By Yusseff Díaz
A few days ago I released the first part of this series which included the best Cuban players of all-time that played professional baseball. Today I’m going to release the second part of the series that will include my all-time team of players who only played in the Cuban National Series.
It is unfair to create one squad due to the fact that Fidel Castro closed the island off to MLB and professionalism in 1961. Making one team would merge two different types of baseball and would make unfair comparisons with players that played at two different levels of competition.
Making two teams seems like the fair and just thing to do, in the following I’m going to give you my team based on numbers and in my opinion the best Cuban players in the history of Cuba’s national pastime.
Although Ariel Pestano isn’t the best catcher of all-time behind the plate or in the batter’s box. He is the most complete catcher in the history of the National Series. He is easily one of the most decorated catchers in the history of the national team. He has been an Olympic, Pan American, World champ, and has been a runner up in the World Baseball Classic. Pestano was the stabilizing force for Cuba’s pitching staff in that first edition of the Classic.
For his career, he hit .289 with 147 long balls and drove in 877 runs. On the defensive side, he only committed 73 errors in more than 10,00 innings and had a fielding percentage of .991. He threw out an astronomical 56% of runners attempting to steal. Ivan Rodríguez once quipped during the Classic that he looked like a shortstop behind the plate.
My first baseman without a doubt is Antonio Muñoz, “The Giant of the Escambray Mountains”. The intimidating power hitter is the all-time leader in Cuba in walks. He led Cuba in homers an unprecedented eight times and hit a total of 370 in his career. He also stroked 355 doubles and drove in 1,407 runs. When Preston Gómez went to Cuba in 1977 to run clinics for the youth of the island he was asked if there was anything he wanted to take home from the country”, he replied, “ Yes I would love to take that big hillbilly in my suitcase.”, he was referring to Muñoz.
My shortstop would be without a doubt Eduardo Paret, the native of Villa Clara introduced himself to the world in the 2006 Classic as the leadoff hitter and spark plug for Cuba. As in the case of Pestano, he isn’t the best at anything but is the most complete.
In his 21 seasons, he hit .293 with 139 dingers, 296 two-baggers, 690 runs knocked in, and a slash line of .405/.424/.829. He also a BABIP of .312 during his career. On the defensive side of the ball, he had a fielding percentage of .972 and only made 261 errors in 14,000 innings.
My third baseman is the legendary Omar Linares, know as “El Niño” by the island faithful, he was named the best amateur player of all-time ever by experts. The slugger hit .400 seven times during his career, in total, he hit 404 long balls, drove in 1,547 runs and stole 268 bases. All this while hitting .368, it was rumored that he was once offered a blank contact by the late Yankees scout Rudy Santin.
My second baseman is Antonio Pacheco known as the “Capitan of Capitans” by Cuban fans. He was the prototype for today’s slugging middle infielder, if you are a fan of Robinson Cano then you would have loved to see Pacheco hit the ball because they are one and the same.
During his storied career the native of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba slugged 284 round-trippers, his SLG% of .525 tops for any second baseman in Cuba’s history and 2,356 hits are second on the all-time list. Similar to Cano he was more than adequate in the field only committing 205 errors in his career that saw more than 14,000 innings in the field and had a fielding % of .977.
My centerfielder would be Víctor Mesa, a man that in his prime drew the comparison to Rickey Henderson. “The Orange Explosion” was considered a five-tool player during his career. Mesa led Cuba in steals 14 times during his storied career and stole 588 bases in total. He also deposited 273 balls In the stands, drove in 1,174 runs, and hit .318.
My left fielder is Luis Giraldo Casanova better known as “Mr. Baseball” by everyone in the largest of the Antilles, the power hitter hit 32 homers in international competitions the most by any player that has graced the fields in Cuba and won a triple crown during the 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Edmonton.
Casanova hit 312 bombs, 288 doubles, and drove in 1,069 runs, all this while hitting .322 during his career.
He led Cuba in round-trippers in twice (‘80 and ‘84) and also led the Serie Nacional in RBI’s in 1984. Twins great Tony Oliva who is from the same Pinar del Río province as Casanova once admitted that the slugger had the best swing he had ever seen, even better than his.
My right fielder is Armando Capiro, the native of Havana was the first to hit 20 long balls in season in Cuba an the first to reach 100 homers in Serie Nacional history.
The talented outfielder was once compared to Roberto Clemente during his career, a career in which spanned 14 years and saw him bat .298, hit 162 dingers, and drive 677 runs. In the field, he had one of the most potent arms ever seen in the Cuban circuit.
My designated hitter is the “The Big Drum” Orestes Kindelán. The Santiago native is the all-time leader in long balls in the history of the tournament with 487 and in runs batted in with 1,511.
During his career, he compiled more than 2,000 hits and won a triple crown in 1989 when he hit .402 with 24 homers and 58 RBI’s. He also was crowned an Olympic, Pan American, and Central American champion with the national team.
My righthander is “The Skyscraper “ Pedro Luis Lazo who is the all-time leader in wins in the Serie Nacional with 257 and is second in K’s all-time with 2,426.
Internationally he has been to 4 Olympic finales, the only Cuban to do so. He also has won 22 games and saved 31 during his time with the national team. In the postseason he is second on the all-time Serie Nacional list in wins with 29 and saves with 7. His performances during Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in the ’06 Classic are legendary.
My lefty is Jorge Luis “Tati” Valdés the all-time leader in wins for a lefty with 234. In international competitions, he was a big game pitcher sporting a 30-1 record and a 2.53 ERA. The shining moment in his career was 1991 Pan-Am games in Havana where he was the catalyst for a Cuban gold medal team by no-hitting Canada and shutting down the US in the preliminaries.
My closer is Euclides Rojas who is currently a coach in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. His 90 saves are 4th on Cuba’s all-time list, but he makes my list ahead of Jose Angel García, Cuba’s all-time leader due to the competition he faced. He pitched in one of the most talented eras in Cuban baseball and had an electric repertoire.
His blazing fastball was accented by his 12-6 curve, this combination allowed him to strikeout 625 during his 14-year career and had an ERA of 2.93.
My all-time team (Serie Nacional)
1. Víctor Mesa CF
2. Antonio Pacheco 2B
3. Omar Linares 3B
4. Antonio Muñoz 1B
5. Luis Giraldo Casanova LF
6. Orestes Kindelán DH
7. Armando Capiro RF
8. Ariel Pestano C
9. Eduardo Paret SS
RHP Pedro Luis Lazo
LHP Jorge Luis “Tati” Valdés
CP Euclides Rojas