Qualifier Notebook

Complete Coverage of the Americas Olympic Qualifier

By John Manuel

October 31, 2003

Despite the defection of national team regulars Maels Rodriguez and Yobal Duenas, Cuba brings a strong team to the Olympic qualifier in Panama.

Many of the faces have changed from Cuba’s teams in Sydney 2000 and the ’99 Pan American Games. Veterans Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares, Antonio Pacheco and Luis Ulacia helped carry the Cuban offense for most of the 1990s, but they have been replaced by younger players who have talent but not the experience and track record of their predecessors.

On the mound, past stalwarts such as Rodriguez, Jose Ibar and Jose Contreras have either defected or lost spots on the team (Ibar). That has left veterans Norge Vera and Pedro Luis Lazo and the main holdovers from past teams.

Cuba won the World Cup and brings much the same team to Panama. Righthander Vera was the MVP of the World Cup, winning both the semifinal and the final and throwing 22 2/3 innings in the two-week tournament. He struck out 23 and walked just two while going 3-0, 1.19. Righthander Vicyohandri Odelin, who beat Team USA in the gold-medal game of the 2001 World Cup in Taiwan, has become the team’s No. 2 starter with Contreras and Rodriguez gone, but he was ineffective against Panama in the World Cup on Saturday, giving up two home runs. However, he had a 26-3 strikeout-walk ratio in 17 World Cup innings.

Lazo, who started and lost to the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game, remains the team’s closer and can still be dominant. Likened in the past to Lee Smith, he struck out 14 and gave up just five hits in eight World Cup innings.

Cuba’s offense has had the most change, but there are holdovers from past years such as outfielder Roberquis Videaux, shortstop Eduardo Pared and catcher Ariel Pestano. Pestano and Videaux both struggled, however, in the World Cup.

The team’s offensive leaders are young. Second baseman Yuliesky Gourriel, 19, had 13 RBIs to rank third in the World Cup and tripled during a key rally against Brazil in the quarterfinal. First baseman Kendry Morales, 20, has replaced Kindelan with power from both sides of the plate and hit three World Cup homers. Outfielder Frederich Cepeda, 23, then hit two solo home runs to break a 2-2 tie with Panama in the final.

Other starters for Cuba include middle infielder Danel Castro, whom some may remember from his stellar play in exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999; and outfielder Carlos Alfredo Tabares, who hit .478 in a part-time role during the World Cup.

Cuba is in the more difficult group in pool play. Group B includes Cuba, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico, all legitimate contenders, as well as the Bahamas.

Mexico Leans On Veteran Arms

Mexico brought a solid group to the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, where the team was shut out by American college aces Jered Weaver and Huston Street. It will have much the same team in Panama, and there will be few arms with the kind of stuff Weaver and Street have in Panama.

Several Mexican players have big league experience, including veteran pitchers Rigo Beltran, Victor Alvarez and Tavo Alvarez. The team’s top minor leaguers include first baseman Luis Garcia (Indians), shortstop Jorge Cantu (Devil Rays) and righthander Edgar Gonzalez (Diamondbacks). Diamondbacks officials agreed to Gonzalez’ inclusion on the team on the stipulation that he pitches only in relief. The bulk of the team consists of professionals in the Mexican League.

Nicaragua Roster Takes A Hit

Nicaragua has a team in the tournament, but nearly pulled out after several players embarrassed the team with their off-field behavior in the World Cup. In fact, four players from that roster were suspended for drunkenness, insubordination and going AWOL from the team in Cuba–lineup stalwarts Jimi Gonzales and Reymundo Leyton, reserve Julio Vallejos and pitcher Jairo Pineda. Gonzales, a second baseman, was the team’s second-leading hitter in the World Cup at .355, while Leyton hit .269 as the DH.

Shortstop Edgard Lopez, pitcher Cairo Murillo and infielder Yader Hodgson also were disciplined, but are expected to be on the roster.

Veteran third baseman Jenry Roa and outfielder/DH Norman Cardoze remain to lead the offense. Nicaragua’s best pitchers are lefthander Diego Garcia and righthanders Wilton Sevilla and Olman Rostran.

News & Notes

The qualifying tournament’s opening ceremonies were held Thursday, along with Panama’s opening 6-0 victory against Colombia. But there were two notable absences.

Team USA’s presumptive ace, lefthander Horacio Ramirez (Braves), wasn’t part of the ceremonies as he was back in Arizona, completing treatment for an upper respiratory infection that has dogged him since his arrival for Team USA’s trials.

Ramirez’ condition has not prevented him from pitching, but it has been aggravated by the dust in Arizona (kicked up additionally by strong winds), and by smoke blown into Arizona from the fires that are ravaging Southern California. He was scheduled to fly into Panama on Friday morning with USA Baseball national team director Steve Cohen.

“He’s got some passion and really wants to do this,” Cohen said of Ramirez, who went 12-4, 4.00 with Atlanta this year. “Right now, with the condition he has, Arizona is about the worst place for him to be. He should be fine with the humidity down in Panama.”

Puerto Rico has challenged Ramirez’ eligibility on the grounds that his inclusion on Team USA violates the spirit if not the letter of the rules governing which players are eligible. Ramirez was sent to the minor leagues in a procedural move by the Braves in late August, though he never reported to Triple-A Richmond. Only players who were in the minor leagues as of Aug. 31 were made available for the tournament through an agreement between Major League Baseball, the union and the International Baseball Federation.

Puerto Rico’s challenge has its roots in the 1999 Pan American Games, which Puerto Rico dropped out of at the last minute. When the Puerto Rican team fell apart, Team USA added lefthander J.C. Romero (Twins) to its own roster; the Puerto Rican-born Romero has dual citizenship. Under IBAF rules, now that Romero has played for an American national team, he can only play for the U.S. in future tournaments. Players are only allowed to play for one nation in international play.

As for the Bahamas, MLB.com is reporting that the team had trouble getting through customs and might arrive in Panama late for its first game. If the Bahamian team fails to show up, that would make it the fourth of the original 13-team field not to make it to the qualifying tournament.

It also would give the rest of Group A, including Cuba, Canada, Panama and Mexico, automatic entries into the medal round. Only two teams will be eliminated from contention during pool play.

The Asian Games, which started Thursday as well in Japan, have a much more sensible format. Rather than making all the teams go through pool play, perennial powers Japan, Korea and Taiwan already have earned spots in the medal round by virtue of their finish in the previous Asian Games. The winner of a four-team, three-day round-robin tournament will advance to join them in the finals, which begin Nov. 5. The top two finishers will earn spots in the 2004 Olympics.

China beat the Philippines 7-1 and Pakistan knocked off Indonesia 11-5 in the first day of the round-robin semifinals. Pakistan got a complete-game eight-hitter from Asjid Mehmood, while center fielder Muhammad Asif-Mushtad reached went 2-for-3 with three stolen bases and three runs scored. For China, Chen-Hao Li struck out six while allowing only four-hits for the complete-game victory. Third baseman Guo-Gang Yang was 3-for-5 with two RBIs.