A Night With the Cyclones and a Cuban Baseball Conference
With summer winding down to its last month, the lure to see live baseball gets urgent in yours truly. I couldn’t have found a better night for baseball than Wed Aug 17 at the former Keyspan Park now known as MCU Field, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones in the New York-Penn League.
It was a Salute to Brooklyn Night at the Coney Island ballpark overlooking the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. The breezes were particularly succulent this night and humidity was happily low as a variety of local celebrities came out to toss first balls including JOHN SCHMITT the former center for the New York Jets in the heyday of Joe Namath who played his college ball at Hofstra on Long Island.
JOHN FRANCO the onetime star Mets closer and graduate of Lafayette HS (along with embattled Mets owner Fred Wilpon and the illustrious southpaw Sandy Koufax) also was on hand. As always he was a genial presence and looked in good shape. Honesty compels me to report that Franco’s first ball attempt was in the dirt, not nearly a strike.
On the field the Cyclones, the Mets affiliate in the short-season NY Penn League, are closing fast on the Staten Island Yankees who once looked like they would run away with the division title. As of Monday morning Aug 22 the Cyclones were only three games out of first place and just two behind in the A-I LC All-Important Loss Column (all-important because a good team will usually win games late in the season and thus other team’s losses become significant). The Cyclones are also tied in the loss-column for the wild-card entry in the four-team playoffs that begin like most minor leagues after Labor Day.
Three infielders caught my eye for the Cyclones who were in command most of the night beating the Jamestown Jammers, 5-2. Shortstop DANNY MUNO who won a national title as a freshman for Fresno State is hitting .331 with 32 walks though also 35 strikeouts.
(PET PEEVE at most pro ballparks these days: Only good stats are listed, not bad ones – come on, folks – as Branch Rickey once said, “Baseball is a game of penalties and inches” and let’s give us the whole picture.)
Back to the Cyclones – Second baseman T. J. RIVERA who since his debut in mid-season is hitting .381 in his first 21 AB. And third baseman RICHARD LUCAS is at .303 with 5 HR 30 RBI 26 BB though he has 52 K. Lucas also leads the team in Total Bases with 95 and I liked his grace around the third base bag.
Of course it is much too early to forecast a major league future for these fledging pros but not long ago IKE DAVIS the currently injured first baseman (and nephew of the late Mets scout RED MURFF who signed Nolan Ryan) and LUCAS DUDA the surprising Mets rookie played in Brooklyn. So it is always nice to dream of a better future in Flushing than the one the current Mets seem to have (though they are a scrappy bunch who always fight back from adversity only to too often lose in the end).
This past Saturday Aug 20 the Cuban Cultural Center of New York sponsored an all-day conference on The History of Cuban Baseball at Fordham University’s Law School near Lincoln Center.
When I say all-day I’m not kidding. I arrived for coffee and bagels around 8:15AM and the conference did not break up until nearly 9PM. There were pleasant interludes as arroz con pollo was served at lunch and empanadas and other snacks at dinner time along with some fine wines.
It was both an academic affair and a celebration of many Cuban-born stars of the American major leagues. The afternoon sessions were mainly devoted to interviews with JULIO BECQUER, JOSE CARDENAL, MINNIE MINOSO, TONY PEREZ, COOKIE ROJAS and LUIS TIANT. Most of them were in Spanish and the simultaneous translations provided by an interpreter from the U.N. were not very clear.
It was still a thrill to see TIANT resplendent in his wrap-around mustache. I was pleased to receive a smile from him when I said that his commercial for Yankee Franks was a favorite of mine during his brief career as a Bronx Bomber:
“Why did you join the Yankees, Luis?”
“Because I always wanted to be with a wiener.”
A clip from the JONATHAN HOCK movie “The Lost Son of Havana” (produced by the Farrelly brothers about Tiant’s visit to native Cuba a few years ago that has been aired on ESPN) was shown before the great pitcher was interviewed by the renowned jazz clarinetist/saxophonist/composer PACQUITO D’RIVERA.
Tiant shed tears when thinking about his mother and aunt he had visited just before they died. He talked a little about his difficult times starting out in the minor leagues in towns where they had no love for any people of color let alone those who did not speak the language. “I’d have been better off in the jungle in Africa,” he said.
But he persevered and never lost his sense of humor. “You can learn all the English you want but if you don’t get anyone out, you go home,” said Tiant who still makes his home in the Boston area where he achieved his greatest fame with the American League champion Red Sox of 1975. His lifetime record of 229-169 with a 3.29 ERA in 18 seasons and an undefeated 3-0 log in the 1975 post-season could well make him Hall of Fame worthy. It’s a good argument anyway.
Among the academic highlights at the Saturday conference was an informative keynote address given by Yale Spanish-Portuguese Studies professor ROBERTO GONZALEZ ECHEVARRIA. He stressed that the baseball roots in Cuba went back into the 19th century, noting that the group bonding and the “mock war” features of baseball fit in very nicely to the fiesta aspect of Cuban culture.
Some fascinating new information was provided in a talk by Kent State University professor LESLIE HEAPHY about Cuban women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike the portrait in the Hollywood film “A League of Their Own” Heaphy noted that the charm school component of the AAGPBL existed for only one year near the beginning of the enterprise. LUISA GALLEGOS, one of the veterans of that league, took her bows in the audience.
That’s all for now. Next report upon my return from BRANCH RICKEY DAY in Portsmouth Ohio this Sunday August 28, the 66th anniversary of the first meeting of Jackie Robinson and Rickey in Brooklyn. ROBERT DAFFORD’s Rickey-Robinson flood wall mural will be re-dedicated in Portsmouth, the county seat of Rickey’s beloved home area of Scioto County, Ohio.
Remember: Take it easy but take it!