By Aliet Arzola Lima
Most Cuban ballplayers who live outside the country cannot simply detach from their homeland, no matter how long they have been away from their roots. Weird as it may seem, some of them even follow the events of the Cuban Baseball National Series and the performance of of some of their teams and teammates, just like Texas Rangers utility Andy Ibáñez, who always has the Piratas de Isla de la Juventud in his heart.
That was the team where Ibáñez took his first steps a decade ego, and it was in that uniform that he caught the eye of Víctor Mesa, who took him to the third installment of the World Baseball Classic, something that surprised a group of analysts. But the controversial manager was not wrong about the second sacker back then, and Andy left Cuba shortly after seeking a professional contract.
Talent always comes up, and Andy is already a major leaguer. In 2021 he made his debut in MLB with the Rangers, and had an acceptable offensive performance, added to his well-known versatility to play various positions in the infield and the outfield. But in spite of the fame and level he has acquired, the Isla de la Juventud native has not forgotten his origin and the people who helped him when he was still in Cuba, including Luis Felipe Rivera, for whom he had some words of praise this past Wednesday.
The veteran first sacker became the player with most hits with the Piratas’ jersey, after surpassing the Cuban baseball “Iron Man”, Alexander Ramos. In the sixth inning of a game against Santiago de Cuba in Estadio Guillermón Moncada, Rivera singled to right against veteran Alberto Vicet, reaching his 2,031st hit in his 25-year career.
After learning about the record, Andy Ibáñez used social media to congratulate his former teammate: “Pride of Santa Fe, a role model of years of so much sacrifice for this beautiful sport. Congratulations to the Isla de la Juventud player with the most National Series hits,” he wrote on Facebook.
In the very post, other Cuban players like Héctor Mendoza, Gervasio Miguel Govín, former catcher Vladimir García, and Alexander Ramos himself took time to congratulate Rivera as well, who, at age 44, remains active.
Precisely, Ramos, who is waiting for the signing of a contract as a coach in Italy, told us via telephone that Rivera’s mark is “the result of his dedication, will and consistency.”
“Even though he is breaking my record, I got the news with the purest joy. I am truly very happy, and I was the first to congratulate him because he deserves all praise. Luis Felipe is a devoted and hard-working man, and he should be given a pedestal for continuing to play,” said Ramos, who added that the fans of the Piratas should be proud of having a player like Rivera.
The former second baseman, who holds the Cuban record for consecutive games played at 1,112 in National Series, remembered that Luis Felipe made a quick impact and adjusted well when he was seen as the natural successor of Raúl Ajete at first base.
“He was in the scope of attention all the time, because he had all the conditions to succeed. Besides, he was always a focused and disciplined player, something that has led him up to here,” said Ramos, who was a teammate of Rivera in the late 1990s and early 2000s (they finished third as teammates in the 38th installment of the National Series), and would later be his coach during the last decade (winning the 54th season together).
Those encouraging words should be like fuel to Rivera, who move past Ramos legendary Orestes Kindelán with is 2,031st hit. The two Cuban baseball stars were locked in a 2,030-hit tie, and have been left behind by Rivera, who now ranks 18th all time. His next goal is Villa Clara’s Ariel Borrero, currently in 17th place (2,061 hits), and will need 30 more hits in the remainder of the 61st season. So, he will have to finish the tournament with at least 52 hits, something really possible, given his performance last year, when he got 69.