As the World Baseball Classic gets underway, inevitable arguments began in the La Vida newsroom as to who the all-time legends are in each country.
To settle these arguments – and probably start some new ones – we’ve asked some of our favorite writers to give us their picks for five countries (Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela), plus a special Pan-American team with players from Nicaragua, Panama and elsewhere.
Tell us who we missed or who you would add on Twitter using the hashtag #LaVidaLegends or leave us a comment below.
And for Cuba today, we have a special case: two teams – pre-Castro’s-revolution and post-revolution.
Pre-revolution CUBA team
Here’s the difficulty in selecting a Cuban pre-revolution team of all-stars: Many of the top stars of the pre-Castro era were not Cuban natives at all.
Cuba first formed a national league in 1878 and recruited many North Americans to participate: Negro Leaguers before integration and major-leaguers after 1947.
So the team chosen here is not a Cuban winter league all-star squad but rather a lineup of native islanders from the usually four-team circuit with some consideration of how they performed in leagues such as the Mexican, Negro and Major Leagues.
Two caveats: Since baseball did not feature the novelty of a designated hitter until 1973, this team features a utility player known for performing at multiple positions. Also, since specialty relief pitchers or “closers” had not yet appeared on the scene, we have designated a bullpen pitcher – mostly a starter, but he could appear in any role at any stage of the contest – hence a true versatile workhorse pitcher.
C Rafael “Ray” Noble
Born March 15, 1919 in Central Hatillo, Cuba
Back-up receiver on the 1951 NL champion, Bobby Thomson-led New York Giants, Noble logged 16 seasons with the Cienfuegos club in winter play and is the Cuban pro circuit’s all-time career home-run leader. Noble also carries the distinction of having played in the Negro World Series, Caribbean Series, and Major League World Series.
1B Lázaro Sálazar
Born February 4, 1912 in Havana, Cuba
All-around star in both Havana and Mexico during the ’30s and ’40s as first baseman, outfielder, stellar pitcher and manager, this lefty was affectionately known as the Prince of Belén. Two-time Cuban leagues batting champion and double MVP selection, Sálazar also twice managed Venezuelan teams in the first decade of the Caribbean Series.
2B Martín Dihigo
Born May 25, 1905 in Matanzas, Cuba
Universally considered the greatest Cuban ever to don spikes and glove, Dihigo has been selected to Negro League mythical nines at a half-dozen different positions (he played every position but catcher) and twice (once in Cuba and once in Mexico) was a league batting champion and pitching ERA leader in the very same season. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
3B Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso
Born November 29, 1925 in Havana, Cuba
A stellar and lengthy big-league career mainly with the White Sox and Indians still left Miñoso as arguably the most overlooked Latino star not enshrined in Cooperstown. Only an occasional MLB third sacker, Miñoso logged considerable time at the post in his homeland, where he stood second all-time in career homers, runs scored and triples in a 14-winter career with Marianao.
SS Willy Miranda
Born May 24, 1926 in Velasco, Cuba
A prototypical “good field, no hit” middle infielder with the Yankees and Orioles during the ’50s, Miranda is still widely considered the best glove magician produced by Cuba before the later arrivals of big-leaguer Rey Ordóñez and post-revolution national team star Germán Mesa.
FOLLOW OUR COVERAGE OF CUBA DURING THE WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC ON @LAVIDABASEBALL AND ON THE HASHTAG #TEAMCUBA
RF Cristóbal Torriente
Born November 16, 1893 in Cienfuegos, Cuba
A Cooperstown Hall of Famer selected in the special 2006 Negro League election, this hefty portside swinger is unfortunately best-known for a 1920 Havana exhibition match in which he slugged three homers to outshine visiting Babe Ruth. More significantly, Torriente’s substantial North American blackball career boasts a two-decade lifetime batting average estimated at .331 and the second-best all-time Cuban league mark of .351, compiled over a dozen intermittent seasons between 1913 and 1927. He may have been the best of his era save only Martin Dihigo.
CF Alejandro Oms
Born March 13, 1896 in Santa Clara, Cuba
Trailing only Torriente and American Oscar Charleston in lifetime winter circuit batting average (.345), this durable southpaw swinger (1922-1946) four times led the Havana League in batting, including consecutive seasons in the late 1920s. Oms also starred in the Negro Leagues from 1926 through 1935, playing with the New York-based Cuban Stars and Cubans teams.
