By Joe Connor / Special to MLB.com
Third baseman Michel Enriquez is captain of Cuba’s Olympic team. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
With Cuba having recently marked the 45th anniversary of its revolution, MLB.com contributor Joe Connor visited this Caribbean baseball hotbed for more than three weeks. He visited their academies, sports institutes and ballparks across the country’s 14 provinces. Today, the fourth part of a weeklong series, taking baseball fans inside “The Forbidden Isle.”
Jorge Fernandez remembers that summer day four years ago; it’s a day he and most Cubans would just as soon forget.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. for the Sydney (Olympic) Games and put on my headphones so as not to wake my two young daughters,” said Fernandez, a translator for Cuba’s Sports Institute in Holguin Province. “Almost everyone in the country had awoken to watch the game live (on television) despite the time difference, even though they would also broadcast the game later. After the outcome, I walked in the street. Everybody had a long face. Nobody could believe it.”
Added former pro pitcher Ernesto “Chico” Morilla: “Cuba could win 100 medals at the Olympics but if we don’t win the gold medal in baseball, everything’s considered a failure.”
Cuba’s 4-2 defeat to the Tommy Lasorda-managed U.S. team at the 2000 Olympics remains one of the darkest days in the country’s post-revolutionary sports history. Cubans took the loss extremely hard, always expecting to topple the arch-rival Americans, as they had successfully done at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and the 1996 Games on U.S. soil in Atlanta.
“It was like dead people. It was like one of your family died,” said Silvio Diaz, a former player in Cuba’s National League, who works for the country’s Sports Institute in Havana Province. “No one spoke. Many people cried.”
Following the 2000 “disaster” as many Cubans call it, the country made significant changes to its post-revolutionary structure, for example, creating a “Super League” to follow the annual National League to groom the 100 best players. There was also plenty of house cleaning, starting with skipper Jorge Fuentes, who was fired and blamed for the 2000 collapse even though the Pinar del Rio manager had led Cuba to gold in both Barcelona and Atlanta.
The 2004 Olympic roster is also full of newcomers including Michel Enriquez, a third baseman with the Island of Youth Pines in Cuba’s National League, who was named captain of the national team two years ago. Enriquez, who drives a motorbike to the ballpark, is well aware of the enormous pressure that rests on his shoulders, especially in light of the significant shakeup that has occurred on the national team in recent months. Pitcher Maels Rodriguez and second baseman Yobal Duenas have defected while switch-hitting cleanup man Kendry Morales, catcher Barbaro Canizares and pitcher Jose Ibar have been suspended indefinitely.
“It’s a high responsibility being captain because in Cuba it’s very important for the players to win at the Olympics,” said Enriquez during an exclusive interview with MLB.com in his Nueva Gerona home on the Island of Youth, 62 miles off Cuba’s ‘mainland.’ “We wanted to play the U.S. The U.S. vs. Cuba is a very important game to Cubans. I wish they could have been in.”
But the U.S. won’t be in Athens for the Summer Games. In a stunning development that shocked the international baseball community, in November 2003, the U.S. team failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics Games. And although the Cuban and U.S. governments have rarely seen eye-to-eye over the past 45 years, Cuba and U.S. baseball aficionados have long held tremendous respect for each other. That mutual respect was demonstrated in 1999 when Cuba’s national team, known as the Sugar Kings, participated in a two-game exhibition against the Baltimore Orioles, with each club winning one game. Cubans particularly view U.S. amateur baseball as a key benchmark to assessing the strength of their own program. And the Cubans too have been critical of the Pre-Olympic Qualifying tournament format.
“We feel bad the U.S. team was eliminated because we won’t be able to compare our strength against it,” Jose Ramon Fernandez, president of Cuba’s Olympic Committee, told Cuba’s state-run national newspaper, Granma International, in its Jan. 1 editions. “Perhaps we should reflect on whether or not the system that has been adopted by baseball and other sports is the fairest method to decide on a winner, as sometimes an undefeated team arrives at a ‘sudden death’ situation and loses to a team that has lost two or three games.”
With the U.S. out of the 2004 Olympics, Cuba will have to rest on the satisfaction of having defeated its rival at the Pan-American Tournament final in August 2003. In Athens, Cuba’s biggest test will likely be Japan. Legendary pitching coach Pedro Perez returns to the national team, as does hitting coach and former national team member Luis Casanova of Pinar Del Rio. But the new man in charge of the entire squad is Hignio Velez, the former manager of Santiago de Cuba’s provincial club in Cuba’s National League.
“Our team is young and there’s no one star in particular,” said the manager. “I think their major strength lies in the unity and cohesion of the whole team together on the field.”
In the Pre-Olympic event in Panama in November, Cuba walloped Puerto Rico, 10-0, in the semifinal, then defeated Canada, 5-0, to earn one of two Olympic berths from the American qualifier to the Athens games.
Cuban officials, including Velez, portray the country’s 2004 Olympic team as younger and more inexperienced than in years past. But other observers inside Cuba as well as North American scouts say its 2004 club is actually more experienced than before.
For example, Cuba’s projected No. 2 starter in Athens, left-hander Adiel Palma, is 33 years old. And although this will be the first Olympic Games for the Cienfuegos native, he has pitched for the national team before. At the Pre-Olympic Qualifier, Palma tossed seven strong innings to help Cuba beat the Canadians, 7-2. Cuba’s No. 1 starter is right-hander Nora Luis Vera of Santiago de Cuba Province.
“(Vera’s) got a good repertoire: Slider, forkball, changeup, fastball,” said Onoides Diaz Hernandez, who covers Cuba’s National League for Islavision television. “He’s calm and always in control of the game. He’s much better than (Jose) Contreras.”
