By BERNIE PLESKOFF
I have just returned from my second educational trip to Cuba guided by Viva Cuba Tours. I went for the first time in January 2017 and was so amazed by the experience I went again in mid-January this year.
On this trip, the Serie National Finals (Cuba’s World Series) were being held in locations too far to reach from our Varadero and Havana hotel bases. Instead, our group experienced a baseball game at Cuba’s oldest stadium.
Palmar de Junco Stadium was opened for its first baseball game in 1874. Yep, that’s 1874, not 1974. We were lucky enough to witness a baseball game being played between two regional high school teams. We were told the players were in the range of 15 years old.
Junco has wooden bleachers as opposed to the hard cement we sat on last year. The wood was broken in several places and the blue paint had faded long ago. However, the playing field was in excellent condition.
What struck me initially were the tattered and worn uniforms of the players. The visiting team wore grey pants (with the exception of two players wearing white.) The jersey tops were all red, but they were all different. They were a conglomeration of any red-colored jerseys that had been made available to the players. The home team had similarly mixed and matched uniforms. It was a visual sign of the limited resources and supplies available to Cuban players.
Two older baseballs were used in play. Any foul balls or home runs are returned to the field to be used. A third baseball, a brand new white baseball was available to be used, if needed.
It was removed from the umpire’s pocket once, but it was returned to that same pocket quickly and never put in play.
The spirit and attention to detail by the players was noteworthy. At one point, the pitcher was scuffling and having trouble throwing strikes. His pitching coach (not the manager) went to the mound and methodically went through the pitching motion the coach wanted the pitcher to use. Step by step he tutored his young pitcher on the basics of his delivery. He was calm and patient. He was teaching on the spot, in the heat of the battle. When the lesson was complete, he patted his pitcher on the shoulder and returned to the dugout.
When the defensive team left the field they huddled together adjacent to home plate to plan their offensive strategy and regroup. The visual was similar to a normal football huddle.
Between innings, the visiting defensive team took infield practice, with the coach actually hitting ground balls to each infielder. Each player received three repetitions between innings before the game continued.
After an out, the infield threw the ball around among themselves several times. It was an interesting ritual with each infielder taking part on multiple throws.
The center field scoreboard had just two numbers. They were placed at the inning being played. The numbers were faint and could have been electronic, as it was difficult to see due to their very small size.
If and when a manager did not like a ball/strike call from the umpire, the manager would stand at the side of the dugout, hands on hips and give the umpire some choice words. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t think he was telling them to “have a good day.” From what I have observed in both of my game visits, arguments appear to be much more common in Cuban baseball.
Unlike the Serie National semi-final game I witnessed last year, this game had fewer horns and less music blaring from the stands. But make no mistake- fans were animated and loud. And at least two horns were spotted and heard blaring from the stands. Those “musicians” were eager to have members of our group take their picture.
Adjacent to the field a small building housing the Matanzas Hall Of Fame opened its doors to our group. Matanzas is the region of the game that was being played. Photos of former Matanzas players like Minnie Minoso adorned the walls. A place existed for visitors to leave their autograph on the wall. I did just that.
Former Cuban Olympic player Jose Estrada was on hand to greet us. A big star in Cuba, The 5-10, and 165 pounds center fielder was engaging and friendly to everyone. He enters the Matanzas Hall of Fame this coming spring. Estrada told me he could run from home to first base at 3.5 seconds. I told him I saw Ichiro do that. Cuban baseball fans I spoke with later told me Estrada did not have that kind of speed. Oh, well. He was very engaging, very friendly and very proud to be representing Cuban baseball at the local Hall of Fame building.
During our days in Havana, our group visited Esquina Caliente-The Hot Corner. Based in Central Park in mid-city Havana, the location attracts passionate Cuban baseball fans almost every daytime minute of the day. At the Esquina Caliente, our guides and interpreters helped us join in the conversation about the Serie National that was taking place while we were visiting. In addition, each of the men gathered asked us to tell them our favorite Cuban baseball player. We engaged in discussions of why we liked this guy and not that one-similar to bar conversations and disputes we have in our country.
