MLB: Under Cuban Influence

Leonys Martin is one of two Cuban born players on the Rangers roster. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs
Leonys Martin is one of two Cuban born players on the Rangers roster. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs

By Will Martin

It’s interesting how certain things in life are among the absolutes in their path, description, or expectation. Like a duck takes to water, born to play a position, being placed somewhere that you believe God intended you to be, etc. You’ve heard the “-isms.” Feel free to add your own contribution here if you’d like.

With spring training finally wrapping up, therein starts the six month odyssey of a regular season that will take us back into the fall. It occurred to me the first baseball game I ever watched was in June of 1970 in Morristown, New Jersey.

Going back to that period in my life I can remember putting on the jersey and the cap, the sweatbands and the cleats. Pencil and paper were always nearby. Summer then was simple as I’d be content to watch television or listen for days on radio. WMCA AM 570 if memory serves correctly.

Little did I realize I was supposed to be a fan of baseball based on where my makers came from. As the story was told to me, it was sometime late in 1960 when there was a revolution ongoing on an island 90 miles off the Florida Keys. You may have heard of that place that is well known for its cigars, sugar, ballet, boxing, rum, one infidel (pun intended) and lovely tropical weather year round.

I discovered baseball as a Cuban-American before I knew I was supposed to. As I’ve told many people over the years, ‘Cuban but I missed the boat’ (smile). Hence the duck to water part that I speak of. First game I ever saw in person was July 14th 1973 at old Yankee Stadium. The Royals were the opponent and Steve Busby was their starting pitcher against Yankee Doc Medich.

In the very first inning I saw Cookie Rojas drive a ball to left field for a 2-run blast en route to a 4-2 victory over New York. I knew Cookie Rojas was of Cuban descent. so again it made sense I would enjoy this bit of history in my first game.

That thought permeated in my mind as I watched glimpses of exhibition games in the last two weeks. Sadly, the last game I watched was the game where Aroldis Chapman took a 130 mph line drive to the face as he went to the ground. Writhing in pain it really began to scare me when his father ran out onto the field to see how bad it was. Immediately I thought back to that bad incident in Boston in September of 2000 when Bryce Florie suffered a tougher fate.

One marvels at the success that some areas of life tend to have in one area of work or play. It was brought to my attention by some casual fans that there appeared to be a real spurt of athletic greatness coming from the island of Cuba and would it be worth checking out to see if the reality matched the perception.

Historically the first Cuban to reach superstardom was Adolfo Luque in 1923 when as a pitcher he would post a 27-8 record with a 1.93 era. In 1911 the Cincinnati Reds brought aboard two Cuban players named, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida.

If you go back to the days of the American Association, circa 1870, you will find the name Esteban Bellan who was quite the player. Minnie Minoso became the first ballplayer to play in a game in five different decades. I saw him get a hit at age 53 in a 1976 game at Yankee Stadium.

Although I grew up a Yankee fan as a kid I thought Luis Tiant was the king of epic. The fall of 1975 I watched two Cubans come to prominence in the Fall Classic. Tony Perez overcame a 0-15 start to have a two homer game in Game 4 while ‘El Tiante’ tossed a 6-0 shutout in Game 1 and a 5-4 victory in Game 4. Two Cubans who shined brightly on the big stage of a memorable World Series.

Because of a country that was turned communist in 1959 there have been many players who have defected to come make a name for themselves in the states. Twins fans will talk about Tony Oliva and Zoilo Versailles in the 60’s. There was also Cesar Tovar and Bert Campaneris; two Cubans who also had the distinction of playing all nine positions in one game. Rare, indeed.

Since 1999 there have been other success stories in pro baseball with Jose Canseco, Jose Contreras, El Duque Hernandez, Livan Hernandez making good on the promise of achieving highly in the new land and escaping the home of lost opportunity due to political restraint.

Thus the question posed to me was, ‘Are there an influx of baseball players of Cuban persuasion?’

Upon further review I know of about 40 who are ready to makes waves in the MLB. Some of them you know already like Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Gio Gonzalez, Bronson Arroyo, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Raul Ibanez.

Heck, right here in Arlington the Texas Rangers have two in Leonys Martin and J.P. Arencibia! In 2004 for a few years Victor Rojas (son of Cookie) was your Rangers announcer alongside Steve Busby.

Other names you will become familiar with are Matt Dominguez, Eric Hosmer, Jon Jay, Kendrys Morales, J.D. Martinez, Dan Otero, Alexei Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez, Alex and Nick Castellanos, and I’ll stop with Henry Urrutia. By my count there are 39 players in the Major Leagues who are representing the island of Cuba-where Mom and Dad migrated from.

Lets break this down a little more. At the start of the 2013 baseball season the percentage of ballplayers born outside the U.S. was 28% or exactly 241 players. That was the fourth highest number after 2005, 2007 and 2012.

In terms of starters and representation you might think that Cuba has the market on baseball superiority and player numbers. Not even close! You can give that honor to the Dominican Republic with 89 players. Venezuela was second on the foreign starters list with 63. Third on the list of out of starters was Canada (17), followed then by Cuba (15), and then Mexico (14).

Puerto Rico (13) is then followed by Japan (11), which is then followed by Panama and Colombia (4). Australia, Nicaragua, and South Korea? Two each!

These numbers are pretty mind boggling. It’s always made me proud how Cubans seem to have this incessant drive to want to be the best. Upon further review it was refreshing to read about Cubans, of the light and dark skin variety, that did great things to help integrate the sport of baseball in Negro and Spanish Leagues long before the majors waited until 1947 to break the color line.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention a few other pitchers of Cuban persuasion who were always murder on my patience back in the day. Roger (Rogelio) Moret, Mike Cuellar, and Camilo Pascual.

If one were to devise a Top Ten list of Cubans who did well in Major League Baseball, Tony Perez and Luis Tiant make for a nice starting point. Tony Oliva and Dolf Luque with Mike Cuellar would round out the top 5. Minnie Minoso, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro albeit in the steroid age made many a fan marvel at the longevity and the power. Rounding out that list you can make a case for Bert Campaneris and Camilo Pascual.

What Yasiel Puig did in 2013 made some think back to Fernandomania in 1981 or even the wonders of Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych in 1976 with the Tigers. 2014 will no doubt feature many surprises as new faces will try to add to the legacy of the grand old game.

Even now, 44 years later, the allure of the game still holds ever so close. Long before I knew it was supposed to be based on my nationality.

Like a duck to water.

To a great 2014 and more Cuban achievements!