Said one Major League scout who covers Latin America: “(Vera and Palma) are unbelievable. They will vary speeds on purpose. One fastball is 93 (mph), the next may be 80 (mph). They can locate. They can change planes. They’re pitchers. Vera is like ‘El Duque’ (Orlando Hernandez) but with more arm. Over a three-day period, I saw Vera throw 17 innings and yet his last pitch was 93 miles per hour. His body had to be numb because he was shaking his arm.”
Camaguey right-hander Vicyohandri Odelin is also expected to pitch in Athens, and veteran right-hander Pedro Lazo of Pinar del Rio will assume the closer chores.
Lazo, 30, is held in high regard by most Major League scouts, some of whom compare him to Lee Smith because of his imposing 6-foot-4 frame. Palma says Vera, Odelin and Lazo are Cuba’s best pitchers. Most Major League scouts tend to agree. Lazo can top 95 mph on the radar gun, complementing his forkball and a nasty slider. Other pitchers expected to travel to Athens include Industriales right-hander Yadel Marti Carrillo and Holguin’s Orelvis Avila. Cuba’s top arms will throw to veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, 31, of Villa Clara province.
Said one American League scout of Pestano: “He’s solid. He can really catch and he can really throw. He’s got a contact bat. He’s past his prime but I could see him as a Major League backup.”
With Morales out of the picture due to his attempted defection, Cuba’s offense could be its weakness. Gone are the days of batting titans Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelan. Hitting is Cuba’s potential downfall—but not if Enriquez has anything to say about it. Most Major League scouts remain unimpressed with Enriquez even though he says he is in the best shape of his career and most Cubans value his makeup—and his bat. Enriquez, 24, is a lifetime .350 hitter in Cuba’s National League.
“(Enriquez) hits everybody well,” said Palma, who has faced the third baseman numerous times in Cuba’s National League. “He hits everything. He’s the guy you want up there.”
Added Hernandez: “He’s the best player because he’s opportunistic. Make a mistake and he’ll burn you.”
Besides Enriquez, Palma believes his toughest National League outs are two players from Sancti Spiritus’ provincial team, left fielder Frederich Cepeda, 24, and second baseman Yuliesky Gourriel, 19, both starters on the Olympic team. Many Major League scouts say Gourriel could play in the Majors right now while one scout has Cepeda a little under Major League average in hitting, Major League average in power and Major League average in fielding and range.
“Frederich is a home run hitter and is a good base runner. He is a complete player,” said Amavris Brito, a member of Havana’s chapter of the PENA, Cuba’s version of the Society of American Baseball Research, that holds court at the “esquina caliente” (hot corner) in the capital’s Central Park, a stone’s throw away from the Plaza Hotel where Babe Ruth once stayed. “Yuliesky is another complete player. Casanova has been very important to Yuliesky.”
Veteran Villa Clara shortstop Eduardo Paret, 31, and Las Tunas first baseman Juan Carlos Pedrosa, 24, round out Cuba’s starting infield. Paret is considered a little past his prime by Major League scouts, but still among the best defensively in all of amateur baseball. Pedrosa, who one scout believes could succeed in the Majors after some minor league seasoning, led Cuba’s National League last season with 28 home runs. With the absence of Morales’ proven bat, more pressure with be on the likes of Enriquez, Pedrosa, Cepeda and right fielder Osmani Urrutia, 27, who led Cuba’s National League a year ago with a .453 average. Industriales’ Carlos Tabares, 29, will start in center field for the Cubans and one American League scout believes Tabares would make for a solid fifth outfielder in the Majors because of his exceptional defensive skills.
Among the players expected to jostle for the designated hitter role on Cuba’s Olympic team are Alexander Mayeta Kerr, 35, a first baseman with Havana’s Metropolitan Warriors; veteran Sancti Spiritus catcher/first baseman Eriel Sanchez; Guantanamo first baseman/outfielder Roberqui Videaux Martinez; and experienced Industriales first baseman Antonio Scull.
The selection of the 2004 squad has raised some eyebrows among Cubans, who are allowed to openly express their emotions when it comes to the country’s favorite pastime of baseball, one of the few forms of free speech allowed under the Fidel Castro regime.
For example, many are befuddled as to why the likes of Industriales’ Enrique Diaz and the Island of Youth’s Juan Carlos Moreno aren’t given roles on the national team. Diaz is Cuba’s all-time stolen base king while Moreno is a contact hitter and the country’s “Ironman,” having played in more than 1,000 consecutive National League games. Moreno also boasts the second-best lifetime batting average in the National League after Omar Linares. They also question the selection of Cepeda, who earlier this month was slumping with a .200 batting average in the National League. Others wonder whether Gourriel, 19, is ready for the big time. Most Cubans that play in the Olympic Games are at least 24 years old. Still, most of the country’s devoted flock believes its club will recapture the gold medal.
“The team in Sydney was younger; this team is more experienced,” said Jose Almenares, vice president of the PENA in Havana. “They made the changes (from the 2000 team) because we expect to win.”
Despite losing three of its projected Olympic Games pitchers (Contreras, Rodgriguez, Ibar) and 4-6 hitters (Morales, Canizares, Duenes) to recent defections or attempted defections, most Major League scouts that cover Latin America believe Cuba should nonetheless win the gold because of its depth and superior pitching and defensive skills. Silvio Diaz and Cuba’s national team players hope they’re right.
“Winning the gold medal, is ‘Numero Uno.’ It’s the highest inspiration to win it back,” Diaz said. “When you win the gold medal in baseball for Cuba you are forever in the history books.”
Or as Palma put it simply, “It means everything.”
Joe Connor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.