By Joe Connor | Special to MLB.com
Coach Iday Abreus teaches youngsters at Martin Dihigo Stadium in Cruces, Cuba.
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 second part of a weeklong series, taking baseball fans inside “The Forbidden Isle.”
It’s an overcast January mid-afternoon in the small town of Cruces, the adopted hometown of “El Inmortal,” Martin Dihigo, recognized as Cuba’s greatest baseball player of all-time.
And 6-foot-4 Iday Abreus is doing what Cubans do best—coaching “Pelota,” what Cubans call baseball—inside Martin Dihigo Stadium to four youngsters. Lined up together and facing Abreus, a former 14-year pitcher with Cienfuegos’ provincial team, they are learning the critical step-by-step process to execute the proper windup to home plate. They stand not on a pitcher’s mound, toe to the rubber. No, they stand on a flat grass area near home plate. They hold no baseball in their hand, only a glove, and two of the four wear no shoes or socks. They have been practicing the windup, down to the slightest detail, for more than 30 minutes and there appears no end in sight to the repeated exercise.
“Gire las caderas! (Rotate your hips!),” Abreus instructs to one of the boys who is slightly off kilter, a glimmer of trepidation, yet focus radiating from the youngsters’ face. “Doble las rodillas! (Bend your knees!).”
Since founding the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) in February 1961, Cuba has served as a talent factory in amateur sports, especially baseball. Its national team dominates international amateur baseball competitions even in the wake of defections by many of its top players to North America. In 2003, Cuba again won the Pan-American Games.
Not surprisingly then, its baseball academies and sports institutes are considered among the best in the world, and the country’s experienced trainers and coaches are developed at the famed Instituto Superior de Cultura Fisica “Comandante Manuel Fajardo” in the Sports City (Ciudad Deportiva) section of Havana. Cuban coaches and trainers are often exported to other Latin American countries such as Brazil, Panama and El Salvador to share their expertise abroad. In turn, other Latin American countries send their coaches to train Cuba.
Ralph Aliva, who helped open the first Major League Baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and followed Cuba’s amateurs as a scout from 1971-1999, said Cuba’s baseball program has only bettered with age.
“Really, they are professional players,” said Avila of the Cubans. Avila, who fled Cuba in December 1959 and hasn’t been on native soil since 1961, is a special consultant to Dodgers president Bob Graziano. “In the first 15-20 years after the Revolution, they played great baseball and had great athletes but weren’t fundamentally sound. But in the last 10 years especially, they’ve become more fundamentally sound.”
Baseball fundamentals begin early, but its at the academies—taught by its experienced coaches and trainers—where young Cuban ballplayers learn the tools.
“All sports in Cuba have academies, but baseball is No. 1,” said Carlos Rodriguez, the commissioner of Cuban’s 16-team national amateur baseball league. “Baseball is inside all the boys.”
Rodriguez said most Cuban boys begin playing “pelota” at age 5 or 6, first learning how to use their hands to their advantage before even first gripping a baseball or a bat. Baseball games are played in pre-school and by the time the most promising young boys reach the ages of even 7 or 8, they are selected to enroll in an Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar (EIDE) sports school, which reside in each of Cuba’s 14 provinces. These schools, which also serve as places of academic study, maintain coach-to-player ratio’s as low as 4 to 1. Regular physiological tests and trainers reports are part of school life, with some players remaining until they are 15 or 16. Eventually, the top EIDE athletes are chosen for the ESPA (Escuelas Superiores de Perfeccionamiento Atletico), or academies, which begin at the age of 12, and are also in every province.
“We have three levels of academies, 12-14 years of age; 15-to-17; and 18-to-23,” Rodriguez said. “Each has the best trainers, doctors and psychologists.”
Cuba’s emphasis on sports, especially baseball, is everywhere. Every provincial capital has a section of town called “Ciudad Deportiva” (Sports City), where multiple baseball diamonds, soccer fields and gymnasiums dot the landscape, many surrounding the crown jewel, its main baseball stadium that hosts its entry in Cuba’s National League. Often lacking the financial resources to purchase necessary baseballs, bats and equipment, Cuba has improvised. For example, rubber or plastic balls are often used instead.
But even without material items, Cuba’s baseball instructors still manage to run the show and academy life is quite structured. From 6 to 7 a.m., the boys shower and have breakfast, then spend all morning studying everything from mathematics to physics. Following lunch and a two-hour period of rest, the players fine-tune their baseball skills from 4 p.m. into the early evening every day. It’s practice, practice and more practice. Game action is three times per week, with tournaments between provinces also common. Academy players are tested against each other, always competing at the highest level possible, with the best going up against the best.
Discipline, dedication, attention to detail—and repetition—are core values of Cuba’s baseball academies, as is conditioning and constant preparation.
Said one Major League scout who has covered Cuban amateurs for 10 years: “They see kids who have good physiques and start developing them from a young age. If they’ve identified a baseball player at a young age, that is all he’s going to do. They’ll pretty much eat, sleep and drink baseball.”
Adiel Palma, one of Cuba’s top national league pitchers who will be the No. 2 starter in the Olympic Games this summer in Athens, Greece, began playing pelota later than most of his peers, at age 10. But by the time he was 12, Palma had been transitioned from a first baseman into a pitcher because of his arm strength. By 13, Palma had learned to throw a breaking ball. Palma also learned at a young age to throw his pitches at different speeds and with different arm angles. Coaches and trainers closely monitor each pitcher’s health, with the typical pitcher-to-coach ratio 6 to 1, but even less in the EIDE.
