The return to the field of Ariel Pestano and Luis Ulacia, two star players from Cuban teams of the 1990s, is the big news at the beginning of the 4th Under-23 National Baseball Series. This is a tournament that will aim to see an increased number of games, in order to prepare players from this category for the possibility of playing among the island’s baseball elite in international competitions from August.
Pestano is managing Villa Clara’s young team, while Ulacia heads that of Camagüey, squads with whom they both demonstrated their qualities as players. The first appearance of both teams saw their managers leave the field satisfied with a successful performance, as neither team allowed their opponents, Mayabeque and Ciego de Ávila, respectively, to make a run.
But the Under-23 series is much more than these two teams and these two names. It is a tournament featuring 16 squads, one for each Cuban province, plus the special municipality of the Isle of Youth.
An increased game schedule is planned this year. The competition is divided into two areas, Occidental and Oriental (west and east), with eight teams fighting it out in each.
The two areas are also divided into two groups each: in the west, Group A (Pinar del Río, Artemisa, the Isle of Youth and Havana) and Group B (Mayabeque, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Villa Clara), while the east features Group C (Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey and Las Tunas) and D (Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo).
Each team will play against the rivals of their group in four-game matches, for a total of 24 games. A further 16 games, to bring the total to 40, will be played against the teams of the other group in their area. The two top teams from the west and the east will qualify to play a series of three games, at the home stadium of the team that won the most games in the qualifying round. The winners will go to the final round, also consisting of three games, where they must win two, all of which will be held at the home of the finalist who saw the best results in the regular season.
During the first week of the Under-23 series, a visit was made by authorities of the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball (Can-Am League). Last year a Cuban national team was included in the calendar of this independent league featuring U.S. and Canadian teams, and it appears that this year will be the same. Several Cuban players also joined teams from this league in 2016. The Can-Am League should start May 18 and play through September 17, although Cuba would feature on the calendar June 8 - 29.
According to the sports weekly Jit, as part of the visit it was revealed that an under-18 team from Cuba will participate in a competition of this category in the province of Quebec.
Also featuring on Cuban baseball’s international calendar this year is the World Port Tournament of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the historic Cuba-United States competition, which resumed in 2012, with the host alternating between the two countries each year. This year will see Cuba’s team travel to North Carolina, where the five games will be played.
Returning to the Under-23 series, it would be very beneficial for the competitive future of Cuban baseball if the players who produce the best performances in this category are among those making up the national team traveling to the U.S. This would provide a chance for these youngsters to grow in the game.