Oscar Gil, coach of the Cachorros of Holguín team, remembers in detail the night his team became Cuban champions. Photo: Alejandro Rodríguez

Oscar Gil closes his eyes and visualizes himself on the mound again. He looks around in all directions and the Calixto García Park, home to Holguín’s Cachorros, is a hive of passions and tension, as his team is on the cusp of either winning or losing its first national title in the history of Cuban baseball.

On the one hand, they are just one out away from reaching the top, but their rivals, the Gallos of Sancti Spiritus, have the bases loaded with one of the best hitters, Frederich Cepeda, ready to take his third strike. It’s an evening in 2002, and Oscar Gil, with a now rare coolness, draws a perfect arc with his curveball which leaves Cepeda fanning the air. Holguín is champion.

Fourteen years have passed since that night and Oscar Gil, one of many heroes of that modest team, speaks timidly and without any intention of stealing the spotlight. Born in Baracoa, Guantánamo, the left-hander embodies the classic humble Cuban guajiro, with a life devoted to collective wellbeing.

“We were one of the lowest positioned teams, a team that did not have major offensive force or a good defense, but with the work of the coaches we formed a close-knit team, who were inspired and managed to advance and advance to the top position,” Gil recalls, who himself was very close to being left out of the team.

Is it true you were not scheduled to pitch in the 41st National Series?

It seems incredible, but that was the case. I was very discouraged that year, I had seen a good performance for a number of seasons and they didn’t even call me up for the national pre-selection. I didn’t want to play anymore, I spent ten months out, but the pitcher Juan Enrique Pérez, one of the mainstays of the team, had surgery for appendicitis and so they asked me for one last effort.

I hesitated a little, but asked for a week to prepare myself. I joined the team, I won six games in qualifying and in the postseason I saved two games, including the final, and we took the championship.

Why were you unmotivated?

My career mainly developed in the 1980s and 90s, when the quality of Cuban baseball was very high. I played in a last-place team like Holguín, but always produced good numbers, I am one of the pitchers with the most victories and also the most strikeouts in the National Series.

However, they never even called me up for the pre-selection. I am aware that the competition was very strong, because among the lefties of that time, just to mention a few, were Jorge Luis Valdés, Omar Ajete and Faustino Corrales, but I had performed well enough to at least go to the pre-selection. Now I see it as historical fate, I do not blame anyone, on the contrary, I am proud to have competed with such great players, but at the time I felt unmotivated.

Life has many twists and turns, that year you were given a unique opportunity…

Undoubtedly, we enjoyed a great season and a great triumph, people in Holguín still talk that night; I think it is one of the most memorable moments in Cuban baseball.

And how do you remember those closing innings?

In the stadium, you heard nothing, not even a fly. I relieved Orelvis Ávila in the ninth inning and I remember I gave Yonelki Villaspando a break, a focused rookie who managed to load the bases. Then it was Frederich Cepeda’s turn, one of the best hitters in Cuba at the time.

I worked with great intelligence, I had studied his previous games and against Pinar del Río, Faustino Corrales had overcome him with a curveball. I used the same tactic, it was him or me. With two strikes and two balls, I struck him out.”

We already know how the story ends. Cepeda could not handle the ball and Holguín’s Calixto García Park exploded.

But this was far from being the end of Oscar Gil’s career. The left-hander hung up his spikes but didn’t go on vacation, he can still be seen in the Cachorros’ dugout instructing pitchers and giving advice.

“I have much to thank this province for, they gave me the opportunity to grow as a pitcher. I pitched for two years with Guantánamo, but then I settled in Holguín, and I think I owe them, that’s why I work with the youth, in their training and scouting for new talent. I'll never quit baseball.”