by Peter C. Bjarkman
Cuba’s talented squad for the upcoming Haarlem Baseball Week tournament became “official” last week with submission of a final 23-man roster list to Dutch tournament coordinators. The list published on the honkbalweek.nl website (June 18) revealed that nine players still in training with the ball club at José Huelga Stadium (Sancti Spíritus) had already been cut from the traveling squad that will open play in Rotterdam on July 8 (an exhibition match versus the Dutch national team). Also traveling to Holland with the Cuban contingent—in addition to manager Germán Mesa and coaches Bárbaro Martín and Gerardo Simón—will be Julio Romero (bullpen coach), José Alvarez (team doctor), Daniel Rodríguez (physical therapist) and Luis Cartón (delegation chief). The official document faxed to Haarlem by Cuban baseball commissioner Higinio Vélez also revealed that a minimum of three names (but likely only one ballplayer) might yet be added before the team’s arrival next week in Europe.
Cuba celebrates a disappointing silver medal at Haarlem Honakbalweek 2008, a performance which Germán Mesa’s squad hopes to improve on next week.
Cuba’s Haarlem roster indeed represents one of the strongest “second level” national teams sent into international play in recent years—perhaps one of the strongest Cuban “B” squads ever assembled. Included are 2008 Beijing Olympic batting champion Alexei Bell, MLB World Baseball Classic performers Eriel Sánchez, Rolando Meriño and Norberto González; and 2009 World Cup pitchers Maikel Folch and Freddy Asiel Alvarez. Also competing will be such future national team hopefuls as Donald Duarte (third base), Serguey Pérez (outfield), and Yoelkis Cruz (pitcher); as well as such past veterans of international play as Rudy Reyes (shortstop) and Danel Castro (second base). With these seasoned athletes in tow the Cubans should rank as heavy favorites to walk off with Haarlem honors that have eluded the islanders in recent years, especially given the rather lackluster rosters entered by four of the five rivals on deck in this year’s 25th anniversary Haarlem renewal.
For starters, the America club this time around is no more potent than a national junior college all-star outfit, while the Japanese and Taiwanese will also be entering raw amateur (university level) squads. Venezuela, managed by WBC skipper Luis Sojo, also brings to Haarlem a ball club featuring no current professional ballplayers. Only the host Dutch can be considered serious treats to upend the Cubans, since the home squad does boast such recent national team stalwarts as catcher Sidney de Jong; infielders Michael Duursma, Bryan Englehart, Raily Legito, and Vince Rooi; outfielders Danny Rombley and Dirk vant Klooster; and veteran pitchers Leon Boyd, Rob Cordemans, Michal van Kampen and Diegomar Markwell (the latter four all members of the recent Dutch World Cup entry).
The complete Team Cuba Haarlem roster is as follows, consisting of three catchers (very much a recent Cuban fixture for such tournaments), seven infielders, four outfielders, and a corps of nine pitchers.
Catchers: Rolando Meriño (Santiago de Cuba), Osvaldo Arias (Cienfuegos), Eriel Sánchez (Sancti Spíritus)
Infielders: Yunier Mendoza (Sancti Spíritus), Yoennis Southeran (Guantánamo), Mario Jorge Vega (Ciego de Avila), Danel Castro (Las Tunas), Donald Duarte (Pinar del Río), Rudy Reyes (Industriales), Alexander Ayala (Camagüey)
Outfielders: Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), Ariel Sánchez (Matanzas), Reutilio Hurtado (Santiago de Cuba), Serguey Pérez (Industriales)
Pitchers: Luis Borroto (Ciego de Avila), Ciro Silvino Licea (Granma), Yoelkis Cruz (Las Tunas), Yoandry Portal (Industriales), Freddy Asiel Alvarez (Villa Clara), Maikel Folch (Ciego de Avila), Robelio Carrillo (Villa Clara), Norberto Goinzález (Cienfuegos), Duniel Ibarra (Cienfuegos)
Manager: Germán Mesa (Industriales), with Coaches: Bárbaro Marín, Gerardo Simón, Julio Romero
Cuba’s Haarlem lineup should feature plenty of offensive punch, especially with a much rejuvenated Alexei Bell backed up in the heart of the order with such potent run producers as Rudy Reyes, Danel Castro and Donald Duarte. The latter threesome have all remained on the cusp of national team status over the past half-dozen seasons and will once again have a chance in Haarlem to make a notable case for inclusion on the Cuban team entered in the American Zone World Cup qualifier tournament later this fall. The Cuban pitching features a couple of the island’s brightest young prospects in Freddy Asiel and Yoelkis Cruz, alongside such seasoned veterans of international wars as southpaws Maikel Folch and Norberto González and righties Ciro Silvino Licea and Luis Borroto. There should also be plenty of motivation found in the Cuban clubhouse after a long string of less than stellar past performances in Haarlem. Two years back the crack Cuban Olympic squad (en route to a silver medal performance in Beijing for which Haarlem served as a mere tune-up) stumbled twice versus an American university all-star team featured big-league-bound pitching phenoms Mike Minor (Atlanta Braves) and Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals). Five Cuban entries in this tournament during the current decade (since 2000) have produced nothing better than four runner-up slots and one disappointing third place finish, hardly characteristic of Cuban squads that have dominated all other international tournaments over the entire past half-century.
