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La Pelota Cubana: Volume 8, “The Greatest Sacrifice”

A Major League career is a trying endeavor for even the most talented and hardworking of individuals. For Cuban ballplayers, the journey to the highest levels of baseball goes beyond simple balls and strikes.

President Obama Attends Tampa Bay Devil Rays v Cuban National Team Baseball Game In Havana Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This is amongst the heaviest topics when it comes to the discussion of Cuban baseball, so it will likely take multiple installments to give all of the issues and topics here their proper discussion. Think of this as a prologue to set the stage for the discussion to come, and to get a sense of some of the real people behind the dazzling athleticism and stories of harrowing escapes.

The Path to the Big Leagues

From the moment he could hurl a baseball, Stephen Strasburg seemed destined for an MLB mound. He overpowered his opponents as a high-school pitcher with West Hills in Santee California, and as a fledgling 15 year-old sophomore, he could already top 90 miles per hour with his fastball. As a senior, Strasburg shined, tossing 62.1 innings while striking out 74 batters and boasting a 1.68 ERA. Strasburg attended college at San Diego State University, where, under the coaching of former Major Leaguer Tony Gwynn, hs shined. Despite some issues with conditioning and weight, Strasburg pitched to a 2.47 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP during his freshman season operating out of the bullpen. Working as a starter during his sophomore and junior seasons, Strasburg lowered his ERA each season to 1.57 and 1.32, while increasing his velocity to the point that he reached triple digits on multiple occasions. Coming into the 2009 draft, Strasburg was regarded as a once-in-a-generation talent, and the Washington Nationals were happy to select him with the #1 overall pick. Strasburg sped through the minors with two seasons spread across the Fall League, AA and AAA ball. Finally, on June 8th, 2010, Strasburg made his MLB debut, pitching 7 innings while allowing 2 ER and striking out 14. Since then, Strasburg has starred in the majors, despite bouts with arm injuries, accumulating 17.3 WAR (BB-Reference), and a sparkling 3.18 career ERA.

A half a world away, a similar story was unfolding in Osaka, Japan. There, a young high school pitcher by the name of Sefat Farid Yu Darvish (ダルビッシュ・セファット・ファリード・有) was turning heads with his stellar play. As the latest in a glut of baseball talent to come through Tohoku High School, Darvish led his club to 4 consecutive appearances in national high school tournaments, including two each in the Japanese High School Baseball Invitational Tournament and Japanese High School Baseball Championship. Darvish wowed, accumulating a 7-3 record, a 1.47 ERA, and 87 strikeouts in 92 tournament innings pitched, and even tossed a no-hit no-run game. All in all, Yu was a high school star, sporting a career 1.10 ERA and even reaching 93 MPH on the radar gun. Out of highschool, Darvish was selected in the first round of the 2004 NPB draft by the Hokkaido Fighters. As an 18 year-old, Darvish held his own in pro-ball sporting an even 5-5 record to go along with a 3.53 ERA (compare to league average 4.05) in 94.1 rookie innings pitched. At only 19, Darvish was the opening day starter for the Fighters in 2006, and led the team to its first Pacific League title since 1981, accumulating 12 wins, a 2.89 ERA and 149.1 innings pitched. The teenage phenom was the Game 1 starter of both the Pacific League playoff and the Japan Series, ultimately winning the clinching game 5 by a 4-1 score over future big league Kenshin Kawakami. The next year, Darvish was at it again, taking his team to the Japan Series, where this time he was beaten in a clinching game 5, as Daisuke Yamai and Hitoki Iwase of the Chunichi Dragons combined to toss the first and only perfect game in Japan Series history. In addition to his success at home, Darvish starred with the Japanese National team, helping Japan take gold in the 2009 WBC classic. In 2012, Darvish was posted by Hokkaido and signed on the with the Texas Rangers (insert boos here) of MLB, where he has been a 3 time major league all-star, and finished second in Cy Young award voting.

Although Strasburg and Darvish are quite different as pitchers, and come from worlds apart, they have similar tales. In each, we see the sublime talent which is required to play the game at its highest levels, and we likewise see the work and dedication which must come part and parcel with that talent in order to step out onto the mound at a big league stadium.

