The Cuban National Baseball Team won the November 1993 Central American and Caribbean Games Gold Medal in baseball, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Arrangements were made for them to stay in Puerto Rico to play an exhibition game versus the 1993-94 San Juan Senators at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, Hato Rey part of San Juan. But first a perspective on Cuba’s national baseball team as well as background on Javier (Javy) López Torres, a native of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Cuba dominated the August 16-27, 1989 Intercontinental Cup, an eight-team tournament, in Puerto Rico, going 8-0. Lázaro Valle, their star pitcher, threw an eight-inning perfect game against South Korea, striking out 13 of 24 hitters faced, on 80 pitchers. Valle had a wicked 90-MPH slider with a fastball reaching 98 MPH. Lourdes Gurriel Sr. (.435 BA) was MVP. Series All-Star team included Valle, OF Gurriel, DH Orestes Kindelan, 2B Antonio Pachecho and 3B Omar Linares. Japan (Silver) and Puerto Rico (Bronze) were 5-3. Team USA (1-5) had OF Jeromy Burnitz, catcher Dan Wilson, LHP Chris Haney, OF Matt Mieske, among others.
When Havana, Cuba hosted the 1991 Pan Am Games, Lázaro Valle was not on their roster, due to a blood clot in his pitching arm. Edel Casas, sportscaster with Radio Rebelde and voice of Cuban baseball, said: “[Valle’s] loss could open the door for a U.S. victory.” René Arocha, another Cuban starting pitcher, had defected to the U.S. LHP Omar Ajete was moved up to the #1 slot in Cuba’s rotation, followed by Osvaldo Fernández,and veteran LHP Jorge Valdés, who threw the first perfect game in Pan Am Games history, a 14-0, seven-inning win over Canada. Cuba easily defeated Silver medalist Puerto Rico in the finals, after Puerto Rico stunned Team USA, 7-1. The U.S. team, managed by Ron Polk, head baseball coach at Mississippi State University, got Bronze, edging the Dominican Republic, 2-1, in 15 innings.
The 1991 Pan Am Games All-Star team was all-Cuba, except for a RHP and OF. Catcher José Delgado hit .500; 1B Lourdes Gurriel, .419 BA, .486 OBP, .871 SLG; 2B and MVP Antonio Pacheco, .545-.615-.879; 3B Omar Linares, .414-.575-.793; SS Germán Mesa; OF Víctor Mesa, .407-.500-.630; OF Luis Ulacia (.500 BA); DH Romerlio Martínez, .409-.552-.818. Jorge Valdés got the All-Star nod as LHP. He won 26 straight games in major International competitions, and until 2008, was Cuba’s all-time win leader in their “Serie Nacional” (National Series): 234-166.
Cuba won Gold, 1992 Olympics. Howard W. French, in the New York Times, noted: “It is an almost unfair burden they are carrying. They are the best in the world and not expected to lose to anyone, but they know that a loss to the U.S. would be more than a sports defeat. It would be a national betrayal.” The average age of the 25-man Cuban roster was 28 for these Olympics. Cuba-Japan-Chinese Taipei were the medal winners. U.S. coach Ron Fraser said: “Thing that hurts Cuba the most is the lack of competition. Most of the time they are kinda bored.” Orlando “El Duque” Hernández (126-47, .728, 3.05 ERA, 10-year National Series), Ajete, Valdés and Osvaldo Fernández were a solid rotation. Lázaro Valle wanted to pitch, but was left off the team.
Javy López, as a child, practiced baseball by hitting rocks off the metal roof of his Ponce home. He was an excellent volleyball player in high school before signing with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent in 1987. His two seasons of rookie ball (1988/1989) preceded class A Burlington in 1990 (.265, 11 homers, 55 RBIs) and 1991 Durham Bulls, advanced class A (.245, 11, 51). López caught the eye of Atlanta’s management in 1992, for the 100-44 Greenville (South Carolina), class AA Braves: .321, 16, 60, a .362 OBP and .507 SLG). Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko were on this team, considered one of the best minor league teams ever.
