Matanzas, Cuba was once hailed as the "Athens of Cuba," in recognition of its many poets and musicians. Danzón and Romba, two Cuban musical styles, both began in the capital of this eponymous region. Three rivers bisect the city, and its seventeen bridges have given it another nickname: "the city of bridges". Matanzas is home to Palmar de Junco, Cuba’s oldest ballpark and the site of the country’s first recognized game, and until January of 2015 it was also the home of Guillermo Heredia.
The vast majority of his history is hidden away in Matanzas, but we know he garnered attention early on in 2009, when he played for the 18U Cuban junior national team. Later that year he signed a contract with the Cocodrilos de Matanzas, and would eventually become their everyday centerfielder for the next four and a half years, before transitioning to the corners. Following Yoenis Cespedes’ defection, and Rusney Castillo’s suspension, Heredia debuted as the Cuban National Team’s center fielder at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Although he didn’t have the offensive intrigue of Cespedes, or Yasiel Puig, his defensive skills were enough to intrigue scouts and he was ranked by Baseball America as the 11th best prospect in Cuba.
On September 21, 2015, Opening Day, Heredia singled at the top of the second inning but did not make another appearance in the game. Initial Cuban reports questioned whether he had a back injury or had officially requested a release from the team, as is sometimes done before players defect. It was not until January of 2015 that Baseball America reported that the Cuban national baseball commissioner, Heriberto Suarez, had confirmed Heredia’s four-year suspension. Suspensions of this kind are not uncommon in Cuba, and they are made primarily to prevent star players from attracting further attention from US scouts, and to subsequently discourage possible defectors from leaving the country (there are some rumors that Heredia attempted to defect in 2014, but was unsuccessful). Less than two weeks after that news was released Heredia was reported to have officially left Cuba. He established residency in Mexico in April, then moved to Miami where he spent the year working out and preparing for MLB team showcases. The Seattle Mariners signed him in late February to a league minimum salary of $500,000, and was called up from AAA on July 29th to make his major league debut.
So why share all this with you? Why spend hours trying to understand Heredia’s journey to the states, and why spend eve more time attempting to write about him? I suppose the answer is twofold. On the one hand, quite simply, Heredia is an exciting player to learn about; he’s a supremely athletic outfielder, with the potential to become a valuable major league contributor. On the other hand, and more importantly at this time, his story is an answer to the "so what" that many of us are asking ourselves. As of September 6, 2016 neither Fangraphs (2.1%), nor Baseball Prospectus (1.6%), nor Five Thirty Eight (2%) give the Seattle Mariners a greater than 10% chance of making the playoffs. With each loss we move one step closer to the offseason, and another anticlimactic end to a Mariners journey. The season is pretty much done, so now what?
Well, you can stop watching. That’s the easy answer. You can transition to football, or another sport, or forget about sports altogether and crack open that book that’s been gathering dust on your nightstand. The other option, the decision to keep watching, is a bit harder and it forces us to question what we enjoy about sports, because if you’re still watching this team in mid-September you’ve taken your Little League coach’s advice and realized it’s not all about winning. Buried beneath the competition and the action of sports there is an intoxicating element of human triumph, which pulls us all in. Last night’s game felt interminable, and utterly pointless, but for Guillermo Heredia it was one of his best starts of the season. He got on base in each of his three at-bats, with an RBI double, a single, and a walk, and his offensive improvements bode well for the future.
Heredia’s good night alone was not enough to lift this tired team, but after the sacrifices he has made and the journey of his last two years, watching him find success on baseball’s biggest stage offered a spark of joy within a dismal game. This team is filled with good stories like this, of men who have worked hard and sacrificed, and whom we now get to watch live out their dreams. If you continue watching this team there are so many ways to still appreciate the game, they just take some more effort to find.
That's all nice and shiny and feel-good, but it’s also worth acknowledging that searching for that silver lining isn’t always easy. On dreary days, particularly after games like last night’s, this idea of taking joy in the small feels like grasping at straws; it feels like something only losers have to resort to. But you know what? I’m not on the field. I’m not in the front office. I’m not affiliated with any of the minor league teams and there is not a single, solitary chance that anything I do will change the outcome of one of these games. With that in mind, heck yes I’m going to grasp at those straws, because I would rather squint to find some good instead of wallowing in all the bad.
I don’t know for sure, but I have to imagine that the odds of a young boy from Matanzas, Cuba moving to the United States and playing for a Major League Baseball team are also less than 10%. They’re likely vastly lower than that, but look at what Guillermo Heredia has done. In no way am I advocating that the Mariners could still get to the playoffs, but in these final weeks of a waning season, as the numbers cruelly taunt us, stories like Heredia’s help to remind us that baseball transcends the numbers and that joy and triumph can still be found within loss.