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In sea of change, Cuba stays on course

By Milton Jamail

Orestes Kindelan
Orestes Kindelan
Photo: Robert Gurganus

AUSTIN–Cuban fans created a clamor last year, saying perhaps it was time for infielders Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares and Antonio Pacheco to step down and let younger players take their place on Cuba’s elite national team.

Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, reacted by running a chart with the trio’s impressive international stats and posed the question: "Would you leave them off?" As it turns out, the three heroes weren’t left off Cuba’s 2000 Olympic team.

In fact, even veteran shortstop German Mesa, who didn’t play in the 1996 Olympics, was one of the 30 players taken to Japan, where the team will train before making its final cutdown to 24 players. Kindelan, Linares, Mesa and Pacheco first played together on the national team in 1989, and they reunite on what will be the oldest team that Cuba has ever sent to an international competition.

In addition to having experience and a track record of success, the majority of the older players selected are perceived to be loyal to the Cuban government, and thus less likely to defect. And because of their ages, most of the players will draw less interest from major league scouts.

Since baseball became a medal sport in the 1992 Olympics, Cuba is undefeated in 18 games. It won the gold in Barcelona in 1992 and in Atlanta in 1996. But the Cubans have lost their air of invincibility by dropping the last two Intercontinental Cup crowns, to Japan in Spain in 1997, and to the host Australians in 1999.

And with professional players competing on opposing teams, the Cubans will be tested as never before. But the team is talented, and its excellent development system continues to produce a steady flow of quality pitchers, so Cuba remains a favorite to capture the gold medal.

Ready To Play

To be eligible for the national team, players had to participate in Serie Nacional, a 16-team league that plays a 90-game schedule between November and May.

For the first time, players rode in first-class buses, stayed in comfortable hotels and ate well last season. Their salaries were doubled to 800 pesos per month (about $40), and those who travel to international competition may garner as much as $2,000 in bonuses. While that may not sound like much, these were important incentives to players who want to remain in Cuba with their families rather than pursue major league dreams in the United States.

The Cuban government understands that defections from the team are always a threat. Prime targets for agents and scouts in Sydney will be utility infielder Michel Enriquez, outfielder Yasser Gomez and righthander Maels Rodriguez. As one Havana fan put it: "If Maels Rodriguez goes with the Olympic team, they will have to put him in a cage so he doesn’t leave."

Fifty players went to a closed-door training camp in Havana in June, and the group was cut to 32 in late July. During its two-week stay in Japan at the end of August, the 30-player team will face several local teams as well as a team from Korea.

The Cubans are scheduled to arrive in Australia on Sept. 3, two weeks before their first game against South Africa. The test for the Cubans comes Sept. 22-24 when they have consecutive games against Australia, the United States and Japan.

One advantage the Cubans will have over Team USA is that they’ll have trained together for almost three months. Some of the players have been together on the national team for more than a decade. Nine members of the 1990 team are on the squad.

The question is whether they will come to play. Cuban teams occasionally look as if they are sleepwalking, only to burst out in crucial games to win gold medals. This is the last hurrah for many of Cuba’s all-time greats. Will they respond to this last chance in the international spotlight?

Two things are more certain: The players and coaching staff are under tremendous pressure from the government to bring back a gold medal, and Cuba’s knowledgeable and passionate fans will be watching and discussing every pitch.

Breaking Down The Team

Here’s a position-by-position look at the 30 players remaining in the mix for the national team:

Pitchers. The majority of the nearly 50 Cuban baseball players who have defected since 1991 have been pitchers–including former national-team starters Rolando Arrojo, Danys Baez, Osvaldo Fernandez, Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez–and it’s not hard to see why. Cuba has continued to produce outstanding arms.

The two aces of the Cuban team are righthanders Norge Luis Vera and Jose Ariel Contreras. Both pitched in the two-game exhibition series with the Orioles in 1999. Contreras gave up no runs and struck out 10 batters in eight innings of relief in Havana, while Vera gave up three runs in seven innings of relief in Baltimore.

Vera was the Serie Nacional most valuable player last season, going 17-2 with a league-leading eight shutouts and a 0.97 ERA. He also added three victories in the postseason. Contreras, who pitched on the 1996 Olympic team, went 13-2, 1.24 last season.

Rodriguez has been clocked at more than 100 mph and consistently throws in the high 90s. In December, he pitched the first perfect game in the 39-year history of Serie Nacional. Rodriguez is likely to start against lesser teams such as Italy, the Netherlands or South Africa and become a short reliever in the medal round.

Veteran righthanders include Jose Ibar, Pedro Luis Lazo and Ormari Romero, all of whom have extensive international experience. Another righthanded option is Ciro Licea, an impressive young pitcher.

Lefthander Omar Ajete, who has been on the national team since the late 1980s and has two Olympic gold medals, is one of the possible closers. The other is righthander Lazaro Valle, 37, a national team starter for several years who now pitches exclusively in relief.

Lefthander Yosvani Perez was cut from the roster in July before being added right before the Cubans left for Japan. Perez pitched a no-hitter against Taiwan in Holland’s Honkbal Baseball Week tournament in early August. He is likely to start against another of the Olympic also-rans.

Catchers. Cuba has three outstanding defenders to choose from. Ariel Pestano caught at the Pan American Games last summer, while Juan Manrique has played on the national team for a decade and was on the 1996 Olympic squad. Rolando Merino was the Serie Nacional all-star catcher last season.

Infielders. Kindelan (first base), Linares (third) and Pacheco (second) all started on Cuba’s Olympic gold-medal winners. Kindelan is Cuba’s career home run leader. Pacheco, who became the all-time Cuban hits leader last season, could be paired with his former double-play partner, Mesa.

Mesa was banned from baseball by the government in 1996 before being reinstated two years ago. His skills have dropped off a bit, though he remains a superb fielder.

Other candidates include first baseman Antonio Scull, second baseman Oscar Macias and third baseman Gabriel Pierre, all of whom are 31 or older and were Cuban league all-stars last season. The youngest infielder is Enriquez, who set a Cuban record with 152 hits in 1998-99. Danel Castro is a shortstop who offers more with his bat than his glove.

One surprise omission from the team is 21-year-old Yorelvis Charles, who hit .354 to win the Serie Nacional batting title and was the shortstop on the postseason all-star team. Given that the league used wood bats for the first time in 22 years, Charles’ performance was nothing short of extraordinary. But his 27 errors spurred some in Cuba to comment that he must have been fielding with a wood glove, and his defense probably accounts for his absence.

Outfielders. All-stars Yobal Duenas and Gomez will start in center and right field, respectively. A 1990 report from a U.S. scout rated Duenas as the top young prospect in Cuba, and he has evolved into one of the island’s top hitters. He won the 1998-99 batting title with a .418 average.

Gomez is one of the rising stars of Cuban baseball. He hits for average, though not much power, and is a solid defender with a strong arm.

Any one of four players could start in left field. Javier Mendez, one of the most popular players in Cuba, is regarded by Cuban pitchers as one of the toughest batters in the league. He played on the 1990 national team but didn’t make the elite squad again until 1998.

Luis Ulacia offers speed and experience, having won two Olympic gold medals as a member of the national team since the late 1980s. Eddy Rojas has a strong arm but little exposure to international competition. Miguel Caldes can play third base as well as the outfield, and his versatility could land him a spot on the club.

Milton Jamail is the author of "Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball," published this year by Southern Illinois University Press.

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