Javy López went 6 for 16 with Atlanta in 1992 after his first call-up, before his 1992-93 winter season as starting catcher for the San Juan Metros. López hit .333 (16 for 48) in the round robin event, helping San Juan qualify for the finals versus the Santurce Crabbers. Santurce won five of the six games and the February 1993 Caribbean Series, a four-team event, in Mexico.
The 1993 Richmond Braves were López’s next stop—100 games, .305, 17, 74, .334 OBP, .511 SLG. Mark Brown, a friend of the author’s, once lived and worked in Richmond. He has fond memories of watching Dale Murphy hit for those Braves, and LHP Steve Avery’s fine pitching. López played in the 1993 class AAA All-Star game, with 1B Ryan Klesko and SS Chipper Jones. López’s NL team, managed by Bill Russell, won 14-3. Klesko won the International League award for his two homers, three RBIs. Jim Thome, Charlotte Knights 3B, hit third for the AL team-American Association, managed by Charlie Manuel. Thome had played for the 1992-93 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico, against Javy López.
Atlanta again promoted López (6 for 16), prior to the 1993-94 Puerto Rico Winter League season. The San Juan Metros were now the San Juan Senators, thanks to Jenaro “Tuto” Marchand, San Juan’s new co-owner. Marchand had enjoyed success as a basketball executive in Puerto Rico’s summer hoop league. He convinced the Island’s major bank, Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, to be a team sponsor and formed a band of four musicians from San Juan’s Trastalleres sector to wear San Juan flannels and provide fans with upbeat tunes, much like the Brooklyn Dodgers Symphony Band once did at Ebbets Field.
Perhaps Marchand’s boldest move was arranging the December 1, 1993 game between San Juan and the Cuban national team. Marchand took the initial step of approaching Cuba. “I’ve been associated with basketball all my life and have friends in the Cuban sports movement,” said Marchand. But the red tape was extensive. “It got to where I had to get six or seven special permits—the Amateur Baseball Federation, our Professional Baseball League. Then I had to make a special trip to Cuba to iron out some details. We finally got official permission from the Amateur Baseball group.” A standing room only crowd of 22,000-to-24,000 fans were there.
I was fortunate to have a press pass for this contest and got to converse with several Cuban players prior to the game. A fond memory was when former Atlanta Braves 2B Félix Millán tossed a ball to me, so I could get the autographs of Oreste Kindelan and Omar Linares for him. Kindelan (487 career HR—National Series) and Linares (404 career HR—National Series) were Cuba’s famous one-two punch, much like Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig for the New York Yankees and Willard Brown-Bob Thurman for the post-World War II Santurce Crabbers.
Jorge Fuentes—Cuba’s manager—tapped Lázaro Valle to start. Valle blanked San Juan through five innings with a 95 plus MPH fastball and sliders, before Cuba scored twice in the sixth off reliever Dave Telgheder. Antonio Pacheco doubled and Linares hit a two-run homer. Cuba was held in check by Carlos Reyes, the San Juan starter. Reyes told me: The game with Cuba landed on my rotation. With aluminum bats, you’ve got to be a little cautious on what you’re going to throw. They [Cubans] swing hard. I threw a lot of off-speed stuff—don’t think they were used to off-speed stuff.”
San Juan eventually scored twice off Valle to tie the game, 2-2, after singles by Lee Tinsley and John Mabry; then, a costly error by RF Ermidelio Urrutia, followed by a Carlos Baerga single. But Cuba took the lead in the ninth off reliever Shawn Holman. Lourdes Gurriel and Víctor Mesa singled, with Gurriel scoring on Holman’s errant throw. It was now up to Omar Ajete.
Carmelo Martínez led off the home ninth by grounding out to 3B. Ryan Thompson stepped up; singled to RF off a 1-2 breaking pitch. Javy López had a chance to be a hero when he faced Ajete with an aluminum bat. Some 25 years later, Ajete remembered: “It was an emotional moment which I really do not want to remember…when I saw the parabola of the ball and it going over the [LF] fence, my first thought was: after 100 straight wins, we lose.” And I saw López’s line drive go over the Pan Pepin sign in left field, from my press box slot.
