A lot of fans in the Cuban central province of Sancti Spiritus are concerned about the team’s last place in the past Baseball National Season (SNB, for its Spanish acronym); and their restlessness won’t disappear for the coming edition (54th SNB) to be initiated in September.
As a metaphor, Escambray interpreted Yulieski Gourriel’s goodbye to the Jose Antonio Huelga Park enthusiasts that awful night in the 52nd season when Matanzas scored 10 times in one inning and won the semis, as a symbol of the end of the so-called lost generation.
And so began the dismemberment of Sancti Spiritus’ best trio in the last decade: Yulieski Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda and Eriel Sánchez. However, let’s walk step by step. After 1979’s title, the province waited for 22 years to be on the podium again with the silver medal in the 51st Championship. That was the first flash of the new group and the revival of the dream, but…
1979: THE LONGING
That of 1979 was the moment of Antonio Muñoz, Lourdes Gourriel, Miguel Rojas, Owen Blandino, Osvaldo Oliva, Rigoberto Rodríguez, Roberto Ramos, Tony Simó…men who inherited the emblematic spirit of the former Azucareros (Sugarmen). Those were different times indeed, but the feat remains: the only crown that shines in Sancti Spiritus. Then, the team known as Los Gallos (Roosters) were placed 5th and 7th in the following seasons.
Led by several managers like Waldo Velo, Abelardo Triana, Tomás Ulloa… and a lot of players, the debacle started. From the 21st Series with the 14th place (18 teams involved) to the 40th with the 12th (since season 32nd with a structure of 16 squads), Roosters always got last positions.
The exceptions occurred in the versions 33rd (6th), 23rd (9th) and 25th (10th). In the rest, they were positioned from the 12th (in four occasions) down, while in the 36th they reached the bottom.
Due to biological reasons, poor performance or bad strategies, Sancti Spiritus began to lose batters, and pitchers were not abundant. The forced retirement of Jose Raúl Delgado, Miguel Rojas and Ruperto Zamora set a generational twist.
2001: YULIESKI, ERIEL, CEPEDA
It was Juan de Dios Peña (manager until 1999) who started building the current generation, with the combination of men such as Eriel Sánchez, Yovani Aragón, Liván Monteagudo, Omar Arrozarena and youngsters Frederich Cepeda, Ángel Peña, Yunier Mendoza.
With Lourdes Gourriel as guide, Roosters gave the surprise, climbing from the 12th to the 2nd place in a season that witnessed the debut of two key figures: Yulieski Gourriel and Ifreidi Coss.
“We’ll kick up a fuss”, Lourdes would say, and they certainly did. It was that playoff vs. Holguín when the dream slipped away for a decade. After beating a tough Pinar del Rio, it seemed the Yayabo village would overflow again, especially because Sancti Spiritus counted on a trio of talented starters like Aragón, Maels and Coss to face the most “approachable” team possible, and because at that time, Roosters did not have the pressure they have dragged on since then.
History has proven that the dramatic defeat in the last game, that last out, became the ghost which chased the team for eleven years and set the fate of the GCS (Gourriel, Cepeda, Sánchez) generation, though we cannot deny that these men have also brought enormous joy the province (one silver, two bronzes, two 4th places). Those results showed stability if we take into account the four big teams of Cuba, as, with the exception of Ciego de Ávila and La Habana, the rest of the titles of the last decade have been in the hands of Industriales, Pinar del Rio, Santiago de Cuba and Villa Clara.
During that period new players emerged such as Ismel Jimenez and Yenier Bello, but talents were scarce. The majority of that squad which faced Holguín fell apart in time; some embraced retirement: Luis Enrique Gourriel, Omar Arrozarena, Yovani Aragón, Ixis Valle, Reinier Yero; others got lost: Osdelvis Bernal, Ramón Licor, Yohany Delgado; and some others left Cuba.
Those with possibilities to take the baton, and I meant those who got to national teams in lower categories, did not catch on: Bello and the hurler Omar Luis left the country; Yasiel Santoya moved to Matanzas and became a Crocodile; fateful injuries caused early withdrawals on Ifreidi Coss and Liuber Morales, just to mention two examples; and the most recent wound came with the departure of the Gourriel brothers to Industriales. Another generational turn was in motion.
Sancti Spiritus began to give in raw power, defensive security, efficient box… The numbers proved it. The 53rd Season evidenced it: average of 253, ERA of 4.20 and fielding AVE of 964. Wrong policies of recruitment and training of talents, rigid lines up where the new have not always had choice, constant changes in the leadership of the team…
The truth is Roosters are transforming. From the members of the current preselection, six (including Cepeda) played in that silvered squad: Eriel, Peña, Mendoza, Monteagudo and Noelvis. Though they still have results, they all exceed the 30 years and are pursued by injuries.
For the coming championship, Frederich won’t be with Sancti Spiritus because his contract in Japan ends in November. Should Victor Mesa go with it, Eriel Sánchez is to participate in the Central American and Caribbean Games, which won’t allow him to be all the time with his provincial team-mates.
Will we wait two more decades, as it happened after 1979’s triumph, to get a medal again? Probably we will.
WHERE IS THE RELIEF?
The answers are in the new generation that is born right now in Sancti Spiritus; the nearest injection comes from the players participating in the First 23U Cuban Baseball Series, currently placed at the bottom of Group C with a 2-9 score. They are Ángel Luis García, Yunior Ibarra, Aldo Conrado, Carlos M. Sierra, Yosbel González, Zefer Ríos…
The relief comes also from the 18U and the 15U teams that did not go to the final stage of their events after reaching that phase in other opportunities.
Who will name the generation we need? Wait to see.