Among last-minute cuts from the Cuban roster, the most noteworthy had to be Las Tunas first baseman Joan Carlos Pedroso and Sancti Spíritus staff ace Angel Peña. Peña was the Cuban League ERA champ during the recently concluded National Series but then performed poorly during his team’s quick ouster from post-season play. Pedroso is not only one of the island’s heaviest hitters (the first to reach 200 homers with wooden bats that were reintroduced in 1999) but also owns one of the best gloves among all Cuban first sackers. He also manned the position on both Cuban contingents entered in World Baseball Classic play. The downside for Pedroso is simply that he has never hit well under the pressures of international competition. It might be noted, however, that during a sixth exhibition match between staged the Haarlem-bound squad and the club training for the upcoming World University Games (played last Sunday in Latin American Stadium and producing the third win for the Haarlem team), Pedroso did collect two base hits. And the winning pitcher Sunday for Mesa’s team was Alberto Soto, another of the recent cuts from the Haarlem roster. Perhaps either Pedroso or Soto may yet appear as last minute additions for Haarlem action.
There was certainly plenty of consternation and complaining among fans back home during Cuba’s last high profile and low achievement Haarlem performance by an underachieving Beijing-bound squad. Although the national team brain trust (headed by manager Antonio Pacheco) repeatedly claimed that the 2008 Haarlem team was merely in training mode (for Beijing) and not competition mode, a pair of defeats at the hands of the rival Americans was indeed frustrating. So was the obvious lack of offense from sluggers like Bell, Gourriel, Cepeda, Despaigne, Pestano and company. Especially galling was a 4-1 gold medal game disaster featuring a complete defensive meltdown (a pair of errors at first base by Yoandy Garlobo) in the deciding ninth frame of a pitchers’ duel between Mike Minor and Adiel Palma. Both losses to the Americans came in similar fashion, with the supposedly explosive Cuban offensive completely stymied by the southpaw magic of current Atlanta Braves minor leaguer Minor.
Cuba’s national team management has been anything but stable over the past half-decade (since the 2006 inaugural World Baseball Classic) and the managerial musical chairs will continue this summer with Germán Mesa riding the bench in Haarlem and Villa Clara’s Eduardo Martin pulling similar duties with a university all-star squad headed to Tokyo a few weeks later. Mesa and Martin will extend the number of national team skippers performing in major international events to eight over the span of the past five seasons. Current commissioner Higinio Vélez held the reins for both MLB “Classics” but gave way to former Industriales manager Rey Anglada in 2007 (Pan American Games and Taiwan World Cup). That same summer Victor Mesa made a single brief appearance at the helm of a young squad (featuring Alfredo Despaigne, Yosvani Peraza and Bell) which swept the festivities at the Rotterdam World Port tournament. Antonio Pacheco was Anglada’s immediate successor in 2008 (Haarlem and the Beijing Olympics) but quickly yielded to Esteban Lombillo (Habana Province) for last fall’s European World Cup matches. Roger Machado (like Victor Mesa in 2007) enjoyed a brief appearance as bench boss for the winning Cuban squad at last summer’s Rotterdam World Port event. This summer’s Haarlem and Tokyo events will clearly be audition sessions for a pair of potential Cuba “A” managers, as well as for a couple dozen ballplayers still hoping to make the rosters of squads that will carry the national banner in San Juan (World Cup Qualifier) and Taipei (Intercontinental Cup) later in the year.
When action opens next week, Cuba will play five pool-round matches in Haarlem, plus an exhibition contest with the host Dutch in Rotterdam on the eve of the Haarlem opener. The top four of six clubs at the end of pool play will qualify for a pair of semifinal matches, with the winners clashing for the title in a Sunday afternoon finale. The complete Cuban schedule, along with both Dutch and North American starting times, is given below.
Team Cuba’s Haarlem Baseball Week Schedule
Game 1- July 8 (Thursday) vs. Netherlands (exhibition in Rotterdam, 1:30 pm Cuban time)
July 9 (Friday) Open day for Cuba
Game 2- July 10 (Saturday) vs. Japan (5:30 am Cuban time)
Game 3- July 11 (Sunday) vs. USA (5:30 am Cuban time)
Game 4- July 12 (Monday) vs. Chinese Taipei (8:00 am Cuban time)
Game 5- July 13 (Tuesday) vs. Netherlands (1:00 pm Cuban time)
July 14 (Wednesday) vs. Japan Open day for Cuba
Game 6- July 15 (Thursday) vs. Venezuela (8:00 am Cuban time)
July 16 (Friday) vs. Semifinals* (*if Cuban finishes #2/#3 in pool play, 1:00 pm Cuban time)
Game 7- July 17 (Saturday) Semifinals* (*if Cuba finishes #1 in pool play, 1:00 pm Cuban time)
Game 8- July 18 (Sunday) Finals (if Cuba qualifies, 9:00 am Cuban time)
This year’s Haarlem venue will admittedly not offer quite the same glamour as the last one, which headlined a top USA university squad and such Cuban headliners as Pedro Lazo, Freddie Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel. But with Alexei Bell again slugging the ball as he did in his breakout 2008 season, and withy a significant if smaller collection of top Cuban and Dutch national team all-stars also on hand, the action should be hot and heavy indeed. Haarlem’s silver anniversary event may yet surprise as one of the best editions ever.
Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.