I was the first person to interview Javy López in the San Juan clubhouse, post-game. Javy said: “That [Ajete] pitch just stayed over the middle of the plate. I was relaxed and waited for my pitch. But give credit to Cuba. They came to play and were aggressive. They played great.”
Lázaro Valle, approached by an Island sportswriter, post-game, for a comment, proudly stated: “97 MPH is good on this field, or anywhere in the world. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
One special moment was seeing players from both teams congratulate each other after López’s homer. Cuban team/officials remained in the visitor’s clubhouse for several hours, for security reasons. This gave Carlos Baerga and teammates a chance to visit with Cuba’s National Team.
Ajete vividly remembered Fidel Castro greeting Team Cuba when they deplaned in Havana, and hoping Castro would not notice him. “I knew ‘El Comandante’ would be at the airport,” said Ajete. I was downcast. El Comandante told me to “raise my chin and head up…that I had contributed to past successes/winning efforts…”
San Juan won the 1993-94 Winter League title—35-13, .729; went 8-4 in the round robin; avenged their 1992-93 final series loss to Santurce, winning five of seven final series contests at Bithorn. The 1993-94 Senators hit 20 homers in 12 round robin games: five by catcher Carlos Delgado; three each by cousins’ Carmelo/Edgar Martínez; two apiece by Rico Rossy, Melvin Nieves and Rubén Escalera; one by Germán Rivera, Carlos Baerga and Javy López.
San Juan GM Freddie Thon resigned on December 15, 1993, when LHP Mike Hampton (5-1, 1.94 ERA) returned to the states. Carlos Reyes (5-0, league-leading 1.31 ERA) also left the team. Shawn Holman (league-leading 14 saves) stayed for the round robin. Workhorses Rafy Montalvo (7-3, 1.85 ERA), Orlando Lind (5-2, 2.36 ERA) and LHP Bob Gaddy (4-0, 1.95 ERA) helped San Juan have a league-leading 2.36 ERA.
Cuba’s avid baseball fans, via blogs, have stated: “That [San Juan] team “estaba bien duro” (were very strong). “Edgar Martínez (67 AB: .418 BA, .473 OBP, .597 SLG, 1.070 OPS, 1993-94 regular season) got a key hit against us—won a 1992 and 1995 AL batting titles. But the star of the moment was Carlos Baerga, third-place hitter for Cleveland at the time, with a .321 [1993 AL] BA and 114 RBIs. [Carlos] Delgado was a rookie [then] but from 1997-to-2006 never hit fewer than 30 homers in an MLB season; from 1996-2008, never hit fewer than 20 homers.”
Javy was proud of this moment when I conversed with him a few years ago in Pearl, Mississippi, where the class AA Mississippi Braves play. He reminded me to check it out on You Tube.
Javy joined the Braves Hall of Fame, May 23,
2014, with SS Rabbit Maranville, who helped the 1914 Boston Braves win the
franchise’s first World Series; and athletic trainer Dave Pursley, who got a
1995 World Series ring, as did Javy, with Atlanta. I reminded Javy his 42 home
runs as a CATCHER for the 2003 Atlanta Braves are still the MOST single-season
HR by an MLB catcher, surpassing Todd Hundley (41 for 1996 NY Mets); Roy
Campanella (40 HR-1953 Brooklyn Dodgers); and 40 by Mike Piazza with 1997 LA
Dodgers/1999 Mets. Johnny Bench hit 45 HR for 1970 Cincinnati Reds, but only 38
were as a catcher. Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez’s 35 HR for the 1999 Texas Rangers
are the most single-season HR by an AL catcher.
Lázaro Valle was correct when he told a Puerto Rico sportswriter “I have nothing to be ashamed of” after Omar Ajete gave up Javy López’s epic homer, or “cuadrangular” or “jonrón.”