While at Esquina Caliente, one of our group members exchanged 35 Cuban cucs (Cuban Convertible pesos equivalent to $35) and a minor league baseball cap for two Cuban team jerseys. It did not appear the jerseys were game worn or game used, but they were really neat. They may have been knockoffs and not authentic. But it didn’t matter. That same group member then distributed three American minor league and collegiate caps as gifts to a few of the older Cuban men sitting on the benches. All in all, it was a tremendous experience to chat with real diehard Cuban baseball fans on their turf.
During our trip, we visited “Sloppy Joes Café” a restaurant in Havana that is similar in feel to an American or Canadian Sports Bar. The walls are filled with pictures and photos of American baseball stars and other entertainment legends. The movie “Casablanca” plays non-stop on an old wall-mounted television. Two doors down from the restaurant is an antique shop that carries a wide variety of old Cuban baseball cards and posters. Two of our group members purchased cards of Cuban players that played in the American major leagues. One bought a card of the aforementioned Jose Estrada. One of our tour group purchased a beautiful poster from the time the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game in Havana in March 1999.
After my last trip to Cuba, readers asked me how much it costs to go to a playoff baseball game in Cuba? The stands are filled with locals from the participating regions who pay no more than 20 cents or 30 cents to enter the stadium. However, it is all relative, as the average salary in Cuba equates to between 22 and 28 American dollars a month. You read it correctly. A month.
Shelter, food, education and medicine/medical needs are paid by the government to Cuban citizens. Again, for most Cuban people, by American standards, those basic needs are very minimal in quality and quantity.
I have been to Cuba twice now. I have never seen or heard a Cuban person ask me for money or complain about anything. I have seen smiles on faces and have felt the warmth of their hearts.
Almost every Cuban citizen I have encountered for any length of time has several college degrees, speaks several languages and has a deep and legitimate patriotic concern for his/her country. Crime is virtually non-existent. Our group felt very comfortable walking the streets and engaging people in conversation both during the day and at night at the many watering holes and nightclubs visited. Those that went out at night say the music they heard and the performances they witnessed were incredibly great.
Of course, I am contemplating hosting another Viva Cuba educational tour to Cuba next year. The Viva Cuba Tour staff and the local Cuban guides were tremendous in teaching our group and helping us witness the sights and sounds of Varadero and Havana.
While I was away in Cuba, the Milwaukee Brewers made themselves a legitimate contender to win the National League Central or claim a Wild Card spot with two transformational moves. In my opinion, the Brewers obtained one of the finest overall players in baseball when they traded for outfielder Christian Yelich. Yelich is a pure hitter with a sweet swing. He is a barrel of the bat, line drive producer with good plate discipline and a measured swing from the left side of the plate. A .290 lifetime hitter, Yelich has some pop in his bat, a fine throwing arm and is a good defender. I expect him to play left field for Milwaukee.
Now 26, Yelich is signed through 2021 with a team option for 2022. The Brewers traded for a player with lots of team control and more production waiting in his tank. A former first-round pick in 2010 out of Westlake High School in California, Yelich is an accomplished and quality player that can become part of a great core for the Brewers.
When he appeared in the Arizona Fall League in 2012, Yelich told me he came thisclose to never playing baseball while he was still in Little League. Going an entire season without getting a hit, he told his mom and dad he was quitting the game…forever. His folks said they would give him a dollar if he got a hit that game. With that incentive, Yelich dribbled an infield single, won the dollar and the rest is history.
The Marlins return from the Brewers includes Lewis Brinson, a 6-3, 195-pounds right-handed hitter out of Florida. A former 1st round draft pick out of high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Brinson is excited about playing for his home team Marlins.
Brinson reminds me of Chris Young in his prime. Fast and efficient in the outfield with a strong arm, Brinson’s bat is beginning to get louder. Striking out less and hitting the ball more to the gaps, Brinson finished 2017 hitting .331/13/48 at Triple-A Colorado Springs. He was the Brewers No. 1 prospect and was No. 13 overall on my Top 32 prospect list at BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD here at Clubhouse Corner. I grade Brinson a strong 55 bordering on a 60.
