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El Sitio Web del Deporte Nacional de Cuba

Leonys Martin Expands the Inventory of Cuban Big Leaguers









by Peter C. Bjarkman

September 10, 2011

Leonys Martin, former Villa Clara lead-off hitter and one-time Cuban national team reserve outfielder, enjoyed a successful debut on September 2 at Boston’s historic Fenway Park. As a late-inning replacement Martin slammed a single to right field off veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in his first big league plate appearance and later also made a spectacular running catch at the warning track in deep center field. Leaving Cuba early last fall after five National Series seasons, the 23-year-old Martin was signed as a free agent by the Texas Rangers earlier this spring (in May for a reported $15.5 million) and quickly advanced through the Rangers minor league system (A-level Arizona Rookie League, AA Texas League Frisco, AAA PCL Round Rock) before his September roster-expansion call-up. The September debut made Martin the 166th Cuban-born ballplayer to appear in the majors, the 79th since the ending of professional baseball in Cuba and the establishment of the revamped Cuban League National Series that has flourished on the island for the past half-century.

Diego Segui
Diego Segui pitched more major league games than any other Cuban.
Martin also now becomes the 30th “defector” from post-revolution Cuban League service (and the twelfth non-pitcher in that group of modern-era big leaguers who have abandoned the island baseball system). He is the third former Cuban Leaguer to debut during the current season, following stellar shortstop prospect José Iglesias (Habana Province) who enjoyed a brief cup of coffee with the Boston Red Sox in May, and one-time Industriales hurler Amaury Sanit, a rapid washout (now released) with the New York Yankees during the same month. When the modern phenomenon of Cuban League “defectors” began with René Arocha back in 1993 (Bárbaro Garbey had preceded them as a Mariel Freedom Flotilla refugee in the early 1980s), all but two of the first baker’s dozen (Rey Ordóñez and Jorge Toca) were pitchers; that trend has to a degree reversed itself in the past half-decade with the appearance of such infield stalwarts as Kendry Morales (Angels), Yuniesky Betancourt (Mariners, Royals), Yunel Escobar (Braves, Blue Jays) and Alexei Ramirez (White Sox).

Cuba pioneered the original “Latino” big league invasion in the first half of the past century; while 43 Cubans reached “The Show” prior to 1950 only nine other Latinos (4 Mexicans, 2 Venezuelans, 2 Puerto Ricans and a single Colombian), had made the grade in the same time period. Today the Caribbean’s top ball-playing nation no longer ranks near the top of the list of Latin countries producing big leaguers – now trailing the Dominican, Puerto Rico and Venezuela by considerable margins – but that is exclusively because Cuban hopefuls preceding Jackie Robinson faced a number of insurmountable racial obstacles, and those following Fidel Castro’s rise to power found the doors to the big leagues even more tightly shut by politics. The island’s greatest stars of the first half of the twentieth century were mostly Afro-Cubans (Martin Dihigo, José de la Caridad Méndez, Cristóbal Torriente, Alejandro Oms, etc.) who spent their North American summers laboring in the obscurity of the invisible if equally talented Negro circuits. Racial intolerance left Cincinnati Reds ace hurler Adolfo Luque as the only true headliner among Cubans during the five decades before the post-Robinson appearance of Orestes Miñoso.

Leonys Martin
Leonys Martin is the 30th veteran of the Cuban National Series to make it to the Majors.
Of the nearly eighty island-born Cubans to reach the majors since Fidel Castro revamped the Cuban national pastime in 1961, the overwhelming majority have fallen into three categories. The first wave of “Cubanola” imports during the 1960s were youngster already pursuing pro ball-playing careers at the time of the transition who opted to remain in North America rather than abandon their big league dreams (viz. Bert Campaneris, Louie Tiant, Miguel Cuéllar, Tany Perez, Zoilo Versalles, Tony Oliva and Leo Cárdenas among others). A second group (stretching from the 1970s to the current decade) includes those like Rafael Palmeiro, the Canseco brothers, Nelson Santovenia, and more recently Eli Marrero – youngsters brought off the island by parents escaping to Miami; this later group garnered their baseball experience here in the United States and not on the island of their birth. Recent arrivals have been mostly “defectors” from the current Cuban baseball system. Among those who have been trained in the sport while first pursuing careers in the modern-era Cuban League, few reaching the majors have actually ranked among the top island stars at the time of their abandonment of homeland and family to chase major league fame and fortune. The handful of major exceptions include José Contreras (undefeated in 13 decision with the Cuban national team), Orlando Hernández (an ace starter during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics), Kendry Morales (2002 Cuban League rookie of the year), and Yunieski Maya (number two national team starter at the second MLB World Baseball Classic in 2009).

