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Colorful Victor Mesa Departs as Villa Clara Manager on Eve of National Series 48

by Peter C. Bjarkman

October 07, 2008

An event-filled Cuban League off-season has already brought some surprising changes and upheavals on the heels of a disappointing Beijing Olympic silver medal performance, as well as much to ponder on the eve of a highly anticipated revamped National Series #48. The Cuban League itself will take on a somewhat different look this coming year, with an altered playing schedule and overhauled “minor league” system now firmly in place. And national team preparations for the spring World Baseball Classic (where the Cubans will attempt to repeat their surprise second-place finish of 2006) and fall Europe-based IBAF World Cup (where a main storyline will be Team Cuba’s effort to recapture the “world championship” lost in November 2007 for the first time in a quarter century) will likely share equal billing all winter long with the National Series pennant races being played out on the home front. But no breaking storyline has so far been more surprising, or launched more rabid fan commentary in Cuba itself, than the unexpected departure of colorful and Quixotic Villa Clara manager Victor “El Loco” Mesa. It was first announced in late September that Mesa’s eight-season reign at the helm of the Villa Clara ball club, for which he also starred as a slugging outfielder in the 1980s and early 1990s, had come to a sudden and unanticipated end with the imminent departure of the charismatic skipper for a coaching assignment in Mexico. Whether Mesa’s new assignment will be with the Mexican national team or with the professional AAA-level Mexican summer league is not at all apparent.

Victor Mesa
Former Villa Clara's manager Victor Mesa managed eight Cuban baseball seasons. His life in baseball will continue in Mexico.
The headline-grabbing announcement surrounding the changes in Villa Clara on the eve of the new Cuban League campaign was almost as noteworthy for its lack of concrete details as it was for the inexplicable nature of the departure itself. Havana-based Radio COCO first announced on its league website on September 30 that Mesa had met with his former team at Augusto César Sandino Stadium earlier that same day to inform his players of the rapidly breaking developments. It was further reported only that Mesa’s likely replacement as skipper of the Orangemen would be either former national team catcher Alberto Martínez or possibly Ramón Moret; there was also an accompanying story that former Havana slugging star Agustín Marquetti would apparently not be the new Villa Clara batting coach as earlier speculated by Radio COCO). But nothing further was revealed about the nature of the Mexican League assignment for one of Cuba’s most prominent baseball personalities. Mesa’s transfer to the Mexican League is apparently not a personal abandonment of his native island but rather an “officially sanctioned” move as part of ongoing cooperation between Cuban and Mexican baseball officials. But the lack of information from Cuban League sources regarding the nature of Mesa’s assignment (what his precise role will be in Mexico, what team he will be connected with, or even what the length of his absence from Cuba might be) has inevitably led to considerable chatter and rampant speculation regarding the circumstances surrounding such an unanticipated move.

Mesa’s departure from the league scene is only one of several noteworthy managerial shifts already announced as Cuban baseball gears up for what promise to be landmark domestic and international seasons. Rey Anglada (national team manager with the 2007 Pan American champions and 2007 World Cup silver medalists) has also stepped aside after a half-dozen seasons guiding the fortunes of the league’s most popular Havana-based club. Anglada’s brief tenure as Industriales manager featured three league titles (2003, 2004, 2006) and one championship finals loss (2007) with the fan-favorite Blue Lions outfit that is often dubbed “the Yankees” of Cuba. Anglada will be replaced by long-time Industriales star shortstop Germán Mesa, a spectacular infield defender in the 1980s and 1990s whom many viewed a decade back as the Cuban version of Ozzie Smith. And two additional former league headliners will also make their managerial debuts in December 2008. One-time national team leadoff batter Luis Ulacia (who now ranks fourth on the all-time Cuban League base hit list behind only Antonio Pacheco, Fernando Sánchez and Omar Linares) takes the reins in Camagüey, while 1970s-80s-era slugging star Luis Giraldo Casanova (sixth all-time with 312 home runs) replaces veteran skipper Jorge Fuentes (manager of the gold medal Atlanta Olympic team) for 2008 National Series runner-up Pinar del Río.

These celebrity managerial shifts have taken front-page attention away from the several structural changes in Cuban League play that should combine to lend a significantly different look to the upcoming National Series season. This year’s league action will debut on November 30 (with the traditional opener matching the previous season’s championship finalists—in this case Santiago and Pinar) and will feature the same 90-game format. The schedule will undergo one significant change, however, with the National Series now divided into three segments or “etapas” of 30-game duration each. The first phase of the new season will conclude December 24, allowing for Christmas and New Year’s festivities at year’s end. A second “etapa” will run from January 14 through February 11 and be followed by All-Star Game activities on February 14-15 (at a site yet to be determined). A month-long break in league action will then ensue, with the national squad representing the country in the second MLB World Baseball Classic (the roster to be announced February 17) first training for and then competing in the March WBC spectacular. Cuban League play will reconvene on March 29 and run until May 5, 2009. Post-season playoffs will then fill the remainder of the May calendar, resulting in a slightly later-than-normal conclusion to this season’s National Series action.

