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Monday, March 20, 2006
Updated: March 21, 6:32 AM ET
Cuban skipper is loyal to flag, people, players

By Guillermo Celis
ESPNdeportes.com

San Diego, Calif. -- A few hours before the final game of the World Baseball Classic, surrounded by the extreme security that has followed every step of the Cuban team in this tournament, manager Higinio Velez agreed to talk with ESPN for SportsCenter's Sunday Conversation.

Sadaharu Oh and Higenio Velez
Higenio Velez debuted as the manager of the Cuban national team in the 1987 Pan American Games.
Although his face reflects the tension and constant mood changes he has gone through these past few days, Cuba's manager shows no hesitation and has the self-assurance that only a vast knowledge of the profession provides.

It's not a coincidence he has been the head of the Cuban team for almost two decades. He is the manager of a country where winning is a priority.

"Fidel Castro didn't demand the title from us, but he did demand that we play to the best of our abilities in all the games, and so far, that's what we have done," said Velez. "The commander is our main manager, our leader and our inspiration, as well as the other 11 million Cubans that are watching the tournament on television or listening to it on the radio."

Velez has stayed true to one idea throughout the whole Classic: Cuba is a team of men, not of names.

"Don't misunderstand me, he is quick to clarify. That doesn't mean the rest of the teams aren't. The fact that Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or the United States have a lot of major league players on their squads doesn't mean they are just names and not men."

Cuba works as a team, and no piece is more important than another. There are no captains. Even when we ask him about the leadership that catcher Ariel Pestano provides in the field, the manager quickly explains that there are no leaders, because all of them are such.

That's the philosophy that has worked for Velez over two decades. Cuba's success is not a matter of luck, but of constant hard work from the players, trainers and managers.

Velez's job also requires precise investigation, stats and scouting reports.

"Of course, it helps to watch Major League Baseball on TV. We have reports of every player we have faced. My team has done a superb job, and we knew exactly what to expect out of Bartolo Colon, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz."

The Cubans took advantage of knowing their opponents, while their players very rarely appear on other teams' scouting reports. Everybody knew about Yulieski Gourriel, the young prospect with a great future ahead of him, but it wasn't until after the youngster had a few at-bats that other pitchers realized he had problems hitting pitches on the outside part of the plate.

"Yes, we have that and other advantages," acknowledged Velez. "We also have the advantage that our season is near its end, while Major League Baseball is just starting. That's why I would ask for the date to change in the future. We should all be under the same conditions to show everyone that, even then, we are a serious contender to win the title."

Fidel Castro didn't demand the title from us, but he did demand that we play to the best of our abilities in all the games, and so far, that's what we have done. The commander is our main manager, our leader and our inspiration, as well as the other 11 million Cubans that are watching the tournament on television or listening to it on the radio.
Cuba manager Higenio Velez

The Cubans have suggested the Classic takes place every two years, not every four as is now the case, and also want Havana to be a possible venue for the next edition. They want everyone to know that they have an important role in this tournament, and should never be left out.

Furthermore, Velz and his players have been in constant communication with their relatives in Cuba.

"The support from our relatives, as well as from our leaders, has come on an everyday basis," said the Cuban manager. "That provides us with energy and gives us even more strength to perform better."

With Cuba's great performance in the Classic, rumors have been swirling about them rejoining the Caribbean Series, and it is now a serious possibility.

"We have always been ready to be a part of the Caribbean Series," concluded Velez. " We are just waiting for the invitation."

Higinio Velez is a simple man who is loyal to his way of thinking. Loyal to his flag, people and players, he shows his love for baseball in every word and every movement. And now he is one victory away from being the first ever champion of the World Baseball Classic.

Guillermo Celis is a baseball commentator and reporter for ESPN Deportes and ESPN International, and columnist for ESPNdeportes.com.