Cuban rules baseball … it’s not what you think


(AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
Industriales’s fans cheer during a game last week against Pinar del Rio during opening day baseball at the Latinamerican stadium in Havana, Cuba.

Peter Orsi
The Associated Press

HAVANA — When Armando Rivero took the mound for Industriales with the score tied in the top of the 10th, he was already in a deep hole: Villa Clara had runners on first and second with no outs — all before the first pitch of the inning.

Opening day in Cuba offered a new rule that tries to prevent extra-inning games from going on forever. But the Olympic-style format has irked many purists on this baseball-crazy island who say it cheapens the sport.

Under the rule, teams begin the 10th and any subsequent innings with two men on base. Managers get a one-time restart, meaning any hitter can lead off. After that, the lineup stays in place.

Think soccer penalty kicks, NHL shootouts or — perhaps the closest analogy — overtime in college football, where teams start within field goal range at the 25-yard line and trade possessions

The object in the top Cuban league this season is to make it easier to score, thereby shortening games that often top four hours.

“I don’t like it,” said 66-year-old Sixto Ramirez, wearing a blue Industriales cap as he watched a recent game from field-level seats behind third base. After six decades of coming to Havana’s El Latino Stadium, the tiebreaker strikes him as “cold” and clinical.

“We are committed to … a traditional game,” Ramirez said. “When there’s a tie in the ninth, it should keep going. There’s nothing wrong with 15 innings.”

Many share that view in Cuba, where baseball is as much the national pastime as it is in the United States. The sport is wildly popular among everyone from working-class fans who pay 1 peso — about 4 cents — to dance, drum and blow trumpets in Industriales’ raucous bleachers, to the country’s No. 1 fan: Fidel Castro, who as a youth dreamed of playing in the majors and still occasionally comments on “beisbol” in columns penned from semiretirement.

The tiebreaker debate is playing out in the stands, on street corners and even in Cuba’s state-controlled media, where sports is fair game for columnists who otherwise toe the official line on all things, well, official.

“The first experience of the rule … was not the happiest,” wrote Miguel Ernesto Gomez on the government-run news website “How are we supposed to understand that a reliever begins an inning with two runners on base? That completely changes the way the game is conceived.”

Gomez pondered what might have been if the tiebreaker had been in place during last season’s tight championship series, also between Industriales and Villa Clara, which was decided in a seventh game when Industriales won 7-5 in extra innings.

“It remains to be seen how much will be lost and how much gained in this spectacle,” he wrote. “It is difficult to convince a knowledgeable crowd that the man who made the last out in one inning can comfortably begin the next on second base. That confusion doesn’t show up in the box score.”

But a columnist for the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde said something had to be done to speed up games in Cuba, where batters are notorious for stepping out of the box for no apparent reason and pitchers tend to dawdle on the mound.

“Come on, it’s not the end of the world,” Luis Lopez Viera chided the purists.

This is the first major professional league to try the tiebreaker, which was adopted by the International Baseball Federation before the 2008 Beijing Games in response to Olympic officials’ requests to get a winner more quickly.

Masaru Yokoo, a federation marketing official, told The Associated Press that the idea of the new rule was to make the game more television friendly.

It didn’t work: The Olympics dropped baseball anyway, earning the ire of both America and Cuba, one of the few times in the past 51 years that the Cold War enemies have agreed on anything.

An ad-friendly TV package is a non-issue in communist-run Cuba — between innings, broadcasts air analysis, interviews, highlights and long shots of fielders waiting for play to resume — but officials apparently see other benefits, such as avoiding heat exhaustion.

“By the 10th inning, players are running on inertia,” Industriales manager German Mesa told the AP outside the team’s sunken dugout before a day game earlier this month. “They’re tired. They’re desperate to finish.”

Moreover, it helps save on stadium lighting during tough economic times.

Nearly all games in Cuba’s 16-team league have been ordered to start at 1 p.m. this year to take advantage of daylight, and the tiebreaker all but ensures an end before sundown. That’s particularly important for Industriales, whose field has been without working lights since last season.

Cuban officials have warned that money is tight — in baseball, as in everything on the island — and there is no word on when they’ll be fixed.

There’s also the tiebreaker’s official stated purpose: to bring Cuban baseball in line with international play.

Supporters, including many players, managers and former players, say it heightens the excitement of extra innings.

“It’s more intense,” said Rivero, who on Nov. 28 became the first pitcher to face the tiebreaker in league play.

Some also say it forces coaches to be headier about game management, thinking ahead about how to place two fast runners near each other in the lineup, ahead of top hitters.

Amid the debate, one thing is certain: The tiebreaker seems to work. In the first week of the season, three games went into extra innings and none lasted beyond the 11th.

Luis Zayas, a 73-year-old Cuban who played in the Cincinnati Reds’ and Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league systems in the 1950s, said it was time for the sport to evolve.

“The only thing that has to be preserved is baseball itself — three strikes, four balls,” he said, chomping on a cigar in the stands at El Latino.

“Soccer is the most popular sport in the world” and it has penalty kicks to decide games, he said. “Why not baseball?”

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