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Cepeda's millionaire contact revolutionizes Cuba

Cepeda's millionaire contact revolutionizes Cuba

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on April 26, 2014

What will Frederich Cepeda do with 1.2 million dollars? This is a question that many Cubans ask themselves after knowing, not surprisingly, that one of the most complete batters of national baseball in the 21st Century received a millionaire contract to play for one year with the Yomiuri Giants, of the Professional Japanese League.

Cepeda's quality caught the attention of the so called ''Japanese New York Yankees''. The numbers of the Sancti Spiritus' outfielder in the National Series are impressive: he has, in 17 seasons, an offensive average of 329, he has connected 260 home-runs, with an OBP of 474 and a slugging of 564; but, beyond all these figures in the local tournament, probably the Giants' scouts appreciated best Cepeda's performance in international tournaments, particularly in the World Baseball Classic, where he has successfully faced the strong Japanese pitching.

In 2006, in the game for the title against Japan, Cepeda connected two very important slugging - a double and one home-run that allowed him to make three batted runs - although they weren't enough to impede the Japanese triumph. Three years later, in the second Classic, the Cuban player was chosen as part of the All Stars team, for his formidable batting average of 500, three home-runs and ten batted runs. In this duel, Cepeda shone fighting the hits of the twice Most Valuable Player of this tournament, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Finally, in the 2013 edition of the Classic, the player made an outstanding performance which allowed Cuba to win 6 runs to 3 over Japan. Besides, Cepeda has a considerable record in international events, since he was an Olympic champion in Athens 2004, he was the second best in Beijing 2008, he has been a World Champion twice (in 2003 and 2005) and he got the silver medal on two occasions - in 2007 and 2009.

Cepeda, who is 34 years-old, still has the abilities that made of him one of the most complete Cuban batters of the last decade. He knows how to distinguish every pitch, so he receives many bases on balls and takes few strike outs. This is in addition to the fact that Cepeda is ambidextrous: he has made 64 home - runs with his right hand and 196 with his left one. His weakness is the defensive game, he has never been a good fielder and the strength of his arm is not impressive.

In the 53rd edition of the National Series, which has just come to an end, Cepeda wasn't at his best during the first phase with his team, the Sancti Spiritus. Despite his bad figures - an average of 252, only 3 home-runs and 18 runs batted in - Artemisa's director, Danny Valdespino, chose Cepeda as one of his backups. His results immediately improved: in the 40 games he played, he made an average of 341 and 10 home-runs.

This offensive boost was fundamental, since the Giants' scouts came to check him on many occasions.

Three days after Pinar del Río won the national championship, fans and baseball specialists were in astonishment when Cepeda's incorporation to the Giants went public. Rumours about possible contracts with Japanese teams had spread long before across the country; nevertheless, the shocking element was the amount: 1.5 million dollars per one year.

A new policy for Cuban sport.

Only six months before, the fact that a Cuban sportsman could sign a contract with a professional foreign team without even leaving the country, was unthinkable. Nevertheless, within the framework of the economic reforms implemented by Raul Castro's Administration, there was a modification in athletes' earnings.

With this new policy, athletes received improvements in salaries but above all, they are now allowed to be hired foreign by foreign clubs; although this process is not yet in progress. In this scenario, the cases of Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne, who is already playing again with the Piratas de Campeche, in the Mexican League, are clear exceptions. According to Jorge Luis García, boss of the Legal Department of the National Sports Institute, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER, in Spanish) it is planned that contacts between local federations and foreign clubs start in the second half of the year.

Those athletes who are hired by foreign sport entities will get 80% of the contract's total amount paying 4% in taxes, while the other 20% will be for the Federation that represents sportsmen. According to the Japanese media, Cepeda's contract with the Giants is valued at JPY 150 million (1.47 million dollars); so this means that Cepeda would get approximately 1.2 million dollar and National Baseball Federation would receive the rest.

Cubans in Japanese Baseball.

