Michael R. Stevens
What Hath Cuba to Do with Chicago?
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of Michael R. Stevens' annual baseball extravaganza. Part 1, posted on Monday, took a fresh look at the integration of baseball via the book Rickey & Robinson by the great Roger Kahn, whose The Boys of Summer is one of the all-time classics of baseball lit.
So, what will happen in 2015 in Major League Baseball, with a new commissioner, Rob Manfred, at the helm? (According to my coach's e-newsletter from Little League Baseball International, Manfred himself played Little League ball in Rome, New York, a town over from where my nephews and nieces range on the diamonds of Utica.) Well, the season is already a month old, and I've been at the center of its most exciting story so far, the heated race for the AL Central—at the moment, the Tigers are at 15-7 and the Royals a half-game behind at 14-7. I listen to every Tiger game on radio (Dan Dickerson, your play-by-play is extraordinary, and we thank you—and Jim Price, color commentator, you've grown on us with time!), and I already feel a pennant race evolving. And if I start close to home, what happened to the predictions that the White Sox and Indians would rise up and slay last year's big boys? Well, here's the first case study in my new metrics for predicting winners this year—the Cuban connection.
Outlandish money has been spent the last few seasons in signing fresh talent from the diplomatically thawing Cuba, often signings leading to violations and fines and confusing communication from the league office. Rob Manfred admits the rules governing recruitment of international players, especially young players, have given way to anarchy (look for an international draft as soon as the new collective bargaining agreement is done in 2016). For now, there is madness afoot, presaged by the scramble to sign Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (who's already gone from the A's to the Red Sox to the Tigers) and—last year's big story—Jose Abreu (he looms in the middle of the ChiSox lineup). This past winter the Diamondbacks spent $68 million to win the sweepstakes for Yasmany Tomas (who didn't make the opening day roster but was brought up quickly from Triple-A). What about the $31-million signing bonus by the Red Sox for teenaged infielder Yoan Moncada?! That on the heels of the BoSox signing Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo for 7 years at $70 million—and none of the above were sure things to play significant innings this year. On the horizon, Hector Olivera is the next big thing, courted by all the big money teams—with the already Cuban-rich Dodgers as frontrunners—and his signing (as a 29-year-old!) will likely eclipse $70 million as well. Has baseball gone Cuban-mad? Well, teams should, because this year, in honor of the détente effected between long-time Western Hemisphere nemeses (and with hopes that many, many more actual freedoms occur on the beautiful island that has long idolized baseball), Cuban players will be the key, and not just in the present tense (only 19 Cuban players are on big league rosters, compared to 83 Dominicans and 65 Venezuelans), but also Cuban players of past glory (or obscurity) who will still have psychic pull this year.
Back in the AL Central, the presence of Jose Abreu, backed by catcher Adrian Nieto and shortstop Alexei Ramirez, offers the White Sox organization a chance at pennant glory, but one spring elision may cost them such a run—the release of the fullback-built free-swinger Dayan Viciedo, who would have given the Sox enough of the Cuban magic to win 95 games. They will still compete, eventually, and the Minnie Minoso factor is not to be minimized (ah, the dangers of linguistic temptation!), but the Tigers combo of Cespedes in left field and, recently returned from a lost season of leg problems, shortstop Jose Iglesias will thrust them into contention for the long haul. When the x-factor of former Cuban rookie cog of the '84 champs Barbaro Garbey is put in the mix, the Tigers look dangerous. The Twins and Royals will have to lean on past Cuban glory, with Tony Oliva and Zoilo Versalles offering the Twin Cities All-Star echoes, and Cookie Rojas holding together what I am forced to call a fragile venture out in KC (note: the emergence of Kendrys Morales as a new pick-up in KC may make me eat these words—we'll see in October). The Indians, well, things have been rough there early, with brilliant young catcher Yann Gomes getting hurt, and promising hurler Carlos Carrasco getting hit with a line drive in the head. Plus, in my cursory search of the Cleveland-Cuba connection, I've only unearthed a 9-game stint by Camilo Pascual in 1971, at the end of a long and storied career with the Senators and Twins—it's just not going to be enough. Detroit wins a fifth straight division title, and the White Sox get a wildcard chance. What the heck, I'll eat my words right now (Kendrys Morales has 17 runs and 16 RBIs through the first 21 games!), and the Royals will get the other wildcard.
