By Reynaldo Cruz
The Cuban baseball National Commission (ruling body of the sport in the Caribbean Island) determined late this year to leave the capital’s second team in contest for the 51st edition of the Cuban Championship, setting the table for seventeen squads, thus making it an odd-number-teamed tournament. After the split of the former Habana Province – not Havana, the capital of Cuba – into Artemisa and Mayabeque, it was time that Havana’s second team, Metropolitanos, was set to disappear, leaving Industriales as the lone representative of the Cuban capital.
Instead of the usual 90 games, each team will add six matches to its schedule, and during each matchup, there will always be an “army” on standby: resting.
Metropolitanos (Metropolitans) have worked as an in-league farm team for Industriales, as many players with good performance in a season go to the capital’s main team on the next, whereas a player with low performance goes back to the “farm” for seasoning. That is a privilege no other team in Cuba enjoys, and makes the tournament to be played in very unequal conditions. The team’s presence was previously justified in order to keep the number of contestants even, but now that is not an excuse. Instead, the Cuban baseball’s powers that be determined to keep it in play and “analyze the situation for next season”… a situation they had an entire year to analyze.
However, the most striking part of the call is that the Commission stated that the amount of money to be spent this season will be about the same as last year, when it is completely known that only in the amount of used balls, the price will increase in thousands of US dollars. This brought a lot of controversy, since it was determined last year that only Nation-wide telecast games and postseason games were to be played at night to save electrical power.
The resting team – the team that is not in play during each of the scheduled matchups, either from the Eastern or the Western Zone – will be prone to issues like pitching getting off rotation, players losing shape or momentum – imagine one involved in a hitting streak and then having to wait five days thus losing his edge –, or even getting involved into any act of indiscipline or insubordination.
In the gameplay aspect, people were concerned that with the expansion – which normally brings about a lot of inexperienced rookies to everyday play – records would skyrocket. The single-season homerun mark has been broken three times over the past five years, and one of last season’s leader (tied), Jose Dariel Abreu, hit one out of the park every 6.4 at bats: a pace that belongs in sandlot ball or to PED-aided sluggers. There is little reason to doubt that he might hit 35 or 40 this year, despite the changes made to “ease the pain”.
To lessen the impact of the plus-one team on the tournament’s offensive numbers, they determined to raise the pitcher’s mound up to 15 inches and start using the Mizuno-200 (a less live ball than the Mizuno-150, in play until the end of this season’s first month). That might cause the increase in the total amount of round-trippers to be less abrupt.
Yet, the number of squads in contest in the Cuban Baseball National Series is too big.
Apart from the fact that the Island holds only 11 million inhabitants, and that no foreign player takes part on the tournament, Cuba also suffers the brain drain of many of its talented players, since many of them leave the country seeking the handsome contract offers of Major League Baseball teams – Cuban baseball is supposedly amateur. Eight squads would put the bar higher and would cause the amount of homers to drop as the quality of pitching, so scattered all over the country, would make hitters face good hurlers more frequently.
An example of what this causes is that one of last year’s homerun record setters, Yoennis Cespedes – who fled the country and currently tries to make his way to the Major Leagues –, managed 33 blasts: none of them against quality pitching (he hit none vs throwers that were members of the 2010 or 2011 Cuban National teams), and he failed to produce in the clutch, since none of his shots came after the seventh frame. Still, he tied for the lead in homeruns and led the league in RBI’s. In addition, in his first two postseason games he struck out six times.
The competitive level of the main championship of Cuban baseball has dropped considerably, and that, along with the other countries’ constant development, has caused Cuba to lose every major tournament since their victory in the 2007 Pan Am Games. People are questioning in the streets whether a second shorter domestic event with not so many teams will be played prior to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, an event that saw the Cubans make it to the finals in the first edition of 2006, and be left out of medals (5th place) in 2009’s version.
My call would be to make a shorter National Championship – since it will be impossible to deprive any province of its club – and to play another short tournament of eight clubs: two provinces united as one, shuffling some key players so that placing, for instance, two Type A second basemen on the same squad is avoided.