The player who many, myself included, consider the best catcher ever in Cuban baseball, will bid farewell to the diamond this Saturday, September 17, in his native Caibarién.
With the departure of number 13, also retiring is a great figure in the Athens 2004 Olympics, the best Cuban athlete in a team sport that year, who as a catcher has one of the best averages of prevented steals in Cuba, at 56%. He knew how to move the pieces on the field like no one else.
With this farewell, also gone is a player with nerves of steel, who could make a hit when it was most needed. This was Ariel Pestano, controversial, intelligent, an enemy of things done poorly, who never wavered in rejecting multi-million dollar contracts in the Big Leagues to abandon the good ship Cuba, the man who legendary Dominican David “Papi” Ortiz described as baseball's short stop.
Granma International went to visit Pestano at his home, to have him tell his thousands of admirers, and why not, his detractors, the details of his personal and sporting life. There was no protocol, it was enough to ask, and he set aside mowing the lawn, saying with a smile: "Go for it, you pitch, I catch."
What can you tell us about your beginnings?
I started playing baseball in the streets of my native Caibarién. One good day, a friend suggested I register at the special area, and I did. Trainer Noel Guerra discovered me there. I owe him a lot. Little by little, I took my first steps; I made the provincial team, and joined the team that went to the World Little League. When I came back, I entered the EIDE (sports school). From there I made the grade for the Cuban juvenile team, then I went to Villa Clara. Everybody knows the rest.
Did you always play catcher?
Yes, it was my favorite position. It must have been because I was hyperactive and didn't have the patience to wait for my spot in the line-up, while the others batted.
You had the distinction of making Cuban national teams at every level. Are players born with talent or is it developed?
Both. I had abilities. I batted hard, had a good arm, moved well behind the plate; but I perfected these elements over the course of my career.
Do you consider yourself a complete catcher?
No one is complete. Perfection does not exist. There will always be small ways to do things better.
How do you see the position at this time?
The principal problem we have with catching, and in baseball in general, is that the teachers are thrown out early, with the retirement of many experienced players. They were the examples, the reference points that were needed to learn. I assimilated a lot from Pacheco, Kindelán, Linares, and they in turn from Muñoz, Cheíto, Casanova. That was the way it was, from generation to generation, one learning from the other. Now this practically doesn't exist.
What advice would you give younger generations of catchers?
More than tell them how it's done, what I would advise them is to pay attention to how it's done. Academics are necessary, but better yet, experience, and the day to day.
Is it true that you were somewhat contentious during games?
Well, contentious, no, but yes, very demanding. I never liked things done poorly. It's hard to be on your knees behind home plate for three hours, and have someone else throw the game away with a lack of discipline, or not having the desire to do things right. When you go out on the field, it's to please the public, if not, go home that day. There are also players who need a push, a hand on the shoulder, a harsh word or some other gesture, to make them react, and this was up to me.
You were a very opportune batter. Do you like going to the plate in difficult situations during a game?
I enjoyed that a lot, and I prepared for those moments because, with life's twists and turns, we would run through the line up again and again, and many times it was up to me to decide the game.
Whenever you made a good hit, you had a ritual, looking at the sky. Who did you dedicate those hits to?
To my mother. She was always with me, in life's good and bad times.
What pitcher did you find the most difficult?
I wasn't a great batter, all of them were difficult for me. That obliged me to think more, prepare myself, observe them. Maybe being a catcher helped me with that.
Who was the most complicated pitcher to catch for?
I played during a period when the majority were difficult, like Norge Luis Vera, José Ariel Contreras, Maels Rodríguez, Adiel Palma, Lazo and José Ibar, among others. The majority threw more than 90mph, and it wasn't easy, but I understood them all perfectly.
What do you think of the practice of sending in signals to the catcher from the bench?
I never liked that. When you allow it, you become a robot who doesn't think. Instead of analyzing the game, you spend your time looking for signals from the bench.
With what coach did you feel most at ease?
I got along pretty well with all of them, from Pedrito Pérez, and Anglada to Urquiola, among others. Some wanted to label me disagreeable. Nevertheless, my accomplishments in 22 series, and the 16 years I made the national team, refute that.
Which series was the best of your life?
The Athens 2004 Olympics.
Which one would you like to forget?
The one I didn't attend, the Third World Classic.
Do you consider that an injustice?
Of course. And not just me, all of the fans who know baseball, inside and outside of Cuba.
Do you think the homerun against Matanzas in the 52nd National Series title game healed that wound?
There are wounds that never heal. It's there, but I can tell you it didn't affect my life, because I concentrated on other things that were more important, like my family, my children, my wife.
If you had to choose your best athletic accomplishment, what would it be?
The first Classic was Cuban baseball's best accomplishment of all time, and I was there. Villa Clara's victory against Matanzas was big, too, because it had been 18 years since we had won, the people were longing for it, and fate would have it that it was me who decided the game. That homerun showed a lot of things, that I was still in shape, contrary to what some were saying.
What are you doing now?
I'm at the academy training several young men with prospects, among them my son Arielito.
Is he up to being your relief?
He has talent, the rest he will have to gain for himself, so they give him the opportunity to develop.
How would you like to be remembered?
Not for what I did, but as the person, with his virtues and defects, was an athlete who gave it all on the field, who never betrayed his homeland, who stayed here when I could have earned millions elsewhere. This is my legacy.