The AL East looks like it has a power-shift happening, with perennial contenders like the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox sloughing off a bit, and the Orioles and maybe Blue Jays rising up. But the Cuban considerations show a different story. The Yankees, surprisingly leading the division, may be drawing on the mojo of El Duque from their storied '90s playoff runs, but how long will that last? The Blue Jays, alas, have made the same mistake as the White Sox, releasing Dayan Viciedo this spring (who knew that he would hold the key to the AL pennant?!). The Rays look bad on any number of levels, including the inability to sign players from the island only a few hundred miles south of their home field. So, are the Orioles ready to compete again? Well, another way of asking that question might be: is Miguel Gonzalez enough? His mere 6 games of service last year means that their Cuban connection is paper-thin, and I think they falter in the humidity of a Maryland August. That leaves the Red Sox, the team I most deplored growing up in New York as a Yankee fan, the team that has claim to the lion's share of the Luis Tiant legacy (yes, he started his career in Cleveland just after the Castro takeover of his home country, and yes he finished up with the Yankees, most memorably for me doing the Ball Park Franks commercials in a Yankees cap, but his glory days were with the mid-'70s Red Sox, including starting the mythic Game 6 in 1975 that Pudge Fisk ended in the eleventh). When you add the Rusney Castillo factor, and the Yoan Moncando signing, you discover a team committed (to the tune of $130 million!) to the Cuban factor in the long term. I say short term it pays off, and the Red Sox win the division by 5 games.
The AL West is tough to call every year, especially now with Houston becoming competitive and, dare I say it, dangerous. But where are the Cuban players? The A's are in worse shape—they have the fewest foreign-born players of any roster in the league, only two, and one of them, Brett Lawrie, is a Canadian! The Rangers have Leonys Martin and the Mariners have Roenis Elias as their Cuban representatives, sort of cancelling each other out—and then there's the Angels franchise, suffering internal strife and even dissolution right now, a sad public tragedy in the wake of Josh Hamilton's personal struggles. One hopes for better days there, and perhaps high-priced Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin will be the answer down the road. For now, the deciding factor for this division rides unexpectedly (even to me) on the pitching career of Cuban hurler Connie Marrero, for the early 1950s Senators (all 5'5", 158 lbs. of him, according to Total Baseball)—I know that that team became the Twins, and only the later Senators became the Rangers, but hey, it's a fine line in this division—I say the Rangers win it on the last day of the season.
Since we started in the AL Central, let's go to the Central Division of the National League—where the long awaited re-arrival of Spring Training phenom Kris Bryant has helped the Cubs to their first winning record in April since 2008. More subtle but more crucial, of course, is the presence of Jorge Soler as the young Cuban connection roaming the Wrigley outfield. And the Cubs will need this edge, not only because of their bitter overachieving rivals in St. Louis and the steady contenders in Pittsburgh but also, and especially, the Cincinnati Reds, who have the rare punch of two Cuban pitchers: the already legendary fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman and the intriguing addition Raisel Iglesias (who apparently has grown from 5'11", 170 to 6'2", 185 since the Reds signed him). (The Brewers? With a 5-17 start, things are looking grim—and I'm still adjusting to the loss of the Brewers from the AL East—Moose Haas, where are you now?!). My guess: the Reds and Cubs are deadlocked through September, and both see the postseason. The Reds sport in their annals the single (as far as I have discovered) Cuban Hall of Famer, the great Tony Perez, but I give the Cubs the edge to win the division, with Cincinnati claiming a wild-card spot.
The NL East is all askew right now, with the Mets off to an amazing start and the Nats struggling out of the gate. But the Nationals have a new Cuban shortstop in Yunel Escobar, and that will push them forward more than the powerhouse starting rotation. They'll hang around as the New York and Atlanta franchises fade, but by August, the dark horse will arrive in the shape of the Miami Marlins, led by all-everything slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but buoyed further by the more-or-less neighborly connection between Cuba and Miami, with the double-force of Adeiny Hechevarria and Jose Fernandez! The Marlins take the division in an autumnal power-surge, and the Nationals disappoint down the stretch. The Phillies will be in last place for the foreseeable future.
So, we've waited for the NL West until last, as always, since to me the West Coast senior circuit competition is the most abstract and the least predictable. The Colorado Rockies early season success probably won't last: without a Cuban player, they will experience a natural disintegration. For the same reason, the reigning world-champ Giants will stay in the cellar this year (and they thought it was because of the free-agent defection of the Kung-Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval!). That leaves the Padres and the Dodgers as the true contenders (Arizona's not ready, but wait a year or two), and not just for the NL West but for the whole National League. The seriously retooled Padres will push hard, not only because they coaxed Matt Kemp to come down the highway from LA to SD, but also because the link to Cuba has brought Yonder Alonso and the lyrically named Odrisamer Despaigne to the Padre fold. Ah, the possibilities of springtime, in the city where it is always summertime (can anyone trace the last rain-out in San Diego?). All well and good, but the Dodgers rule the roost for the entire league when it comes to Cuban players, with the dynamic and difficult Yasiel Puig leading a host that includes Alex Guerrero, the name-rich pair Erisbel Arruebarrena and Yasmani Grandal, and more likely than not the next-kid-from-the-island Hector Olivera. Lots of talent, lots of mojo, and the wildcard not from Havana, but from Evansville, Indiana, in the form of manager Don Mattingly, my baseball hero in the golden years of icy, swampy, occasionally glorious high school baseball in upstate New York. Despite Kemp's valiant vengeance late in the season, the Dodgers will prevail in the West.
