By Yusseff Díaz
Maels Rodriguez was one of the most dominating pitchers of his time. Now, the founder of the ‘100 MPH Club’ is passing on his skills to a new generation.
Maels Rodriguez is undoubtedly a legend in the Cuban National Series. The native of Villa Clara, Cuba was the first pitcher in Cuban League history to eclipse triple digits on the radar gun when he accomplished the feat on December 8, 1999 in a Serie Nacional game.
The Villa Clara franchise deemed the hurler to small to pitch, so the hurler ended up pitching for Sancti Spiritus and this is were the legend begins.
Not only did he throw some serious heat, but he also had a 92 mph slider to accompany his blazing fastball. In Serie Nacional XXXIX he led the tournament with 263 K’s in 178.1 innings.
In his six seasons in Cuba, he had a record of 65- 45 and struck out 1148 strikeouts in 938 innings. Maels Rodriguez also posted an ERA of 2.29 and batters hit .177 against him.
In the 2000 Olympics as a member of the Cuban National Team, he struck out 22 batters and held the US scoreless in 4 2/3 innings in the gold medal game. Although Cuba lost 4-0 to the Americans in that game he fanned seven.
Arm injuries prevented him from ever signing after his defection.
Currently, the hurler runs an academy called the “100 MPH Club” where he trains kids on the art of pitching. During the off-season he worked with Major league pitcher Yoan López, passing on his wisdom to the young flamethrower.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Maels Rodriguez. This is what he had to say.
You have the distinction of being the first Cuban to eclipse 100 mph in a baseball game, how does that make you feel?
It gives me great pride to know I was the first in Cuba to accomplish the feat because I never expected to reach triple digits. It was a blessing from God. I thank him dearly for affording me the talent to be able to reach that goal.
When was the first time you threw 100 mph?
The first time I hit triple digits on the radar gun was in Holguin in the eastern part of the country. The ball tends to travel better there because of the altitude. When I was 18 I touched 98 & 99 on the gun. I was always cognizant of the speed on my pitches.
You broke Santiago Mederos’s record for strikeouts in Serie Nacional XLI. How did you prepare physically for that season?
It was a great season for me that year and a great experience. It was also the most important season of my career. I won the pitching triple crown that year in Cuba, something hard to attain in any league.
I credit the team’s training staff in Sancti Spiritus for keeping me healthy all year long. It was an unforgettable season.
Explain to me your thought process when you were facing Alexander Guillén in the last at-bat of your perfect game against Las Tunas, a game which your team won in the bottom of that inning?
This was an incredible game, first of all, a perfect game is a team effort. I was blessed to be able to pitch the only perfect game in Serie Nacional history. It’s been over 15 years since I left Cuba and no one else was able to repeat this feat.
Recount your experience in the 2000 gold medal game in Sydney when you took the mound against team USA.
It was an unforgettable experience. Any athlete that has competed in an Olympics has good memories of their experience. Being able to represent your country is something that gives one great satisfaction.
Being able to take the mound against the Americans in the gold medal gave me great pride. An abundance of talented players have graced the field in Cuba and yet weren’t able to participate in an event of this magnitude.
Even with various injuries to your arm, you were still able to throw 92 mph. When did you come to the realization it was time to hang it up?
It was throwing 91-92 mph but it was forced, nothing was done with the fluidity I once did it with. My body just wasn’t the same. I had two or three surgeries trying to regain the level of comfort I once had on the mound but it never came. When I noticed that it would never come I decided to quit. I was now better suited for passing on my knowledge to others.
What do you do in the current day.
Today I work with the next generation of pitchers. I opened an academy on 117 Avenue and 123 Court in southwest Miami. There anyone who wants to learn to pitch is welcome to stop by. I’m very eager to show young pitchers everything I’ve learned via my experiences.
Do you still watch the Serie Nacional?
Yes, I catch an inning or three every so often. I watch mostly guys who played with me in Cuba and wish they keep doing well in the sport they love.
Cuba will always spawn new talents. Baseball in Cuba will never die. I love to see players not only triumph in Cuba but in foreign leagues. This gives me great pride because at the end of the day we are all Cuban.
Do you have any advice for today’s young pitchers?
Yes, I do. The most important thing for a young pitcher is to always train hard and properly. Also always be conscious of the health of your arm, remember the arm was not made to pitch. This isn’t a natural movement.
One has to be cognizant of the stress and labor one puts on their arm. There is an old pitcher’s saying in Cuba,” Wasted bullets never come back.”
We need to be conscious of our capabilities and keep pitch counts. One also needs to be aware of who we have train us. We need to train with people who see you as a person not as merchandise.