El Béisbolista

No one has lived through more of South Florida's baseball past than Vicente Lopez

Still, he persisted, making it in 1954 to the newly inaugurated Havana Sugar Kings, Cuba's entry in the Class AAA International league. Technically, it was the closest Lopez would ever get to the majors, but he was no longer the one the scouts had their eyes on. So the Sugar Kings sold his contract to a team from Mexico City. "The Mexican League wanted to enter major-league baseball," Lopez explains, recalling a popular rumor that circulated in the mid-1950s, "so other teams sold a lot of ballplayers over there."

There would still be memorable days: the afternoon in 1956 when he defeated Moreno and Yucatan for the championship; the following year, a victory in the prestigious Caribbean Series as a member of the Cuban team. But mostly, Lopez would endure as a journeyman, pitching in Cuba in the winter and Mexico in the summer, getting by on guile and that once-majestic curve ball, its effectiveness compromised by the lack of an adequate fastball to go with it.

His desire, though, remained. "Once, when Vicente was playing in Mexico," Andres Fleitas recalls, "his manager said to me, 'You know, this guy's pretty good, but he wants to tell me when he's going to pitch.' Vicente would say to him, 'Hey, it's my day today.'"

A star is born: Vicente Lopez (front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign
Vicente Lopez
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign
Seasons in the sun: Lopez had some great days at Havana's Gran Stadium
Bill Cooke
Seasons in the sun: Lopez had some great days at Havana's Gran Stadium

Lopez pitched in Cuba until 1958, eventually playing with all four teams in the professional league. To hear him tell it, he got out just in time: "When Fidel came to power [in 1959], I said, 'That's it. I'm not pitching any more.'" He cites the antics the revolution and its maximum leader visited upon the game as a motivating factor.

Two incidents, both occurring during the 1959 International League season, are infamous. The first took place shortly after midnight on July 26, during an extra-inning contest involving the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings. Some time during the 11th inning, celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by Fidel Castro -- the symbolic origin of the revolution -- broke out just beyond the stadium walls in Havana. During the festivities, stray bullets found two human targets inside: Rochester's third-base coach and Sugar King shortstop Leo Cardenas (who later played in the majors). Neither man was seriously hurt, but the incident resulted in the Red Wings' immediate departure from the island. Other International League teams expressed concern over playing in Cuba. Still, the season continued.

Two months later, the Minneapolis Millers traveled to Havana to play the Sugar Kings for the league title. The Cubans led the best-of-seven series handily, three games to one, when the Millers staged a fierce comeback, winning the next two games and forcing a final and deciding game. On hand for that contest was Castro, who, as the story goes, made his way out to the Minneapolis bullpen before the game, eyed the opposition, patted the large revolver he wore on his hip and said simply, "Tonight, we win." Havana did, indeed, win that night, in spectacular late-inning fashion and, it is believed, without any help from the Millers, who were only too glad to get the hell out of Cuba.

The well-publicized episodes marked the beginning of the end for professional baseball on the island. The following year, halfway through the 1960 season, the International League, claiming it could no longer guarantee the safety of its players inside Cuba, relocated the Havana franchise to Jersey City, New Jersey, where it quickly withered and died. The Cuban League, in existence since 1878, outlived the Sugar Kings by only a few months, folding after the 1960-61 season. Cuban-born Ivan Davis, who played for Almendares during that final campaign and who would eventually distinguish himself as an umpire in post-revolutionary amateur Cuban baseball, says the end of the professional league came as no surprise. "Almost everyone realized it would be the last season for those teams," Davis remembers. "The following year, all professional sports were outlawed."

By that time, however, Lopez was pitching exclusively in Mexico during the summers, with an occasional few months of winter work in places like Nicaragua, where he played briefly in 1963. The last few seasons took their toll on his arm and on his lifetime record. He lost more often than at any time in his career. Indeed, he lost much more often than he won. He was traded in 1964 from Puebla, a good Mexican League team that would finish only three games out of first place, to Monterrey, a sixth-place team. He didn't pitch well for either. And then, because he would soon be 38 years old and because he knew that the little bit of magic he had once had in that right arm was gone, he quit.

He had a wife and daughter. Responsibility, exile, and, for the first time, nonbaseball labor beckoned. He didn't have the connections some former Cuban major leaguers enjoyed. Nor, up until now, had he missed them. "I never worked [at any other job] while I played ball," he says with satisfaction.

So, in 1964, the ex-baseball star took a job as an inventory clerk at a food warehouse in Dania. "They would bring lobster, crab, beef, vegetables, produce, whatever, and we would sort it out and send it to the restaurants in the New England Oyster House chain," he remembers. "All to make a lousy dollar an hour. It seems crazy that people would work for so little, but we did." He would work there for the next 20 years. Coworkers wondered what it had been like to play baseball in front of tens of thousands of people, asked about games they had seen him pitch in Cuba, and told their friends they knew Vicente Lopez, "el pelotero."

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