LF Alejandro Crespo
Born February 26, 1915 in Guira de Melena, Cuba
A star fly chaser who sometimes filled in behind the plate for the Cienfuegos team throughout the 1940s, Crespo was a two-time batting champion and is Cuba’s pre-1961 all-time career pace-setter in doubles, while standing second all-time in RBIs. He is also one of only a handful to claim league RBI crowns in consecutive seasons.
RHP Adolfo “Dolf” Luque
Born August 4, 1890 in Havana, Cuba
A colorful and temperamental star pitcher and manager in Cuba, Luque is arguably the most overlooked Latino pioneer: the first pitcher, the first to play in the World Series (1919), the first to win a World Series game (1933) and the first to 100 wins, totaling 194 over 20 seasons. More than ninety years later, Luque still shares with Bucky Walters Cincinnati’s modern-day record for victories in a season, 27 in 1923.
LHP Luis Tiant Sr.
Born August 27, 1906 in Havana, Cuba
Legendary for his phantom pickoff moves in the Negro Leagues, this diminutive southpaw was father to the more celebrated namesake MLB right-hander with the corkscrew delivery who is the winningest Cuban in MLB history. The senior Tiant was a workhorse of domestic league play across 15 seasons and as a consequence holds the record for most seasons (five) as league-leader in defeats. Went undefeated (10-0) as a starter for the 1947 New York Cubans that won the Negro World Series.
RP Conrado “Connie” Marrero
Born April 25, 1911 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba
An iconic star in his homeland, the pre-fifties era’s greatest island amateur pitcher remained at home after the revolution to survive as MLB’s oldest living alumnus at 102. Turning pro in his 30s, Marrero enjoyed a five-year stint with the Washington Senators after belatedly reaching the majors as a 39-year-old rookie.
MANAGER Miguel Ángel “Mike” González
Born September 24, 1890 in Havana, Cuba
Holds all important league records as Havana Reds manager (34 years, 1,525 games, 851 wins, 674 losses, 14 pennants) but is best known for a trio of big-league distinctions – first Latino to manage an MLB club (16 games as 1938 Cardinals interim), third-base coach who waved Enos Slaughter home in the “mad dash” that won the 1946 World Series, and coiner of the expression “good field, no hit” to describe catcher Moe Berg in a formal scouting report.
UTILITY PLAYER José de la Caridad Méndez
Born January 2, 1885 in Cárdenas, Cuba
Known as Cuba’s “Black Diamond,” Méndez was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Torriente in 2006, is Cuba’s all-time leader in winning percentage, logged several brilliant performances against touring big-league barnstormers in 1908-1909, and had a half-dozen exceptional seasons before arm problems effectively ended his days as a pitching ace after 1914. Méndez also participated in the Negro Leagues from 1917 to 1926 as a starting infielder and occasional pitcher. He managed the Kansas City Monarchs to consecutive NNL pennants in 1923, ’24, and ’25.
POST-REVOLUTION CUBA TEAM
Any mythical post-revolution Cuban all-star squad raises a conundrum: whether or not to include big-league stars born on the island before the Castro takeover who have little or no connection with island baseball ̶ players like Tany “Tony” Pérez and Bert Campaneris. But we’ve decided to exclude exiled Cuban and Cuban-American players and concentrate only on players produced by the island’s post-1962 league, even if they eventually left the island and performed in the majors as “Cuban defectors.”
Caught in the Cold War divide that separated Cuba’s own game from MLB are players like Pérez, Campaneris, “Tony” Pedro Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, Luis Tiant Jr., and Tony Taylor. Maybe next time we’ll come up with a third fantasy team that includes players estranged from their homeland, and Cuban-Americans.
C Ariel Pestano
Born January 31, 1974 in Caibarién, Cuba
Field general of stellar Cuban national teams from 1999 through 2013, Pestano has few peers as both a defender and handler of pitchers. After conversing with the catcher at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Orel Hershiser said that he had never encountered any backstop who knew as much about the catching trade as Pestano.
1B José Abreu
Born January 29, 1987 in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Arguably the best pure hitter the island has ever produced, Abreu quickly silenced all doubters with record slugging performances and a stellar ROY season when he broke in with the Chicago White Sox in 2014 at age 27. His .317/.383/.581 rookie line included 36 home runs and 107 RBI. In three full seasons, he’s averaged .299 with 91 home runs and 308 RBI.