91 Miles Away and a World Apart

But a decade before, another pitcher with a livewire arm and seemingly unlimited potential saw his story play out very differently.

Maels Rodríguez burst onto the scene in Cuba’s Serie Nacional like a streak of lightning. The 17 year-old, who had starred with Cuba’s U16 team, now joined his home province’s top club, the Gallos of Sancti Spíritus. Despite his tender age, Rodríguez held his own in Serie Nacional, posting a 3.40 ERA and a staggering 9.9 K/9 (recall that Aroldis Chapman posted a 10.0 K/9 in the Serie Nacional for his full career). Rodríguez followed up that rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season that saw him lower his ERA to 2.22 and his WHIP to 1.120. At 19, in his third season for Santi Spíritus, Rodríguez established himself as the best pitcher in Cuba. He shrank his ERA to a miniscule 1.94, and coupled it with a 0.998 WHIP. He threw the Serie Nacional’s first recorded 100+ MPH pitch, measured at 100.5 on December 8th, and followed it up two weeks later with the league’s first (and still only) perfect game, defeating Las Tunas 1-0 while striking out 12 batters. He also tied Gallos teammate Yovani Aragón for the league lead in strikeouts with 177. At the apex of the island’s baseball world, Rodríguez authored one of the greatest performances in the history of Cuban baseball (before or after the revolution) in Serie Nacional 40 (2000-2001). Maels lead the league in wins (15-6), innings pitched (178.1), games started (23), ERA (1.77), WHIP (1.071) and obliterated the league record for strikeouts, posting 268 (for comparison, Aroldis Chapman never had more than 130 strikeouts in a single Serie Nacional season). Precious little video exists of “El Supersónico” from those masterful seasons, but take a look at this brief clip from the 2000 Olympics Gold Medal Game.

Rodríguez dominates future veteran of 12 big league seasons Doug Mientkiewicz. He tosses him a great slider followed by a forkball, and finishes off the at bat with a 99.5 MPH (160 KPH) fastball dotted on the outside corner. Even in such a brief clip, the talent jumps off of the screen.

But unlike Strasburg and Darvish, there is no great MLB story for Maels Rodríguez, no big league stardom, or American riches. Rodríguez departed from Cuba in 2003, following a down year (by his comparatively lofty standards). He, along with fellow Cuban national team player Yobal Dueñas, made their way to El Salvador where they awaited to be declared MLB free agents. After almost two years away from the game, by the time Rodríguez was able to try out for big league clubs, it was clear something was wrong. His once electric arm seemed sapped of all strength, and he could scarcely reach 90 on the gun. MLB teams which had once lined up to compete for his services now shied away, and Maels found himself without any free agent contract. In 2005, he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 22nd round of the draft, but he never pitched an inning in either the major or minor leagues. After all was said and done, Rodríguez was left without his hope for big league career, without his domestic stardom with the national team, and even without the friends and family he had left behind to try to reach his dreams.

Maels Rodriguez of Cuba delivers a pitch
Maels Rodríguez stands as one of baseball’s greatest, and saddest, “what if?” stories.

Why did Mael Rodríguez’s story play out so differently from that of Darvish or Strasburg? He certainly was not lacking for talent, possessing both a fastball touching 100 to go with both a slider and forkball. Nor was he, by all accounts any less dedicated to his craft than those other big league hurlers. But like all players from Cuba, his big league aspirations never hinged solely on his ability to spin a baseball. There were always far greater issues and concerns, not all within his control. It is precisely these issues which we will discuss in the coming installments. As of now, I already have ideas for discussion of the following topics:

  • Why players leave the island. Their motivations and the events that prompt their departure.
  • How players leave the islands. The means, venues and locales involved.
  • The differing opinions of players who have left the island on Cuban baseball and the possibility of return to Cuba.
  • The unfortunate extent to which player departure from Cuba has become embroiled with human trafficking in the Caribbean.
  • The possibility of a future system of normalized player exchange akin to NPB’s posting system.

That said, I am interested to know what you all would like to know or to talk about regarding this topic. In the comments of this preview article please write in with topics of interest to you pertaining to this issue.