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As relations with the United States began to falter in 1960, Castro tried unsuccessfully to change the national sport from baseball to soccer. Baseball was an American game, and in the antigringo climate of that time, that seemed reason enough. The people, however, wouldn't stand for it. So while the last wave of Cuban-born-and-raised players to play in the Major Leagues (Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, Luis Tiant Jr., etc.) made their way north in the early '60s, the government began organizing the game at every level at home. With the United States embargo in full swing, the Cubans started to manufacture their own equipment, set up amateur leagues for every age group, and took advantage of players like Martín Dihigo, who returned to teach and coach in his hometown of Matanzas.
Castro began to copy other nations that used sports for international recognition. His national team began to train and play together regularly and in 1963 they defeated the United States in the Pan American games. The United States turned the tables in 67', upsetting a superior Cuban team. It was about this time that U.S. coaches and scouts who saw the Cuban players firsthand in international competition recognized that although the pipeline of Major League players had been cut off, the quality was still there.
While the top Americans competed for no more than a few years on the amateur level before they turned professional, the Cuban ballplayers put together impressive career records in one international tournament after another. In a 1971 rematch of the 1967 Pan Am games, the average age of players on the victorious Cuban team was 29 and included (future "Marielito" refugee and Detroit Tiger) Barbaro Garbey and a young outstanding hitter by the name of Wilfredo Sanchez. Sanchez was still around for the 1984 Olympics, compiling a lifetime .330 average in between.
Top hitters like Augustin Marquetti and Armando Capiro shone on the 1971 team and remained forces until 1977, when they were joined by ace right-handed pitcher Braudilio Vincent. Vincent was still playing on the 1984 Olympic team where he was teamed with center-fielder Victor Mesa, a young slugger named Luis Casanova and 17-year-old bench warmer Omar Linares, who had played second base in the National Series when he was just 14.
Just how good were some of these ballplayers? Not having a chance to compete against American Major Leaguers on a professional level creates a certain mystery around the issue. Knowledgeable big-league scouts have been impressed with what they've seen. Cuban-born San Diego manager Preston Gomez, after a return visit to his homeland in early 1970, told sportswriter Jack Murphy that the left-hand hitting Sanchez was the best of the lot and he would love to have him for his ball club.
That, of course, was not to be. There were no professional leagues in Cuba, and no formal avenue existed for players to compete on a Major League level in the United States. Defection, however, is another story. In the summer of 1991, pitcher Rene Arocha became the first ballplayer to defect since Castro took over. Unlike three defectors who arrived later in December 1992, a special draft was held for Arocha's services.
Arocha is now with the St. Louis Cardinals and after some time on their Triple A club in Louisville, he made his Major League debut at the start of this season. After a good start and a short stint on the disabled list, he has been pitching well. And what key, if any, does Arocha's success tell us about his contemporaries back home? How good are the Cubans? Can an answer to the question asked by all baseball insiders and fans be gleaned from Arocha's performance?
To start with, Arocha was not Cuba's top pitcher. Cuba didn't participate in the 1988 Olympics, but the 27-year-old right hander pitched against the United States and lost in the World Championships that same year. Cuba won the tournament, but it was lefty Jorge Valdés who was their ace.
Los Angeles Dodgers vice-president Ralph Avila, who runs the club's Dominican Republic training facility, Campo Las Palmas, has seen firsthand the current crop of Cuban ballplayers. The 1984 Olympian Luis Casanova has had a long and distinguished career. When Avila saw him during the Intercontinental Cup in Edmonton in 1981, he thought he was ready for the big leagues. Casanova led the tournament with a .407 average and could have been a 30-30 man (home runs and steals) in the majors. Though he no longer plays on the national team, he still competes in Cuba.
Victor Mesa has also been a remarkable player for Cuba in recent years. Possessing Major League arm strength and good accuracy, Avila thought he was ready to play in the majors when he saw him in Barcelona last year. He had power and, at 32, was still in his prime. His only drawback was that he was sometimes a "happy player," meaning that he lacked some of the desire to execute the fundamentals (relays, cut-off man, etc.) on a regular basis. He now plays left field on the national team.
German Mesa, Victor's younger cousin, also gets rave reviews from scouts and opposition players. A similar body type to St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, the 26-year-old Mesa can make all the plays in the field. He knows how to play the hitters and handles ground balls and bunts well. He has excellent speed and is a line-drive hitter. According to Avila, with a little seasoning, the younger Mesa is less than a year away.
And if the embargo is lifted? And the ballplayers want to come? And if Fidel will let them? A lot of ifs. According to Avila, there would be some outstanding ballplayers on the way. The pitches of right-hander Orlando Hernandez have been clocked at 90-plus miles per hour ("on the slow gun"). He has a great slider, good change of pace, and is consistent in his velocity over nine innings. The Cubans also have a 20-year-old catcher, with the last name Garcia, who has great hitting power and a tremendous arm--in other words, he's a really good catcher. With a year in spring training, he could be a superstar candidate.
The one kid who's already "there," or ready for Major League playing time, is third baseman Omar Linares. The same Linares who played in the national series at 14 is now just shy of his 26th birthday and has at the tools. He is what is referred to as an impact player. He can win a game in many different ways. He hits for power, runs well, has great hands, great range, and a strong accurate arm. Players who have opposed him use words like "genuine" and "the real thing." Avila sums it all up when he says, "he's a smart kid--knows how to win."
With players like these, Cuba's national team continues to impress in international competition. This past summer the national team toured Japan winning eight of nine (including three against a professional league all-star team and four against the Japan national squad) and then went on to Italy to play in the Intercontinental Cup competition. From there another Cuban team (not the national) played in Buffalo in the World University games. And so it goes.
Back on the island, the passion for this game still runs deep, and the pride perhaps even deeper. There is a saying in Cuba--"Cada Cubano tiene de medico, de jugador de pelota, y de politico" ("Every Cuban is a doctor, a ballplayer, and a politician"). It is so true. The teams ms have different names than in the glory days, but fans still gather (much like the soccer fans along the Ramblas in Barcelona) on Las Esquinas Calientes (The Hot Corners) to discuss, challenge, argue, and kid each other over their favorite teams and players.
The conversations continue long into the night.
Teddy Tannenbaum is a baseball folklorist and cigar aficionado.
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