Homers: Not How Many? But When?

By Peter C. Bjarkman

Rafael Orta
Rafael Orta

HAVANA TIMES, June 3 — Who might be Cuba’s best clean-up slugger? Or in a similar vein, who might be the most productive designated hitter on the island? Is it Granma’s 22-year-old Alfredo Despaigne, who this season rewrote the league home run record book? Or would it still be Santiago’s Alexei Bell, who in 2008 enjoyed the greatest single slugging campaign on record with 31 round-trippers and 111 runs batted home?

Or would you vote for Sancti Spíritus hero Yulieski Gourriel, who missed a NS #48 batting title (and a rarely achieved .400 mark) by mere percentage points, while at the same time also clubbing 22 homers and driving home 90 runners in an equal number of games?

Or maybe we should even consider Yoelvis Fiss who mans the post for surprising Ciego de Avila; Fiss knocked home 72 runners this winter for the league’s winningest ball club. Perhaps a vote could even be cast for Las Tunas slugger Joan Carlos Pedroso, the only island muscleman to amass 200-plus homers during the current decade of wooden bat baseball.

The choices in this debate may be numerous, but there is one current Cuban League regular at both positions who would almost certainly not be a serious candidate for the hypothetical honor. Habana Province’s Rafael Orta is in fact one of the most unusual—read here “unproductive”—middle-line-up hitters to ever occupy the clean-up role, in Cuba or in any other top-level professional circuit.

Orta has been so unproductive by any standard yardstick applied to the number four batting slot that one teammate recently equaled his two-year long-ball output in a single post-season inning. Entering this year’s playoffs the right-handed swinging Orta had socked exactly one homer in two full seasons—that is, in nearly 200 ball games.

He did hit at a .336 clip for the current National Series, and he did bring home a club third-best 57 runners; yet his RBI production was only a bit more than half that of the league leaders in this department. Orta’s failure to club a single homer in the 90-game campaign has had many in Cuba wondering just what manager Esteban Lombillo has in mind by leaving this light-weight swinger in the traditional power-hitter’s lineup slot.

Average Players That Turn Big Guns

But baseball annals are of course jammed full with unlikely post-season batting and pitching heroes. There is something about championship play that brings out the best in some otherwise altogether middle-of-the-road performers. Or is it perhaps the mere fact that opponents always concentrate defensive efforts on the opponent’s “big guns” and sometimes in the process open the door to lesser performers, who are not always approached with the same level of pitching intensity. At any rate, big league World Series play has its long list of “one-time wonders” who have managed to overreach the expected profile of mere role player. Some memorable New Yorkers of the mid-fifties come quickly to mind.

Take the case of New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, for example. Richardson once posted World Series batting numbers that made him seem like Mickey Mantle or Yogi Berra in disguise. Known for his golden glove and not his light bat, Richardson miraculously exploded for 11 base knocks and a dozen RBIs during a 1960 World Series match-up with the Pittsburgh Pirates; the unaccountable explosion included a then post-season record six RBIs in Game 3 of that memorable Fall Classic.

A dozen seasons earlier Giants part-time outfielder Dusty Rhodes turned the 1954 Series versus Cleveland into his own career highlight film with two game-winning homers. Rhodes became a lasting World Series long-ball legend after socking only fifteen total round trippers that very same summer. And there was also, of course, the unprecedented 1956 Series feat of Yankees pitcher Don Larsen. A career-long losing pitcher, Larsen somehow managed to produce the only World Series no-hitter on record (a perfect game at that!) by mesmerizing the potent Brooklyn Dodgers. Lightening strikes in the oddest places.

Following the Bobby Richardson formula for post-season transformation, Rafael Orta has spent the past two weeks completely overhauling his image at precisely the most opportune moments. By doing so Orta has been underscoring another old baseball adage, one which says that is it not always the quantity of big hits that means the most, but rather the quality of a batter’s crushing blows.

Quality here of course refers to dramatic timing and an uncanny sense of the most advantageous moments for overachievement. In the process Rafael Orta has also been writing his name (in the same fashion as past-era big leaguers Dusty Rhodes and Bobby Richardson) indelibly in the quarter-century-long annals of modern-era Cuban League post-season baseball.

Orta’s marvelous run of productivity began precisely when it was likely to have the maximum impact—the final crucial games of the championship semifinals series versus Pinar del Río. In Game 4 of the Pinar series (the contest always to be remembered for Danger Guerrero’s apparent three-run homer that was erroneously ruled a “ground-rule out”) it was Orta who would prove the ultimate savior as Habana Province earned a vital series-knotting triumph. The margin of victory was a tie-busting 4-run uprising in the top of the ninth that was highlighted by Rafael Orta’s booming two-run triple. That was only the beginning.

