Baseball in Cuba, Where’s it Going?

July 11, 2017 |

By Jose A. Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES — Word on the street has caused uneasiness among managers and trainers, but every day there are less and less ways of avoiding it: Cuban baseball is suffering a crisis and nothing else. Teams involved in international competitions have just proven this in recent days.

The supposedly A-team took part in the Can-Am League, which is Triple-A level (at best), and it left with five wins and 16 setbacks. Afterwards it went on to lose the exhibition series three games to two, against US university students. Meanwhile the B-team started well in the traditional tournament in Rotterdam, Holland, but ended up finishing in last place.

The A-team combined several of the best baseball players who remain in Cuba and who weren’t hired out to foreign leagues by the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER) with young players. The B-team brought together those that were left over from the above selection.

The A-team managed by Roger Machado and with Victor Mesa as their hitting coach, was supposedly formed so as to win both the tournaments it went to, and that’s what Machado had said before leaving, but it didn’t win either. At the Can-Am League, the bar was just set at winning more games than they lost (12-11), which wasn’t asking too much already, and to win the exhibition series.

Roger Machado, manager of Cuba’s A-Team for the Can-Am tournament and the exhibition series with a US university team.  Photo: cubadebate.cu

At a first glance, it seemed that the Cuban baseball federation had underestimated the playing level at the Can-Am League, because even though Major League baseball players don’t take part, there are many players who have a lot of experience in this kind of tournament, and the young players have a lot of talent.

However, this judgement later clashes with statements made by the Cuban team themselves (after losing most of their games), where they talked about first class pitchers, and even mention the Major Leagues. Not even Victor Mesa, the man of the famous words, believes the last statement, but he was eager to justify the worst performance of a team wearing Cuba’s sports uniform in history.

National selection teams have been competing on the international circuit for decades and decades and they have never, not even after professionals were allowed to take part in all kinds of tournaments, had such an unfavorable outcome like they did this year. This includes seasons when they lost friendly games to the United States, Japan or Mexican professionals in the 1980s.

Cuba’s pitching, the main cause for the latest failures, is really poor, but batting isn’t much better either, as you only need to mix up pitches a little and you’ve dominated the better of the Cuban batters. Roger Machado himself admitted that his students aren’t used to pitchers having  three or four pitches, and much less seeing balls that come over 90 miles per hour a lot of the time.

However, this isn’t anything new; these are already old shortcomings in Cuban baseball, which is always attributable to how poorly it is developed at home.

Over the last few days, some statements from the former pitching star from Havana, Lazaro de la Torre, have made the news, in which he clearly appeared to be bothered by those who put all of the blame “on the poor groundwork”. What groundwork? The so-called Iron Arm from the capital noted that if trainers from below aren’t given anything, nobody is motivated to work properly.

Lazaro Junco. Photo: Youtube.com

Likewise, the former outfielder from Matanzas, Lazaro Junco, confessed that he was sick and tired of still hoping for the sports body’s support. According to his words, he hasn’t even received a uniform in almost two decades of work after his retirement, not to mention his boys, because it’s thanks to the parents that they continue to play baseball.

With things as they are, it’s very difficult to achieve results, and to keep the talent that somehow is naturally born here in Cuba. This is the only argument that the enemies of the word “crisis” can use, that baseball players continue to leave, but this has always happened, happens and will continue to happen in Cuba, in spite of how badly the vilified National Committee works.

The scandal that the manager and coaches exhibited at the last Can-Am League game deserves a separate paragraph. In the last inning, with Cuba batting and a man on first base, a ground ball was hit to short and at first the runner was declared safe because the player at second base had let the ball get away. Then the umpires got together and they declared the runner out because of interference, and that’s when the downpour of insults came.

First, it was the first base coach, Mayito Vega, who threw a string of insults at the main umpire, responsible for revoking the initial decision. Then it was Machado, who also protested angrily, kicking dirt at the ump’s feet, and finally (he couldn’t be left out), it was Victor Mesa, who went stomach to stomach with one of the umpires, until a forfeit was declared.

The bizarre spectacle put on by the entire Cuban coaching staff in the teams final Can-Am game for 2017.

It’s true that it was an appreciation call, which doesn’t usually allow for reversals, and that it was an important moment, because the tying run was on base.  But come on, this is a League that Cuba takes part in as a guest (its victories and defeats aren’t considered to obtain a position in the standings), it isn’t such a big deal.

The only thing they can win with this is for the Cuban team to never be invited to take part in this competition again, which would be a kind of one less chance to play at the international level, and one more motivation less for Cuban baseball players. No matter how you look at it, it was a loss, all for a game that didn’t mean anything. Likewise, it was never going to change the awful impression given by the team throughout the competition.

There are no more international events for Cuba the rest of this year, and baseball fans will have to wait until August 6th for the Cuban League to kick off again. When I say fans, I should write fanatics, because the domestic tournament is so impoverished that it isn’t even worth losing (quite a lot of) time and (quite a lot of) money on going to see a game which doesn’t entertain much, with Victor Mesa’s permission.

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  • Carlyle MacDuff

    One just needs to look at the kids on the street in Cuba and at the T-shirts and banners worn by Cubans, to recognize that the sporting heroes are no longer baseball players, but Football (soccer) stars. Look at all the Real Madrid and Barcelona T-shirts worn by kids and younger adults. Cuban TV shows the Spanish La Liga, the German Bundeslige and the English Premier League. Ronaldo and Messi are the heroes. Baseball is now second fiddle.

    • CUBALIBRE

      Not even close!!

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        If you ever visit Cuba CUBALIBRE get out on the street and look! Look at all the T-Shirts, look at the banners on the bici-taxis!

        • CUBALIBRE

          Thanks, been there about 15 times, I know Cuba very well.. The t-shirts mean nothing, its Cuba, they wear what they can get there hands on, buying or through friends..

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            As my home is in Cuba CUBALIBRE I have the opportunity to observe life there daily and to talk with Cubans of each generation. For baseball fans – somewhat diminishing in number, it is disappointing that soccer is taking over. But CUBALIBRE I can assure you that is the reality. When I cough up my two pesos and go to the ball game, the size of the crowd is ever smaller. (National level)

          • CUBALIBRE

            Cool story, not sure what team you’re seeing, but mine is packed.. Can’t even find a seat during playoffs..

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            How about the size of the crowd during the regular season CUBALIBRE?
            You and I could continue this discussion ad infinitum. But, time will tell!

  • Eden Wong

    It’s a shame that Cuba’s baseball heritage appears to be circling the toilet drain, but nothing lasts forever and the younger generation are nowhere near the fanatics that their fathers and uncles are.

    Time matches on, new interests move to the forefront.