2B Yulieski Gurriel
Born June 9, 1984 in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
Despite walking away from Cuba at the apex of his career, Gurriel not only ranks near the top of most offensive categories on the island, but also was one of the slickest infielders in Cuban League annals. He hit an even .500 in his final, shortened National Series season, and his national team heroics elevate him to a level rivaling Omar Linares as the greatest Cuban League hero of the past half-century.
SS Germán Mesa
Born May 12, 1967 in Havana, Cuba
Built like Ozzie Smith and frequently compared to him, Mesa was the most magical of the numerous defensive middle infielders produced on the island in the past century. His career spanned from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. What makes him appear even better in retrospect was the rough-hewn nature of the Cuban League diamonds he regularly performed upon.
3B Omar Linares
Born October 23, 1967 in Pinar del Río, Cuba
Widely touted throughout the 1980s and 1990s as the greatest third baseman on the planet never to appear in the majors, Linares still has no rivals beyond perhaps Yulieski Gurriel when island residents debate the greatest all-around ballplayer ever produced by Castro’s domestic baseball empire.
LF Alfredo Despaigne
Born June 17, 1986 in Palma Soriano, Cuba
Cuba’s single-season home run record-holder and a powerful slugger who turned the heads of big-league scouts for a decade, the “Granma Stallion” made the decision to remain loyal to his homeland and is now one of the highest-paid players in Japanese League history. Turning his back on MLB, Despaigne opted instead to play on loan in Japan, where he has garnered several multimillion-dollar windfalls he was able to bring back to the homeland.
RF Yoenis Céspedes
Born Oct. 18, 1985 in Campechuela, Cuba
Already a potent slugger and national team standout for the better part of a decade in Cuban domestic-league play, Céspedes is now well on his way to joining the likes of Pérez, Canseco and Palmeiro among the most potent Cuban-born sluggers of the modern era.
CF Víctor Mesa
Born February 20, 1960 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba
Cuba’s most colorful manager in the first two decades of the new millennium and its most colorful and daring fly chaser of the final two decades of the 20th century, “El Loco” was not only a showman on the field but also a legitimate five-tool all-star.
DH Frederich Cepeda
Born April 8, 1980 in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
A remarkable clutch hitter, Cepeda rescued Cuban squads with timely blasts in numerous important international matches over the past dozen seasons and was the only unanimous all-star team selection at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. For the past decade, a majority of big-league scouts at dozens of international tournaments have repeatedly said Cepeda is the one Cuban slugger they coveted and admired above all others.
RHP Orlando “El Duque” Hernández
Born October 11, 1965 in Villa Clara, Cuba
Cuba’s National Series career leader in winning percentage (126-47) across 10 seasons, El Duque proved a top-flight big hurler and MLB All-Star despite a delayed 1998 arrival in the big time at age 32. His nine seasons included postseason heroics in both New York (1998 and 1999) and Chicago (2005).
LHP Aroldis Chapman
Born February 28, 1988 in Holguín, Cuba
An underachieving prospect with the Cuban national team, the Cuban Missile would sufficiently discipline his powerful arm in MLB with the Reds, Yankees and Cubs to not only produce the most lethal fastball yet seen on a big-league diamond but also emerge as perhaps the game’s most untouchable closer of all-time.
RP Pedro Luis Lazo
Born April 15, 1973 in Pinar del Río, Cuba
Cuban League all-time winningest pitcher (257) as a starter, this hulking Lee Smith clone was also a dominant closer for more than a decade on highly competitive Cuban national teams during the modern era of wooden bats and top professional competition. Albert Pujols commented after the inaugural World Baseball Classic semifinals that he had never witnessed a devastating forkball that could match the one offered up by Lazo.
MOST CONTROVERSIAL EXCLUSION
Orestes Kindelán will perhaps never be replaced as the Cuban League career home run record-holder (487), but his legacy in an era of aluminum bats and international tournaments where the opposition was mostly collegiate and industrial league amateurs is not sufficient to outstrip either Abreu at first base or Cepeda as a stellar designated hitter.
Had Cold War history and the five-decade-long Cuba-USA standoff played out differently, island heroes like Cepeda, Despaigne, Lazo and both Víctor and Germán Mesa would likely have been entrenched as big-league stars ̶ and Cuba’s own international amateur baseball traditions would never have been as rich or so abundant with true homegrown legends.
Featured image: Bartizan – Castillo del Morro, Cuba by Peter Glogg via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Inset images: Havana Radio COCO archives via collections of the author