Game 6 in San José closed out the semifinal round with a dramatic 11-inning 3-2 Cowboys win that lifted Lombillo’s ball club into the league championship finals for only the second time in team history. In that see-saw match Orta stroked a run-producing single in the home half of the seventh which looked at the moment like the game-winning and series-clinching base knock. Fate was not quite so kind to the star-struck Orta this time around, since the game was later again tied, and then eventually won in overtime on a bizarre walk-off wild pitch. But Orta hit did produce the tally that allowed his club to survive into extra frames and thus to steal eventual eleventh-inning victory. Orta’s hit was definitely the biggest of the deciding game and thus one of the biggest of the entire marathon season.

Orta Saved His Best for the Finals

But Orta still seemed to be only warming up. The best would be saved for the year’s final and most important encounters in the playoff finale with Villa Clara’s Orangemen, surprise survivors after a third-place finish in the Oriental League half of the circuit. In the opener in San José, a near-perfect six-inning pitching performance by lefty starter Yulieski González (and a 3-0 Habana lead as a consequence) seemed in danger of being wasted when Villa Clara rallied for two in the eighth and one in the ninth to knot the match.

After Ruby Silva doubled in the home half of the final frame, manager Eduardo Martin elected to intentionally pass the dangerous Ernesto Molinet (who had socked a record two homers in a single inning during the quarterfinals) in order to get at Rafael Orta. It seemed a wise move with but one out and the winning tally perched on second. Orta—still homer-less, but already now on a post-season tear—promptly laced a high fastball from ace reliever Yolexis Ulacia into center field for the game winner.

And the biggest blow of all still lurked just around the corner. After a 102-game home run drought stretching the full length of National Series #48 (90 regular season games and a dozen more in the playoffs) Rafael Orta’s bat finally cracked out a long opposite-field fly that cleared the fence in deepest right center and gave his club a most-timely 5-2 advance in the home eight.

The surprise power display came off an errant delivery from the same Yolexis Ulacia who had been victimized by Orta a day earlier. Villa Clara would cut the count to a single digit with a two-run rally in the top of the ninth, yet fall just short of the needed tie. The year’s first homer by Havana’s unlikely DH thus provided the ultimate margin of victory in a game that left the Cowboys clearly in the championship driver’s seat. Orta’s long-awaited blast in Game 2 will not likely retain an indelible spot in any list of the most memorable single moments of island playoff history. But it may just have been the biggest blow ever struck in Havana Province’s own rather checkered ball club saga.

The recent performance by Orta underscores the unpredictability which is both baseball’s biggest charm and also the sport’s strongest magnet. A Cuban journalist friend once told me that he didn’t attend many ballgames at Latin American Stadium because he only selected out the best games on the schedule to visit.

A nice trick, requiring I would image some rare kind of occult powers. For in baseball more than any other sport, any day at the park might easily produce either the dullest of spectacles or the rarest moments of pure entertainment. And there is absolutely no way of ever predicting which it might be. Any game can produce a moment to be cherished or an event never before witnessed—like last week’s Danger Guerrero “home run that wasn’t” in Pinar’s Captain San Luis Stadium. There are always novel surprises unfolding on the baseball diamond.

For two years Rafael Orta has remained hidden in the shadows on one of the Cuban League’s strongest teams. It was not that he was merely overshadowed by a host of other top sluggers, given that Habana has survived mostly on its pitching, while owning one of the island’s weakest offensive punches. When he finally did gain some fan attention near season’s end, it was seemingly always to ridicule the historic failure to strike a single home run from the traditional clean-up slot. But now it is likely that everyone will instead remember the single fence-clearing blast he eventually did stroke. It is precisely such stuff that baseball dreams are made of.

So we might now return to the question with which we began: who is currently Cuba’s best clean-up hitter? Most would still opt for Despaigne, or perhaps Gourriel, Bell or even Pedroso. But Lombillo and the now-charged-up Habana Province fans can not be entirely displeased with their own entry in the contest. There is something to be said for timeliness. Baseball is a game of numbers and thus statistics are a significant part of the sport’s storyline.

But the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. How valuable are Despaigne’s 32 homers for a ball club that finished in the league basement? Branch Rickey, general manager of the cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 1950s, once handed out a pay cut to slugger Ralph Kiner, after Kiner had just claimed the league home run crown with 51 dingers. Rickey simply reminded the future hall-of-famer that the club could finish last just as easily with or without the slugger’s 50-plus homers.

Do you want a clean-up slugger who produces bunches of extra base hits in a losing cause, yet fails the deliver under pressure-packed scenarios? This, of course, has often been the rap against Pedroso, who belts long-balls in Las Tunas with a tail ender ball club but fails time and again in international trials with Team Cuba. At least over the last couple of weeks, many I imagine would have preferred to see the timely if not intimidating Rafael Orta standing at the heart of the order, especially with the championship season hanging in the balance.