Signing Rodriguez hearkens back to long history between Reds, Cuba

Posted at 7:52 AM, Jul 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-06 07:52:14-04

The signing of 22-year-old Cuban shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez has to be heartening for long-time Reds fans who can remember the way the Reds dominated the island in the 1950s.

Back then, the Reds' Triple-A affiliate was the Sugar Kings of Havana, and the Reds scouts and brass could come and go around Cuba as much as they pleased, and had a sophisticated system of Cuban "bird-dog" scouts throughout the island.

"When the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947," Reds historian Greg Rhodes explained, "it opened the way for all Cubans, including those of African descent, to play in the major leagues. Credit Gabe Paul, the Reds president and general manager in the 1950s with grabbing the opportunity to put a Reds farm team in Havana where the Reds had the inside track on nearly all the Cuban prospects for several years."

There's no better evidence of how deeply the Reds and Washington Senators controlled the island than a spring day in 1956 when the Reds flew four young Cubans --- Leo Cardenas, Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez and Cookie Rojas -- to Douglas, Ga., where they worked out for Reds scouts. All four young men, ranging in age from 17-19, eventually made it big in the majors, playing a total of 59 major league seasons. That's the depth of the connection the Reds had in baseball-rich Cuba in the 1950s.

Of that group, only the shortstop Cardenas made it big with the Reds, a four-time National League All-Star and 1965 Gold Glove winner. The rest were traded away.

Cardenas was given a $500 signing bonus and sent to Tucson, Ariz. He spent 1957 and 1958 in Savannah, Ga., and 1959 with the Havana Sugar Kings, an independently owned team the Reds stocked with prospects.

"When I was a boy growing up, that was my dream - to play for the Sugar Kings," Cardenas told me in 2002.

Cardenas, Cuellar, Gonzalez and Rojas played together on the 1959 Sugar Kings.

In mid-1960, the Sugar Kings were moved to Jersey City, N.J., which is where Cardenas was when the Reds called him up. The great Reds shortstop, Roy McMillan, had broken a finger.

Fifty-five years later, Cardenas' friend, Luis Zayas, a second baseman with the 1958 Sugars Kings, sits in front of a plate of calamari salad at El Litoral Restaurant in Havana, and asks a visitor to say hello to Cardenas when the visitor gets back to Cincinnati.

"Tell Leo I can still turn the double play," says Zayas, 78.

It's obvious from watching video of Rodriguez that he is major-league ready as a fielder, just as Cardenas probably was that day back in March, 1956.

If Rodriguez can improve his hitting and play for the Cincinnati Reds someday, he will become one of the few players from the "Isla de La Juventud" team in Cuba's highest league to play in the American majors.

That's no small thing (there have been 192 Cubans to play in the American majors) and no small place (Isla de la Juventud, translated, "Isle of Youth," has a population of 100,000, a land mass 850 square miles, and is big enough to have its own baseball club in the 16-team "Serie Nacional," the Cuban majors).

One of the few other Isla de la Juventud players to make it in the American majors is pitcher Livan Hernandez, who won 178 regular season games in 17 major league seasons (1996-2012), including two as Most Valuable Player in the 1997 World Series for the Florida Marlins. He pitched for Isla de la Juventud as a 17-year-old during the 1992-93 season.

His half-brother, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, won 65 regular season games with the New York Yankees (1998-2002 and 2004). He pitched in five World Series, including 2005 with the Chicago White Sox. Before that, he was a star with Industriales of Havana in the Cuban majors.

All 15 provinces in Cuba, plus Isla de la Juventud (it is not a province), have teams in the Serie Nacional. The rules are that players in those places must either have been born there or live there to play.

Isla de la Juventud, second biggest island (the biggest is the island of Cuba itself), is 30 miles south of the mainland and 100 miles south of the capital city of Havana.

Rodriguez was born in Havana, something that normally would have excluded him from playing for Isla de la Juventud, but Cuba's Athletic Commissioner has the authority to grant waivers. The same was true for Livan Hernandez.

Since 1911, when the Reds debuted the fair-skinned Cubans, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, there have been only two Cuban players born in Isla de la Juventud to play in the majors -- both pitchers.

They are Reds pitcher Raisel Iglesias and Philadelphia Phillies reliever Dalier Hinojosa.

The signings of Iglesias and Aroldis Chapman, and now Rodriguez, hearkens back to a heady time in Reds history.

The Reds were huge on the island in the 1950s, having forged connections with Cuban baseball men Bobby Maduro, Reggie Otero, Preston Gomez and Tony Pacheco, who managed the Sugar Kings in 1958 and signed Tony Perez in 1960.

Maybe the Reds can be big there again, if and when things open up more. But even without all that much of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba baseball relations, the Reds have done well in the signings of Chapman and Iglesias.

The Reds can only hope that Rodriguez makes it as big here as Cardenas did back in the 1960s.

John Erardi visited Cuba in December 2015 to begin work on a book due out in spring 2017 about the Reds' close working relationship on the island from 1892 to 1960. The Reds brought many Cuban players to the U.S. in the 1950s. The Reds' Triple-A affiliate, the "Sugar Kings," was in Havana from 1954-59.