Cubans bring their passion for baseball to Victoria

Some sports have become so closely associated with particular nations that they have almost come to define them. It’s hard to imagine Canada without hockey, New Zealand without rugby, India without cricket or Kenya without track.

Then there is Cuba and baseball, a passion that will roll through Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park on Monday at 6:35 p.m., when the Victoria HarbourCats of the West Coast League meet Universidad de ciencias de la cultura Física y el deporte de Matanzas. That is translated as the University of Physical Sciences and Sports Culture of Matanzas.The institution is in the town of Unión de Reyes.

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“Think of the Canadian pride in Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. That’s half the pride Cubans feel just in participating in stick ball on the street. They come out of the womb playing baseball,” said HarbourCats managing-partner Jim Swanson, who has close ties to Cuban baseball through Baseball Canada and the national team.

“We have a passion for hockey. Cubans take that to another level for baseball,” added Swanson, who counts Fidel Castro’s son and Cuban Baseball Federation vice-president Tony Castro as a friend.

“Maybe only USA Basketball has been more dominant in a team sport in the Summer Olympics than Cuba in baseball.”

Cuba has never failed to make the championship game in the five Summer Olympics in which baseball has been played, winning gold at Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004, and silver at Sydney in 2000 and Beijing in 2008.

Cuba will again be favoured for the podium when baseball rejoins the Olympic agenda at Tokyo 2020.

“The entire nation shuts down when the Cuban national team plays, kind of like what we saw in soccer nations this month in the World Cup,” noted Swanson.

The university team from Unión de Reyes has close sporting and cultural ties to the Chemainus and District Baseball League.

The Unión de Reyes players, ages 16 to 19, have been playing exhibitions this summer against Island youth baseball teams. Unión de Reyes placed second and third the past two seasons in the U-20 level of the Matanzas provincial championships, so should be competitive against the HarbourCats, a team comprised of NCAA Div. 1 players in the collegiate WCL.

The night will be a unique one for the majority American NCAA collegians on the HarbourCats, who would normally not get this opportunity because of the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Alejandro Ortega Lopez, from the Unión de Reyes squad, was the starting pitcher for the HarbourCats, and gave up four runs, two earned, over six complete innings, in a 7-7 exhibition tie against a mid-Island senior all-star team on Friday night.

The game was abandoned due to darkness after nine innings because Serauxmen Stadium in Nanaimo does not have lights.

Pitcher Adriel Quesada Peña, from Unión de Reyes, started for the HarbourCats on Saturday in a 5-4 victory over the Victoria Mavericks senior league all-stars at Royal Athletic Park, an exhibition game that preceded a concert by old-school rockers Chilliwack.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers-signed Kyle Orr rocked Quesada Peña with a two-run double in a 3-0 Mavericks first inning. Mavericks starter Connor Russell pitched a perfect game into the fifth inning before the HarbourCats rallied, sparked by A.J. Lewis’ two-run homer.

Both Ortega Lopez and Quesada Peña will rejoin their Cuban teammates from Unión de Reyes to play against the HarbourCats on Monday.

It’s part of a successful exhibition weekend for the HarbourCats, who drew 1,107 fans to the game Friday in Nanaimo, 2,039 on Saturday at RAP, and are expecting more than 2,000 fans on Monday for the game against the Cubans.

There is another exhibition today at 3 p.m. against the Mavericks all-stars.

The HarbourCats are the WCL attendance champions for the past four seasons and again lead the league this season with a 2,156 average after 24 home dates, with the Portland Pickles and Bellingham Bells rounding out the top-three at 1,995 and 1,596 respectively.

“Our brand is good,” said Swanson. Seventy-two current WCL players or alumni, including two first-rounders, were selected this spring in the 2018 MLB draft.

“But we strive to be more than just about baseball.

“We want people to have a good time, even if they are not straight-out baseball fans, and we know not all people are. But we have a great market and engaged fans in an old, but tremendously intimate, facility.”

But it doesn’t just magically happen.

“We have to work hard at it every year,” Swanson said.

The HarbourCats (9-9 in the second half and 23-22 overall) resume league play with a critical three-game WCL set beginning Tuesday in Yakima, Washington, against the Pippins.

Victoria is four games behind the Pippins (12-4), with nine games remaining in the race for the North Division second-half championship, and the playoff berth that goes with it.

The HarbourCats close out with a six-game home stand against the Wenatchee AppleSox and Portland Pickles, beginning Friday at RAP.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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