The most notable Cuban big leaguers have included one Cooperstown hall of famer, a handful of league batting champions and MVPs, and one Cy Young Award winner (Miguel Cuéllar). Tony (actually Tany, short for Atanasio) Perez is the only Cuban Cooperstown selectee to have played in the majors. The pitcher owning the highest career victory totals is Luis Tiant, but an argument might well be made that Dolf Luque (first of his countrymen to pitch in a World Series, pace the National League in victories, and win nearly 200 games) was the best Cuban hurler ever to reach the majors. Rafael Palmeiro (a true hall-of-famer by statistical measure alone, but also a victim of the steroid abuse era) owns the best offensive numbers, but many would see Palmeiro (like José Canseco) more as an American ballplayer than as a true Cuban by anything but technical birthright. Below is a partial listing of the most noteworthy Cuban big league statistical stars.

Regarding individual ballplayer awards at the big league level, several are worthy of note. Miguel Cuéllar was the first Cy Young winner among his countrymen (1969). Zoilo Versalles (1965) was not only the first Cuban but also the first Latin American to capture a League MVP distinction (American League). Tony (Pedro) Oliva was the first Cuban batting champion (1964 and 1965) and first rookie of the year (1964). Mike Fornieles walked off with American League “relief pitcher of the year” plaudits for the 1960 Boston Red Sox (the first Latino hurler to be so honored). Minnie Miñoso was the first Latin American to capture a league crown in the stolen base department (1951), and the first Cuban RBI champion (American League, 1988) was José Canseco.

Bárbaro Garbey
Bárbaro Garbey was the first Cuban National Series veteran to play in the big leagues.
Bert Campaneris would also reign as a stolen base champion on a half-dozen different occasions (1965-68, 1970, and 1972). José Canseco is the only one among his countrymen to claim a league-best number in home runs (1984 and 1988). Rafael Palmeiro is the only native-born Cuban to cross the landmark plateaus of both 500 home runs and 3,000 base hits. And Dolf Luque was the first Latino (thus the first Cuban) pitcher to claim a league ERA title (1923); Luis Tiant (1968, and again in 1972) and Diego Seguí (1970) would also later turn the same trick.

Below is a complete listing of Cuban big leaguers in chronological order. Only native-born Cubans are included here. Some other lists (like that found at www.cubanball.com) consider all ballplayers who might claim island familial heritage (such as Puerto Rican born Jorge Posada and numerous Miami-born Cuban-Americans) but this list does not. An earlier version of this inventory first published in my volume A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) is here updated and corrected and provides all ballplayers in correct chronological order on the basis of their major league debut dates.

A number of additional statistical oddities are worthy of note in passing. The big league club with the most Cuban rookies has been the Washington Senators (40 in total), though many who debuted in Washington enjoyed only a cup of coffee with the 1940s-1950s Clark Griffith-owned American League ballclub. Bárbaro Garbey was the first veteran of a Cuban National Series to appear in the majors, although René Arocha was the first true “defector.” The post-1961 Cuban MLB list now stands a mere eight players short of equaling the pre-revolution list of Cuban big leaguers. More Cubans have debuted in the junior circuit (92 American Leaguers) than the senior circuit (73 National Leaguers), as might be expected in light of the Cubano invasion of Griffith’s Washington team at the midpoint of the past century. The second most active club in bringing Cubans to the majors remains the Cincinnati Reds (18, with an even dozen before the transition brought by the Castro-led revolution). It was Cincinnati (under Clark Griffith, not surprisingly) that imported the first modern-era big leaguers exactly one hundred years ago this very summer. And at 100 years of age, Conrado (Connie) Marrero now holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving big leaguer and pro baseball’s only current centenarian.

A concluding insight is provided here with a brief listing of the longest-tenured Cuban big leaguers. Only two Cuban position players (Palmeiro and Perez) have extended their major league sojourns across two full decades, while only a single pitcher (Luque) has reached the remarkable twenty-season longevity mark.

With several top prospects among recent “defectors” the Cuban MLB list will likely grow during the 2012 major league campaign. Former national team members currently serving at the AAA-level in the North American minor leagues include José Julio Ruiz (Texas), Leslie Anderson (Tampa Bay), Michel Abreu (now in the Mexican League), Juan Carlos Linares (Boston), Deinys Súarez (Minnesota) and Yadel Martí (Oakland). But the flood gates are not likely to open any time soon, despite the wild and ever-persistent fantasies of many optimistic scouts, greedy talent agents and reality-challenged fans. There have been no more than five Cuban recruits entering the big leagues in any single year (2001 and 2010) since the small but steady stream of National Series refugees began in the early 1990s with the surprising defection of then national team ace René Arocha. The truth remains that – despite increasing economic hard times on the native island – an overwhelming majority of Cuba’s top diamond stars are fully content to remaining at home and pursue the glories of an alternative baseball universe.

Sources

Bjarkman, Peter C. A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Publishers, 2007.

Figueredo, Jorge S. Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2003.







Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team..