In addition to these schedule readjustments, a second significant recasting of Cuban League play involves a simultaneous playing of the “Liga de Desarrollo” (Development League) during the National Series season. In recent years the Cuban “minor league” campaign (with teams representing thirteen provinces, plus Isla and the two Habana city teams) has been staged either in the late spring or early fall, immediately after or before the main league attraction. This time around, however, 45 athletes have been selected for each of the Cuban League squads, with 25 roster spots assigned on the main National Series roster and an additional 20 players relegated to the Development League squad. The reserve team of “minor leaguers” will perform only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The new system allows each Cuban League entry to maintain a reserve roster of 20 added ballplayers in top playing form, a group from which reserve players can be called up to the National Series roster in cases of injury or poor performance on the “big league” squad. It is believed that this system, which parallels more closely the organization of professional baseball in the United States, will allow for more efficient Cuban player development. The advantage here is seen to be a potential improvement in national team rosters that suddenly seem (on the heels of Taiwan in 2007 and Beijing in 2008) in need of significant upgrading to counter improved international talent now being faced during Olympic style, World Cup and other IBAF-sponsored tournaments.

A predominant explanation, then, for such significant changes in league structure has to be a perceived need (at least as seen by Cuban League technical commission officials) to revamp methods of developing national team talent in direct response to recent “failures” such as the gold medal loss to Korea in Beijing and the defeat at the hands of Team USA in the November 2007 World Cup championship finale. The major upcoming challenges of maintaining a strong WBC presence in March and regaining a lost World Cup title in Europe in September have to be foremost in the minds of the Cuban baseball brain trust. But a resulting improvement in the overall entertainment value of the National Series pennant race should also be a welcomed byproduct of these efforts at overhauling the recently stagnant Cuban baseball spectacle.

Yet for all the face-lifting currently underway in Cuban League baseball, it has been the surprising headlines surrounding Victor Mesa that have demanded the most front-page attention everywhere across the island. This fact is not very surprising, given Mesa’s stature in recent years as Cuban baseball’s most colorful personality. The Villa Clara skipper was also a “larger-than-life presence” in his playing days, where his antics in international tournaments (such as being ejected for an obscene gesture directed at the American squad while rounding the bases after a home run in the 1983 Intercontinental Cup matches in Belgium) often caused as much attention as his offensive heroics (such as leading the same tournament in batting average, home runs, base hits and runs scored). And that mixed image only expanded during eight seasons as a successful but always controversial manager. One of Mesa’s often repeated managerial “récords” is that for the most “game ejections” in league annals. While his teams in Villa Clara were consistently among the league’s best, his sometimes controversial bench moves were the subject of constant street corner chatter. This author witnessed such classic Mesa “moves” as pinch-running for another pinch-runner who had just successfully stolen a base, bunting runners into scoring position and thus sacrificing outs when his team trailed by a dozen runs, and once banishing his unused bullpen relief corps to the team bus in response to a seven-run late-inning uprising by rival Matanzas. But many Cuban fans (and Cuban television cameras especially) loved the so-called “spectacle” of these outrageous on-field displays. Former Cuban League commissioner Carlitos Rodríguez once personally voiced his dismay to this author when Cubavision cameras repeatedly focused on Mesa’s sideline antics throughout the 2006 league post-season playoffs, while rarely ever showing successful but low-key manager Antonio Pacheco of eventual champion Santiago.

Most certainly Mesa was a touchstone of controversy throughout his decade-long tenure in Villa Clara. But he was not without his pronounced successes also. While none of his eight Villa Clara teams ever finished higher than second place (2003, 2004), he did twice reach the championship finals and was the only manager in league history to garner 50-plus victories in eight consecutive seasons (all eight he managed). His 447 career wins (against 282 losses) were the most ever by a Cuban League manager during his first eight campaigns. Mesa’s career winning percentage (.613) also ranks sixteenth in league history. But the intense managerial style of “El Loco” could never translate into much in the way of post-season success; his teams won less often than they lost (36-42) in eight straight playoff appearances, and there was always speculation that it was that very style that wore down team enthusiasms by year’s end. The street chatter was always that teams with so much talent (including national team fixtures Eduardo Paret and Ariel Pestano, and promising super prospect Dayán Viciedo) should have performed far better in the championship rounds. Some even blamed Mesa for Viciedo’s lack of development (he never improved on a stellar rookie season) and eventual abandonment of the Cuban scene in June 2008, but this is merely speculation and likely way off target. On the international scene Mesa also had his considerable boasting points. His Junior National Team won a bronze medal in Canada in 2000 (though third place finishes are often more the occasion for blame-casting than celebrations in Cuba); his 2007 Cuba B squad ran the field in the Rotterdam World Port Tournament, thus making Mesa the last Cuban manager to date to win an international event with an unblemished tournament won-lost récord. In sum, on the whole there always seemed to be more plusses than minus in the Mesa portfolio, even if the minuses (like everywhere else in the world of baseball) always seemed to attract to largest bulk of public attention.

Victor Mesa’s departure—as well as the renewed presence of Germán Mesa in Havana and the significantly altered league playing format—will mean a new look for this year’s Cuban League season. But once the first pitch is thrown in Guillermón Moncada Stadium on November 30 it will be business as usual in Havana and Santiago and all points other between, and it won’t be long before the Victor Mesa saga will be yesterday’s news. With another WBC tournament and a renewal of the IBAF World Cup both now on the agenda for 2009, new thrills (new successes and perhaps even new disappointments) will soon enough preoccupy Cuban baseball fans. Unlike National League rooters in Chicago, who must wait a century or more between championships, Cuban fans are conditioned to celebrating international championships with almost every new turn of the calendar page. And there is little reason to speculate that things will be much different in 2009, despite whatever window dressing may now be applied to the Cuban League scene.

Peter C. Bjarkman is author of the award-winning A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) plus the forthcoming Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: A History of the Cuban National Team (McFarland, 2009). Bjarkman is considered the foremost authority on Cuban baseball history and is also a leading collector of Cuban national team game-worn uniforms. He has made more than 40 visits to Cuba since 1997.



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