Cuban Baseball: Ciego de Avila, 2015 Champion / Ivan Garcia
Ivan Garcia, 18 April, 2015 — 2015 is another Year of the Tiger. The avileño* team, headed by former receiver Roger Machado, scored twice, then in the 2012 season they won their first title in the local league to unseat Industriales in five games.
It is necessary to go back to 1979, when Sancti Spiritus surprised more distinguished rivals. Or to 2001, when in a dramatic play-off to the best of seven against those Sancti Spiritus roosters when Yulieski Gourriel and Frederick Cepada, the Holguin bloodhounds, clouded the sky with the all the bottle rockets that went up after their unexpected victory.
Baseball on the Island is played shirtless. Some matches seem like jungle games, what with torn gloves, pitchers that throw more balls than strikes, and strategies that leave the experts with their mouths agape in wonderment.
For the last five years, the 9-man teams that would look down their noses at others have been diminishing, due the constant draining-away of their talented players.
Industriales, the Havana team, has suffered the most from the exodus of players. They could assemble three clubs from the members who have opted to play professionally, and easily manage their finances.
But Santiago, Villa Clara and Pinar del Río have also diminished their playing power as a result of the emigration of various budding stars from a league where they play all year, yet earn only worker’s salaries.
This is exploited by other, formerly minor, teams. Although it cannot be said that Ciego de Ávila is a team without substance. In the 90s it enjoyed a golden age with players who were brimming with talent and could never earn anything.
Two years ago they lost their coveted middle outfielder, Rusney Castillo, who went on to make the highest salary of a Cuban baseball player in Major League Baseball. A young prospect like Yozzen Cuesto climbed over the wall, and veterans such as Mario Vega and Yorelvis Charles made their exits.
As of today, the Tigers of Ciego are the best team in the playing field in Cuba. In a baseball league where the defense averages 974, the avileños come out to about 980. Their shortstop Yorbis Borroto is no great shakes moving in either direction, but very sure in those plays that are “out.”
Probably their most talented player is the wildcard Raúl González — good at defense and a thoroughbred batter. Behind the plate they have, in Osvaldo Vázquez, a consistent slugger and a clutch hitter.
If forced to choose, I would pick the right fielder José Adolis García, brother of Adonis, who plays in the Venezuelan professional league, and who at 22 has definitively exploited local baseball.
García has a cannon for a right arm and forcefully bats the ball towards all parts of the field. As the first at-bat, he hit 11 home runs and drove in 59 runs. On the bench awaiting his turn is an 18-year-old player who will make history. Make note of his name: Robert Luis Moiran.
Roger knew to request his reinforcements very tactfully. The Tigers’ bullpen, along with that of the tobacco farmers*** from Pinar del Río before being dismantled, is among the most reliable in Cuba. Three quality openers such as Yander Guevara, Vladimir García (who because of an injury did not have a good season), and the reinforcement from Villa Clara, Alain Sánchez.
Coming up on the rear, to slaughter the games, Machado showed up with a novice such as Yunier Cano, who can launch a two-seamer up to 96 mph. At zero hour, Ariel Borrero and Yoelvis Fizz produced a lot.
Ciego de Ávila was a perfect team, the team with the best performance in the second round. It was the favorite to win the title. But on the other shore, they had the Pirates of the Isle of Youth.
A team without a history and prominent names, but gutsy to no end. The isleños** were lacking pitching talent. Their openers, except for the reinforcement Yoalkis Cruz, did not make it past the third inning.
If the promising southpaw from Las Tunas, Darién Núñez, who throws a powerful fastball at 93 mph and a straight curveball, could have taken baseball seriously, the outcome for the Isle would have been different.
All of the games won by the Pirates in the playoff were thanks to their bullpen. The duo of Danny Aguilera and Héctor Mendoza was the sure one.
Their regular lineup connects almost 10 hits per game, but they lack power. In modern baseball it is very difficult to connect three hits off one pitcher of caliber. Their ability to throw sinkers justifies their fabulous salaries, for their innate capacity to change, with the flick of a wrist, the final score of a game.
But the Pirates knew how to play with commitment, timely batting, and a manager who was skilled at managing his pieces in the small game. They boast a 20-year-old shortstop with hands of silk.
His name is Alfredo Rodríguez, native of the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, and still today many Industriales fans ask themselves what Manager Lázaro Vargas’ reason was for getting rid of this player.
After Cienfuegos native Erisbel Arruebarrena (now in the Major Leagues), Alfredo is the best in the glove in Cuban baseball: spectacular at fielding, excellent throw, and a powerful arm.
At any rate, Isle of Youth faced the consequences. They lost against Ciego in a game that was going downhill from the first. With the game at three runs for two in favor of Ciego, at then end of the seventh inning, García’s error in an easy play let in two runs that cost a ton.
With the Tigers finally let loose, the rest was a walk in the park. In the final inning, Yunier Cano appeared, throwing fireballs, and the isleños put down their arms. The Pirates play an entertaining game and they go to have fun in the field. The Isle contributed color to the proceedings, and Ciego the mastery.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and Others
* “Avileño” denotes someone from the city of Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba.
** Similarly, “isleño” is someone from an island; in the context of this article, the island is the Isle of Youth, the second-largest Cuban island, located south of Havana.
*** Pinar del Río province is the center of tobacco farming in Cuba.