In 1955, Roberto ''El Chico'' Borbón, from Matanzas, signed a contract with the Hankyu Braves and he became the first Latin American baseball player hired by a Japanese team. Borbón played in the Japanese League during 1955 and 1966, and he made History by being the first player in this competition to outnumber 1000 hits and he is the greatest Western player when it comes to stolen bases. He was also included in two All Stars teams in the Pacific League (1958, 1959)

Between 1955 and 2012 other six other Cuban players participated in the Japanese Professional League. The names of this short list are: Humberto Fernández, Román Mejías, Antonio González (known as ''The Haitian''), Orestes Destrade and Omar Linares, who, after his retirement from Cuban baseball, joined the Dragons of Chunichi for three seasons, although his results weren't the best.

The incorporation, in 2013, of slugger Michel Abreu in the Japanese League might have changed the perception of teams' managers towards Cuban players. Abreu had a fantastic season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, where he became a home-run leader (31) in the Pacific League. In this year's season, apart from Abreu, there are other four Cuban players In Japanese teams: Juan Miguel Miranda (also in the Nippon Ham), Yuniesky ''Riquimbili'' Betancourt in the Orix Buffaloes, Bárbaro Ceñizares in the Soft Bank, and Leslie Anderson - who played in the Cuban Selection in the II Classic - in the Giants as well, with a contract valued at 500 thousand dollars. About the presence of this old Cuban mate, Cepeda said he was ''an excellent player who puts Cuba in the highest place''.

Unanimous decision.

Getting to a consensus on any decision about Cuban Baseball can be very difficult; but this time everyone seems to be satisfied about Cepeda's contract. And he was the first to show his joy.

''It's a dream come true and I'm full of expectations. The Giants are a great team and I'll do my best to ensure the team's victory''stated the player, who will be travelling to Japan in mid - May and who, before starting to play officially, would go through an acclimatisation process that includes training in a minor league until he is ready to join the Giants, that plays in the Tokyo Dome. At first, he will not have the presence of his wife and his five year - old son, who will soon start kindergarten, but the family hasn't yet decided whether he should attend a Japanese or Cuban school.

For the Cuban journalist Rafael Rofes, who directs the website Crono Deportes Online, Cepeda's contract is excellent news and he expects even more in a near future. Rofes thinks that Cepeda will shine in Japanese baseball, although he is worried about his defensive deficiencies and the lack of strength of his arm.

Meanwhile, Marlys Rodríguez, translator and editor of the Escambray's newspaper webpage in English in Sanct Spiritus - Cepeda's hometown- and author of the blog Cuban Baseball Illustrated, considers that ''he deserved this. There were rumours about him and Yuliesky Gourriel playing in Asia. I hope, as he had said it himself, that his health allows him to play well and be successful''.

Harold Iglesias, sport journalist in the website Cubasí, seems to have a similar idea. ''This contract is crucial, it's a first step, a take -off; then others will come; I even think they are being managed as we speak. To a point, this is also an element of pressure for sport authorities, they must be legally prepared and they have to take our sport seriously, from the bone (categories 7 - 8) to the great professional leagues, the Japanese one in this case'', concluded Iglesias.

The commentator Mario Ángel Herrera also had positive words about this huge step, although he would prefer that everyone had the chance to sign contracts with foreign clubs, not only the players. About Cepeda's adaptation capacity to Japanese baseball, he stated ''he's a great batter, he's ambidextrous, he has power and tact, but he's not used to controlled and fast pitchers''.

Not all specialists seem to be convinced about Cepeda's possibilities in Japan. For Julio Batista (Trabajadores Newspaper) Cepeda's contract was a logic movement because he is the most experimented batter, the one who makes the best decisions in the batter's box. ''Now, the big question is if Cepeda, with his injuries, and after years of physical mistreatment in the National Series, will be able to bear the Giants' demands. He will have a salary of 1.2 million dollars, according to his own calculations, what will he do with that money in Cuba? That's another question. And... will the Giants allow a 1.5 million dollars player to play in the National Series, at the expense of his health?'' he declared.

The season in Japan started on March 28th, and it will finish in late October. Cepeda's contract with the Giants expires in November. What will happen then? The player declared that he expects to arrive in time to play with his team, the Sancti Spiritus and playing in the 54th edition of the National Series. Will his physical state cope with all this? In Japan, 144 games will be played, plus the play-offs. In Cuba, 87 plus the post-season. It seems impossible to combine these schedules, although this probably isn't on Cepeda's mind, who is trying to be at his best, at the age of 34, in the second most competitive league in the world.

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