The Red Machine Hits the Road Again; This Time without Vera

Panama City._ Fresh off its five-game sweep of visiting Puerto Rico in Havana, Team Cuba is already in Panama playing a three game preparation series with the host team, Venezuela and the Netherlands before the opening of the IBAF World Cup 39 on October 1 for a two week tournament. The same team will then head to Mexico for the Pan American Games 16, October 19-25.

The team under Pinar del Río skipper Alfonso Urquiola is packed with veterans and contains very few last-minute surprises. The most notable news surrounding this year’s club is the replacement of incumbent shortstop Yorbis Borroto with novice Erisbel (Bárbaro) Arruebarruena, and also the decision to carry three catchers at the expense of an eleventh (possibility southpaw) hurler.

Cuba’s talented pitching staff will feature only a single pair of lefties (starter Yulieski González and bullpen mainstay Norberto González) while the potent offense boasts but two port-side swingers (substitute outfielder Giorvis Divergel and DH Freddie Cepeda, a switch-hitter). Thus if there is any obvious “Achilles’ heel” attached to this year’s talented ball club it would have to be a heavily right-handed imbalance that will likely be challenged by most opposing managers.

With Despaigne and Bell manning the corners of the outfield, Pestano behind the plate, Gourriel and Olivera anchoring the inner defenses, and a veteran starting rotation of Miguel Alfredo González, Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Yulieski González and Yadier Pedroso, there is very little to distinguish this current squad from any of those that have carried the national banner into major tournaments over the past several seasons.

Arruebarrenua (tabbed by many as potentially the best Cuban shortstop prospect ever) in the middle infield and Rusney Castillo patrolling spacious center field will provide the freshest faces in this fall’s lineup. Cuba will again count on heavy slugging and a solid starting rotation in its effort to avenge two straight disappointing silver medal finishes and thus climb back into the World Cup winner’s circle for the twenty-sixth time in thirty-one previous attempts.

Perhaps the biggest absence from this year’s Team Cuba roster will be long-time ace starter Norge Vera, a mainstay since the early 2000s and one of the most successful hurlers in Cuban League National Series annals.

Left off this fall’s 35-man pre-selection roster and perhaps also somewhat embarrassed by national team manager Urquiola’s public pronouncements that he no longer was reliable for top level international matches, the Santiago de Cuba righty formally conceded last week that he was officially leaving the sport; the surprise declaration came against the backdrop of this past weekend’s Cuba-Puerto Rico “friendly” series staged in Havana.

Vera originally burst onto the international scene back in May 1999 with his stellar long-relief outing against the big league Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards.

He was Cuba’s top starter in both MLB World Baseball Classic events, as well as in the past three IBAF World Cup games. In October 2003 at Havana’s Latin American Stadium Vera earned the rarest of distinctions by becoming the only hurler in seven decades of IBAF tournament history to record victories in both the semifinals (7 innings as the starter) and finals (7 innings of long relief) during a single World Cup event.

But it was in the Cuban National Series (across 17 seasons) that Vera established his true legacy as one of the greatest mound aces in island history, with a .721 career victory percentage.

Vera paced the league in complete games on three occasions (2001, 2002, 2009), owned the top figure for shutouts twice (2000 and 2009), and also had one no-hit, no-run game to his credit (versus Habana Province in January 2001). He also posted a remarkable 0.97 ERA (17-2 overall record, including the post-season) during his landmark 2000 campaign.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Vera’s two decades of league performances, however, was his superb strikeouts-to-walks ratio (1271-463 lifetime). On three different occasions he struck out 100-plus batters during a National Series season while at the same time issuing 40 or fewer free passes.

With the retirement of Pedro Luis Lazo only last October and now Norge Luis Vera’s own farewell less than twelve calendar months later, Cuba has lost a pair of its most celebrated hurlers across a half-century of post-revolution baseball. It has been ironically fitting perhaps that the retirements of these two true nonpareils have provided the nostalgic bookends to island baseball’s recent historic Golden Anniversary National Series season.

*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 four years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.