play Industriales in Havana; Pinar del Rio hosts Las Tunas, Camaguey travels to the Isla de la Juventud; Guantanamo plays on the field of La Habana, the team of the province that encircles the capital; Holguin travels to Cienfuegos, Granma to Sancti Spiritus, Matanzas to Villa Clara and Metropolitanos to Ciego de Avila.
With the curtain about to fall, it’s now up to the players to put on the best show. For us, the fans, the sports passion of most Cubans is about to begin.