Brinson goes to Miami along with middle-infield prospect Isan Diaz, outfield prospect Monte Harrison and pitching prospect Jordan Yamamoto.
The left-handed hitting Diaz is 5-10, 185-pounds. He came to the Brewers from the Diamondbacks and is now on his way to Miami. In four minor-league seasons, he has hit .261 which includes a .222 season at Class-A Advanced Carolina last year.
His skill set includes above-average power potential for a prospect middle-infielder. He hits well, plays solid defense and runs at major league average ability. I think he can break into a starting lineup as a middle-infielder eventually. I believe it will be his bat that carries his career. I have graded Diaz a 50, or an average everyday player. Some scouts find him to be better than that. I’m not among them.
Like Brinson and Diaz, I have seen Harrison in the Arizona Fall League. In fact, it was just this past fall that I got to see plenty of Harrison. He’s an impressive former football star turned baseball player. With a big strong frame at 6-3, 220-pounds, the right-handed hitting Harrison may well be a real sleeper in the deal. He can hit. And he can hit with power. This past season he played at Class-A Wisconsin and Class-A Advanced Carolina and hit a combined .272/21/67 before going to Arizona to play Fall Ball. I have graded Harrison a 55, a better than average everyday major-league player. He may exceed that grade with power and good hitting mechanics guiding the way.
Yamamoto is a 6-0, 183-pound right-hander from Honolulu, Hawaii. He was drafted in the 12th round of the 2014 draft by Milwaukee. He has completed four minor-league seasons, finishing with a 9-4 record this past year at Class-A Advanced Carolina. He had a 2.51 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in his 22 appearances. He started 18 games. Since I have not seen him pitch I have no grade for him. But I certainly like what I have read about his upside.
CAIN RETURNS TO THE BREWERS
Drafted by the Brewers in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, Lorenzo Cain returns to Milwaukee after having signed a nice five-year free agent contract that runs through 2022.
Cain, a right-handed hitter at 6-2, 188-pounds brings a complete set of well-above-average tools back to Milwaukee. He is now 31, so his skills may diminish as he continues along on this new contract.
Cain should benefit from the hitter-friendly Miller Park environment. I look for a definite uptick in home runs and extra-base hits. Fast and agile when healthy, Cain has had leg and hamstring problems for a couple of consecutive seasons.
Last year he did play in 155 games, but only 103 in 2016.
Cain is an outstanding defensive center fielder. He should pair extremely well with Yelich playing left field. As of now, Ryan Braun is scheduled to be the third outfielder. That may certainly change. Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton and Brett Phillips remain on the 40-man roster to offer plenty of outfield depth. Braun may also move around the field and play some first base and second base as well as in the outfield.
Cain has been on winning teams in Kansas City and along with Yelich will bring the type of veteran outfield leadership that will help the Brewers roster in general, and the pitching in particular.
The additions of Yelich and Cain serve notice that the Brewers front office is not waiting around to finish their total makeover.
If they get two more starting pitchers to go along with Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Jhoulys Chacin I think they will be in a position to challenge the Cubs and Cardinals in the Central.
I believe the Brewers will sign either Yu Darvish or Jake Arietta to help their rotation. I do not trust either Yovani Gallardo or Junior Guerra-the currently listed No 4 and No 5 starters in the rotation. Look for the Brewers to add at least one more starter-maybe even by the time you are reading this.
NEW FANTASY LEAGUE
I am thrilled to invite you to join the newly created ClubhouseCorner.com Fantasy League. This 14-team roto league will auction players March 11, 2018 at 7 PM eastern.
There are some new and exciting wrinkles to this league that will intrigue you. If you are interested in learning more about our new fantasy league, contact me directly at my BPleskoff@aol.com email address. I will send you details and the constitution. The entry fee is $125 per person.
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