Nurtured through Cuba’s baseball academy, the 6-foot-3 left-hander finally graduated from the ESPA to the pinnacle, the “L’Equipo Nacional” (National Team). Palma represented the country at international tournaments as a junior but has never played for the Olympic team—until now. He is 33 years old and coming off his best season in Cuba’s National League in which he went 16-4 with a 2.20 ERA.
“A lot of coaches have worked with me and without them I would not be where I am today,” said Palma, a father of two, who says he loves romantic and salsa music and considers himself a “late bloomer.”
Palma credits two provincial pitching coaches, Jesus Ponce and Lorenzo Espino, for his growth. But Cuba’s most legendary pitching coach is Pedro Perez, 66, from Villa Clara province. Perez helped groom the likes of Livan and Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Maels Rodriguez, among many others, over the past 20 years, with particular expertise in breaking pitches. For example, it was Perez who taught Palma how to throw a forkball in 1996. Most Cuban pitchers learn to throw a forkball around age 21 or 22, Rodriguez said. Palma was 26 when he learned to incorporate the pitch into his repertoire that also includes a mid-range fastball (usually 86-87 mph) and a nasty curve.
“I think their pitchers are a little further along than in other countries because the one thing you can say about Cuban pitchers’ mechanics is they are pretty sound,” said Rudy Santin, Director of Latin American Operations for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who has been scouting since 1988. “Most of them have pretty good command.”
Added a scout in the Majors who has watched Cuban pitchers at amateur tournaments multiple times: “The Cubans have power arms and know how to pitch.”
Not only do Cubans know how to pitch, they—and foreigners taught by its highly acclaimed coaches—have developed a style that has become literally unmistakable to Major League scouts.
Said one: “You don’t even have to be watching a Cuban team play and you can spot it. When a Cuban (taught) pitcher delivers, they drive to the plate the same way. Their mechanics are flawless.”
Said Avila: “They follow one pattern. In the U.S., we don’t teach that way. Each has the same mechanics and the same delivery because they teach the same way to everybody.”
Cuban pitchers also have a different philosophy than in North America where throwing a first pitch fastball for a strike is generally the rule. But in Cuba, it is not unusual for young pitchers to throw a curveball to start a sequence and to rely more on their off-speed pitches while also changing speeds on their fastball.
Livan Hernandez, the first in a line of Cuban pitchers to defect since the mid-1990s, had to be counseled by Marlins coaches to use his fastball more when he arrived stateside.
“Early on, he had a tendency to pitch backwards,” said Tigers assistant GM Al Avila, who signed Hernandez and drafted two other Cuban defectors, Michael Tejera and Hansel Izquierdo, while with Florida. “Guys would take his first pitch and the next thing he knows it’s 1-1 and he’s thrown two curveballs. Now they’re sitting on a fastball. Livan needed to work better on his selection of pitches.”
While the Cubans are most known for their crop of pitching prospects, the baseball academies are also where players learn the importance of defensive skills.
Completing the double play and hitting the cut-off man are practiced constantly in Cuba and the results are impressive. Rey Ordonez, who defected from Cuba in 1993 and was recently invited to Spring Training by the Padres, is still considered by many Major League scouts to be one of best defensive shortstops in recent memory. Ordonez owns three Gold Glove awards.
Although Cuba’s baseball academies emphasize defense and pitching first and hitting second, the country doesn’t slouch on the offensive fundamentals. Most Cubans 15-18 years of age will log up to 500 at-bats per year, far more than most every other country and scouts rank hitters developed in this island nation as among the most fundamentally sound anywhere in the world. For example, Cubans are considered exceptional bunters, who also excel at hitting the opposite way or executing the hit-and-run. And it all stems from hours of practice, practice and more practice.
“Baseball is a game of repetition and you develop by repetition,” said one National League scout who has followed Cuba’s amateurs for nearly a decade. “The more you do it, the better you’re going to be at it if you have the skills.”
Said Santin: “The coaches work the players extremely hard and are extremely demanding.”
Cuba’s coaching style is also far different from North America. Cuban coaches can be confrontational. For example, in one provincial national league game earlier this month, former national team member Victor Mesa—now manager of Villa Clara’s provincial team—tore into starting pitcher Alain Linares on the mound in front of a packed house at Cesar Oscar Sandino Stadium in Santa Clara. Mesa then removed Linares from the game after only an inning and a third because he failed to back up third base on a previous play.
“They express their emotion at a high level,” Santin said. “Their coaching style is a lot different. We (in the Major Leagues) don’t yell as much at our players as they do and when we chew somebody out we’ll usually do it in the dugout or in private, not on the mound in front of 20,000 people. They tell them on the spot. They don’t wait.”
While demanding coaches pushing athletes has long existed in Cuba, what has changed in recent years—especially in baseball—has been weight training and diet and exercise routines. Palma, for example, readily admits he used to smoke and drink, but not anymore. According to Cirilo Campo Blanco, who works for INDER in Holguin Province, the 40 players ages 15-18 in his province’s baseball academy consume 3,000-3,500 calories per day. Among the items on the daily breakfast menu, according to Island of Youth Pines center fielder Dioel Reyes: plenty of eggs, ham, cheese, bread, juice and milk. A typical lunch includes more ham, plus chicken, meat, salad and other calorie-induced delicacies.
There also was a time when Cuban pitchers wouldn’t dare use weight training to strengthen their upper body, with such an idea forbidden and even considered taboo. Those days are over too, Rodriguez said. For example, Palma uses weights for his upper body three times per week during the National League season and every day during his brief off-season (usually in the dead of summer).
“The Cuban system has changed; we’ve adopted weight training,” Palma said. “To prepare to pitch, you need to be in great shape. That’s always our focus: Be prepared; always be prepared.”