Not even the most optimistic or the most fundamentalist lovers and defenders of Cuban baseball; nor the most enthusiastic sports commentators; perhaps not even the players themselves or the team’s management thought seriously about it: that the Cuban baseball team could return from San Juan with the Caribbean Series crown. And when the classification stage of the championship began and the defeats started piling up and the team was disarticulating, the suspicion became certain: no, Cuba could not win, and perhaps not even classify for the final round, as had already happened in the 2014 tournament in Isla Margarita….
Then, when they were on the last wagon, in extra innings and thanks to an error of the Puerto Rican defence and the saving victory by the Dominicans over Mexico, the Cuban team was able to sneak into the semi-final games, it was though we had gotten to where we could best and farthest get. Because though the selected Cuban champion, Pinar del Río, was put together (or perhaps it was badly put together, at least in the pitching) as a national team made up by the best active players in the country, it was said many, too many times that this team lacked trade, discipline in the batting box, a modern organisation of the roles of the pitchers, wisdom to make runs, among other shortages. And until the fifth inning of the cross game against the Venezuelan Caribes, they also lacked fighting spirit, leadership: they lacked everything and its definitive disaster seemed to be written out in San Juan’s sky!
But, like an act of magic or of transmutation of souls and spirits, the several times defeated and seemingly dismast and emotionally defeated team changed its luck and started, out by out, play by play, a sure and calm performance during the following 13 game entries, a performance that would lead them to win the crown that had not returned to Cuba since the faraway 1960, in what was the last Cuban presentation in these tournaments until its recent return.
But, though in sports luck – good and bad – does not exist, neither do magic solutions. Everything, or almost everything that happens has its reason or reasons, and those of the indisputable triumph of Pinar del Río’s Vegueros have them and this explains their vigorous reaction, sufficient to overcome, in the decisive games, the two rivals that seemed to have the most options to win the tournament, as was seen until that fifth inning of the next to last challenge.
Cuba’s victory, above all, has names. The first of them is that of Norge Luis Ruiz, the hyperkinetic youth from Camaguey responsible for the first change of face of the team when it was at its slowest point, after the Caribes had been presented with the gift of their fourth and seemingly scathing homerun. Putting a stop to a rival that felt superior, that looked superior in all aspects of the game was undoubtedly the turn of the screw that changed the luck of the Cubans. And everything was ready for the eternal Frederich Cepeda to re-emerge from his ashes, again the saviour, who from one side of the batting box to the other pushed the runs that got the recovered…and almost incredible victory would take the team to the championship’s challenge.
Starting then the story was different, and the rest of a novel with a happy ending that concluded with the tour of the Cuban flag trough the Puerto Rican field of the Hiram Bithron Stadium was written between Yosvany Torres, southpaw Moinelo and closer Mendoza. Because, much more than the batting, the decisive and final victory was due to that dominating pitching, capable of making possible what for so many days, so many games, so many innings seemed impossible.
Cuba won and little does it matter now trying to establish the real quality or power of its rivals to measure their performance. Because it is an irrefutable fact that each one of the five contesting teams took the best team they could, which, in no case, is the best team that one of those countries would be able to set up, since all of them, including the Cuban team, lacked the names of many of their most outstanding active players, enrolled in the Major Leagues and, because of one reason or the other – from legal to political, from sportsmanship to personal – did not form part of the respective selections.
What is important now is that each one of the teams played the best baseball it was able to develop and, in that combat, the Cubans placed on the playing field the best they had precisely at the moment in which that condition was worth the most, and that is why they are the champions. And because the Cuban players, even with their lack of technical discipline, their deficient knowledge of certain playing strategies, the improvisation of the functions of their bullpen, have demonstrated for more than a century and in all the leagues, that they are competitive and overwhelming players, capable of individually and collectively winning in the playing fields. Because the Cuban players, in and outside the national team, as presumed amateurs or as millionaire professionals have been highly valued in the show of world baseball, as demonstrated by the hiring fever unleashed in recent years, or as confirmed by this victory of a Pinar del Río strengthened with the country’s best players.
The team’s management, headed by Alfonso Urquiola, national champion of the previous series with the Pinar del Río team, deserves a paragraph apart. Though the selection of pitchers and the amount chosen was definitively wrong; even when in a fit of nostalgia he wanted to begin the series with the team having as many players from Pinar del Río as possible; despite the not very fortunate opportune decisions…Urquiola knew how to win, something that many managers are unable to do. And he did so from where his place was, and where his place is: seated on the bench, as a hidden protagonist of the right and wrong decisions, but without wanting to steal a show that, in the first place, takes place in the playing field and only in his strategic and tactical performance in the shadow of the bench.
Lessons can be learned from the victories as well as from the defeats. And this 2015 Caribbean Series won by Cuba is a veritable teaching manual of what the Cuban players and baseball have and what they lack. And not just in sports. Even the fact of having had to face the desertions in the middle of the series must serve as argument to find possible solutions, if they do exist. Today’s success will not be the magic wand that clears a road that has been filled with obstacles, the first and most serious of them being today’s loss of enthusiasm for the practice of baseball among young people, like a disease of the present that, if not treated, can cause much pain in the future. (2015)
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