Indeed, the postseason will find the Padres and the Reds in the wild-card one-game tilt, with James Shields battling Johnny Cueto the full nine, until Yonder Alonso hits one yonder and the Reds head to Miami to play the Marlins. That means the Cubs will travel to Chavez Ravine to tilt with the juggernaut Dodgers, with the shades of Ernie Banks and Jackie Robinson held in living memory during a nail-biting series that will swing back and forth from the sunshine of LA to the bluster of Wrigley in October. Will the rookie wonderboy Kris Bryant be able to tip the scales away from the Dodger's Cuban-fueled destiny? Can Jorge Soler strike a blow to the coterie of his countrymen wearing the Dodger blue? Will a late-season acquisition of Dayan Viciedo put the Cubs over the top?? I want to say yes, but for this one year, the Dodgers have chosen the path of victory (as well as to hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines to Major League Baseball and tens of millions of dollars in salaries—all for the services of these fine Cuban folk). Meanwhile, the Reds batter the Marlins in a sweep, fueled by the unexpected battery of Cuban rookie Raisel Iglesias and long-time back-up catcher and fellow-Cuban Brayan Pena (Pena also hits .750 in the series with 3 unlikely home-runs!). And so the NLCS will have the look of the 1970s to it, with the Reds and Dodgers returning to postseason prominence—but instead of Rawley Eastwick facing down Ron Cey at the key moment in Game 6, it will be Aroldis Chapman firing a triple-digit fastball to Yasiel Puig, in an all-Cuban finale, as Puig drives the right-center gap for a game-winning inside-the-park gallop! The Dodgers win the pennant, and all of Cuba rejoices!
In the American League, the White Sox will play the Royals in the wildcard, and these familiar foes will go scoreless to the edge of midnight, when Alexei Ramirez will offer the Cuban surge with a triple down the line, and his countryman Jose Abreu will score him, and win the game, on a sacrifice fly. No KC magic this fall—why did they let Brayan Pena go two years ago?! The White Sox will ride the surge into Boston, and the Sox vs. Sox battle will feature significant Cuban contributions—but will the known quantities of Abreu and Ramirez for Chicago trump the unproven youth movement of Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada in the Boston red and black? In honor of Minnie Minoso (and hopefully not as a slam to Luis Tiant), I see the Chicago team riding Abreu's stellar bat to a seventh game win.
Meanwhile, the Tigers will dispatch the Rangers, as everything Texas hits to the left-side of the Tiger 'D' will be scooped up by SS Iglesias or run down by LF Cespedes—the Cuban emphasis on defense will serve the Motor City boys well (not to mention the inimitable power-swing of the great Miguel Cabrera) as Detroit sweeps. And hence, the AL Central battlers will meet in the ALCS. There was a prophetic moment in the first week of the season, in the opening Tigers-White Sox series: Jose Abreu struck a blow for Chicago (and Cuba) with an early grand slam, and the next day, Yoenis Cespedes struck a blow for Detroit (and Cuba) with a first-inning grand slam. In between, the voice of baseball in my life, Tiger radio man Dan Dickerson, gave an extended discourse on the impact of Cuban players in Major League Baseball this year—and to boot, the wonderful NPR weekly music show Folk Sampler featured songs about baseball. Metaphorically, the planets have aligned!
And so the World Series will match the Dodgers and the Tigers. Puig and Cespedes will cancel each other out with stellar outfield play and gap power at the plate, and the middle infield heroics of Jose Iglesias will be off-set by the Cuban combo of Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena for the Dodgers—a close match-up in all facets. From the mound, non-pareil lefties Clayton Kershaw and David Price will go head-to-head, and first base and the three-hole in the batting orders will be manned by the two best hitters in the majors, Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez. I almost hesitate to look into the annals for Cuban players of yore who might tip this scale, and though my heart is for Detroit, my head sees the name of Sandy Amoros, who proved heroic at the apex of Jackie Robinson's glorious push of the Dodgers past the hated Yankees, in the 1955 World Series—somehow it fits, as the Cuban of old pushes the balance ever so slightly, and then, why not, let's give Hector Olivera the game- and series-winning hit, even though he's not even signed yet! Such is the anticipatory power of the new Cuban connection in this 2015 season. And 60 years after Jackie saw the Dodgers finally win baseball's crown (note: Roger Kahn's outrage over the defection to California has remained virulent all those decades: "The idea that in the next decade a buccaneering lawyer would hijack the Dodgers and dump them into the Los Angeles Coliseum was beyond imagination and beyond nightmares"), well, if the Dodgers win it all in 2015, perhaps the link of joy can stretch from LA all the way back to Brooklyn, and then on to Havana, the site of Jackie's first spring training with the Dodgers almost 70 years ago. Talk about closing the loop!
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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