El Lanzador

Vicente Lopez was almost the Cuban Koufax

In order to make it to the majors, a ballplayer, regardless of how much skill he may possess, also needs a little luck. Vicente Lopez's ran out that day in 1951. And he probably knew it even then. "Before I hurt my arm," he says more than 50 years later, reaching up instinctively toward his right shoulder with his left hand, "I was a competitive pitcher. I could be beaten, but I could also beat the best on any day."

No more. He stayed in baseball -- what else did he know to do? -- but not as a big-time prospect. Instead, he became a career minor-leaguer, bouncing from team to team, content simply to stay in the game and make a living. He returned to the Miami Sun Sox in 1952 and pitched solidly before being sent to Newport News, Virginia, later in the year. In 1953 he turned up in Mobile, Alabama, pitching briefly in the Southern Association, then later with his hometown Havana Cubans. Somewhere along the way, the Dodgers cut him loose.

Still he persisted, making it in 1954 to the newly inaugurated Havana Sugar Kings, Cuba's entry in the Class AAA International League. Technically, it was the closest Lopez would ever get to the majors, but he was no longer the one the scouts had their eyes on. So the Sugar Kings sold his contract to a team from Mexico City. "The Mexican League wanted to enter Major League Baseball," explains Lopez, recalling a popular rumor that circulated in the mid-Fifties, "so other teams sold a lot of ballplayers over there."

Photo courtesy charles monfort
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)
headshot courtesy vicente lopez
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)

There would still be memorable days: the afternoon in 1956 when he defeated Moreno and Yucatan for the championship; the following year, a victory in the prestigious Caribbean Series as a member of the Cuban team. But mostly Lopez would endure as a journeyman, pitching in Cuba in the winter and Mexico in the summer, getting by on guile and that once-majestic curve ball, its effectiveness compromised by the lack of an adequate fastball to go with it.

His desire, though, remained. "Once, when Vicente was playing in Mexico," recalls Andres Fleitas, "his manager said to me, You know, this guy's pretty good, but he wants to tell me when he's going to pitch.' Vicente would say to him, Hey, it's my day today.'"

Lopez pitched in Cuba until 1958, eventually playing with all four teams in the professional league. To hear him tell it, he got out just in time: "When Fidel came to power [in 1959], I said, That's it. I'm not pitching anymore.'" He cites the antics the revolution and its maximum leader visited upon the national game as a motivating factor.

The incidents, both occurring during the 1959 International League season, are infamous. The first took place shortly after midnight on the morning of July 26, during an extra-inning contest involving the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings. Sometime during the eleventh inning, celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by Fidel Castro -- the symbolic origin of the revolution -- broke out just beyond the stadium walls in Havana. During the festivities, stray bullets managed to find two human targets inside the stadium: Rochester's third-base coach and Sugar King shortstop Leo Cardenas. Neither man was seriously hurt, but the incident resulted in the Red Wings' immediate departure from the island. Other International League teams expressed concern over playing in Cuba. Nevertheless, the season continued.

Two months later, the Minneapolis Millers traveled to Havana to play the Sugar Kings for the league title. The Cubans led the best-of-seven series handily, three games to one, when the Millers staged a fierce comeback, winning the next two games and forcing a deciding game. On hand for that contest was Castro, who, as the story goes, made his way out to the Minneapolis bullpen before the game, eyed the opposition, patted the large revolver he wore on his hip, and said, simply, "Tonight, we win." Havana did indeed win that night, in spectacular late-inning fashion and, it is believed, without any help from the Millers, although they were only too glad to get the hell out of Cuba.

The well-publicized episodes marked the beginning of the end for professional baseball on the island. The following year, halfway through the 1960 season, the International League, claiming it could no longer guarantee the safety of its players inside Cuba, relocated the Havana franchise to Jersey City, New Jersey, where it quickly withered and died. The Cuban League, in existence since 1878, outlived the Sugar Kings by only a few months, folding after the 1960-61 season. Cuban-born Ivan Davis, who played for Almendares during that final campaign, and who would eventually distinguish himself as an umpire in postrevolutionary amateur Cuban baseball, says the end of the professional league came as no surprise. "Almost everyone realized it would be the last season for those teams," remembers Davis. "The following year, all professional sports were outlawed."

By that time, however, Lopez was pitching exclusively in Mexico during the summers, with an occasional few months of winter work in places like Nicaragua, where he played briefly in 1963. The last few seasons took their toll on his arm and his lifetime record. He lost more often than at any time in his career. Indeed, he lost much more often than he won. He was traded in 1964 from Puebla, a good Mexican League team that would finish only three games out of first place, to Monterrey, a sixth-place team. He didn't pitch well for either. And then, because he would soon be 38 and because he knew the little bit of magic he had once had in that right arm was gone, he quit.

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I grew up across the street from this park and Vicente was the only good thing that park had going for it. They need to build a monument for that man he was a saint.

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