Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Frederich Cepeda: Cuba's secret weapon and best all around player

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Frederich Cepeda, Cuba’s talented left fielder, is batting .600, has three homers and leads the Classic with 10 runs batted in.

The New York Times

World Baseball Classic

Cuba’s Secret Weapon Puts on a Hitting Show for Scouts

By ALAN SCHWARZ

Published: March 17, 2009

SAN DIEGO — Weight shifted from back foot to front, the torso twisted and the bat flashed through the strike zone with a purpose strong and terse. As he sent the ball rocketing toward right-center field for a three-run double, Frederich Cepeda teased the dozens of major league scouts in Petco Park not with what could have been, but what cannot be.

Cepeda, Cuba’s superlative left fielder, went 3 for 4 with four runs batted in Monday night, raising his batting average in this World Baseball Classic to a stunning .600 (12 for 20). He is tied for the home run lead with three, and leads with 10 R.B.I. His clutch double Monday night against Mexico was the primary reason Cuba survived to play Wednesday night for a berth in the semifinals.

As a 28-year-old slugging switch-hitter in his prime, Cepeda is Mark Teixeira without a visa. (He is only three days older than Teixeira, the Yankees’ $180 million slugger.) But as a Cuban, Cepeda cannot sign with a big-league team without first defecting. So he will most likely become the latest in a long line of Cuban superstars — third baseman Omar Linares, shortstop Germán Mesa, the left-hander Omar Ajete — who will never set foot on a major league diamond.

“This guy can flat-out hit — he can do it all,” said a scout for a National League team, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not supposed to share his impressions of players. “He’s lean but strong. I don’t care what his age is — he could be 35 and he’d be a prospect.”

Those watching this month’s Classic have gotten several eyefuls of what Cuba has hidden in the island’s fervent National Series league. Cepeda is hitting .300 with seven home runs for Sancti Spiritus in the current season, which is being delayed for the W.B.C. With a thick upper body and massive, strong hands, he has a Bondsian knack for telling balls from strikes — he has walked 47 times and struck out only 27.

When Cepeda has left the island to participate in international tournaments, he has served notice of his undeniable talent, particularly with games on the line. Two late solo home runs gave Cuba a 4-2 win over Panama in the 2003 World Cup, and he hit a home run to beat Chinese Taipei, 1-0, at last year’s Beijing Olympics. In the final of the 2006 W.B.C., his two-run homer in the eighth inning cut Japan’s lead over Cuba to 6-5, before Japan pulled away.

“Freddy is a very concise player, quite compact player that knows what to do, and the player that chooses the pitch that he wants to bat,” Ariel Pestano, Cuba’s veteran catcher, said through a translator on Monday. He added: “I think that he’s a very complete and comprehensive player, and to that, he has this wonderful opportunity aspect. I think that Freddy is one of the best players in the National Series in Cuba and perhaps beyond.”

Cepeda remains mysterious. He not only is quiet by nature, but Cuban officials declined to let him be interviewed individually — a common practice for a team intent on making sure players do not unnecessarily associate with foreigners during overseas events. Defections during international play cost Cuba shortstop Rey Ordóñez and pitchers Rolando Arrojo, Danys Báez and José Contreras, all of whom later earned millions in the major leagues.

A person who is friendly with Cepeda said that he was married with an infant son, and lived in a one-story stucco home built for him by the Cuban government just a few blocks from the Sancti Spiritus ballpark. He also drives a government-supplied car, a Russian-model Lada.

Like Mickey Mantle and Chipper Jones, Cepeda was taught by his baseball-loving father to be a switch-hitter in the hope that he could become a star. But barring defection, his best chance to be appreciated by a worldwide audience is the W.B.C. He is using it well.

In the first round in Mexico City, Cepeda hit two home runs in Cuba’s 8-1 rout of South Africa, and added an run-scoring single in a 5-4 win over Australia. He smashed a three-run home run in a 16-4 victory over Mexico as well.

And in each game in the second round in San Diego — a loss to Japan, then Monday’s win to eliminate Mexico — Cepeda had three hits. If Cuba beats the loser of Tuesday’s Japan-Korea game on Wednesday to reach the semifinal, Cepeda could be the front-runner to win the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award.

The only public words Cepeda has uttered in San Diego came Monday night. In a postgame news conference, buffered by his manager, Higinio Vélez, and two teammates, Cepeda was asked about being the W.B.C.’s top player.

“If we can move forward to the next stage for this semifinal and be the winner, that would be the best I could take out of this classic,” he said in soft Spanish. “My main goal going into the field is that I am a team player, and the most valuable player will be the team, always.”

Team and country. Whether after Wednesday night or several days from now, Cepeda will return to Cuba and his relative anonymity. Sancti Spiritus fans will cheer, as major league scouts sigh.

A version of this article appeared in print on March 18, 2009, on page B14 of the New York edition.

1 comment:

Cuba Journal said...

Alan Schwarz is a very good New York Times reporter, but his constant wishful thinking about "defections" subtract a great deal from his obvious skills.

I think Americans will never understand a baseball player who plays because he loves the sport and his nation.

Cuba's best athletes are not motivated by money.