By TONY SEED
THE NEWS that the Cuban Skyscraper, Pedro Luis Lazo, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the Cuban Serie Nacional and a member of the Cuban national team for over a dozen events, has retired brought a flood of memories. I have a distant memory of him competing in the 196 Olympic Games as a rookie (going 2-0 with one save and a 5.40 ERA. He struck out 22 in 13 1/3 IP, leading the Olympics in strikeouts that year) and won the decisive game.
In the 1996-7 season, according to baseball-reference.com, Pedro Lazo made his way into a baseball history book in a seemingly odd but characteristic way. Author Peter Bjarkman was lost in Cuba after leaving a game and his companions were making one bad turn after another. Mr Lazo showed up out of nowhere, still wearing his uniform from the game, having been walking on foot. He got on his bicycle and escorted the lost author and his friends to the entrance of the highway. Bjarkman has repeatedly cited the incident as something you couldn’t imagine happening in America – a star pitcher showing up on foot and then bicycle to help escort lost foreigners home.
Most vivid is that of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. U.S. president George W Bush had frenziedly tried to exclude Cuba’s national team from competing, to the condemnation of the sporting world. To add insult to injury, the U.S. team of superstars flamed out in defeat in the first round, losing even to Canada, while Cuba went to the finals with Japan, the ultimate victor in a thrilling match. Mr Lazo was one of the Cuban players whose internationalism and camaraderie transcended the inhuman borders set by Washington. In a reflection on the opening round match between Cuba and Puerto Rico, I wrote at the time:
“The baseball commissioner’s office could have had a field day meting out fines for flagrant violations of its official ‘no fraternization rule’ between players while in uniform, a policy in place since 1884. Hugs and handshakes abounded. There seemed a definite comradeship between the Cuban and Puerto Rican players. In one hilarious vignette, pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and Eduardo Perez carried out a three-minute mime exchange across the infield that EPSN, incredulous, portrayed as a vicious argument. Seemingly starting out as a controversy over which team was stealing signs from which, the two players began to exchange signs with each other, bench to bench. The sign language became progressively exaggerated, sucking in the TV cameras sign by sign, before both finally broke out in laughter. Now we know why the US State Department last December 14th cited ‘espionage’ as one of the reasons to block Cuba’s participation. …
“If John Bolton, Bush’s representative to the UN, is so keen to find Cuba’s alleged ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ he needs look no further than its people, its athletes and their hands.” …
“Players such as Albert Pujols, the Dominican first baseman and reigning National League MVP, provided poignant moments of solidarity and sportsmanship rare in US sport when, after his team lost to Cuba in the semi-finals, he hugged Lazo, who had mesmorized his team-mates with sinkers, sliders and a 97mph fastball. On his way past Ariel Pestano, the brilliant Cuban catcher whom EPSN had rated before the 2004 Olympics as ‘past his prime’, Mr Pujols urged him to win it all, ‘for the Caribbean.’ Pestano smiled.”
Here is one article from amongst many appearing in the Cuban press on the double Olympic champion.
I’ve given the best of my life on the field
By RONALD SUAREZ RIVAS, Granma International
PINAR DEL RIO (27 December 2010) – IN A CROWDED STADIUM, on a day he told me he would prefer to pitch, Pedro Luis Lazo Iglesias, the pitcher with the most wins in Cuban baseball, officially bowed out from active sports.
Thousands of Pinar del Rio people, who for two decades filled the seats of the Capitan San Luis Stadium to watch him play, this time, came to prove their admiration for their star player.
In recent weeks, in a rare demonstration of affection, in 99 Pinar del Rio centers a clear allusion to the number he wore on his back during most of his career – the people of this province had laid on various tributes.
The retirement ceremony could not be anywhere else but in the stadium. Surely, this was his most difficult exit from the field.
“Whenever I pitch, even against the weakest team in the championship, I get tense,” he told me one time.
However, for one who described his primary goal was to deliver for his audience, “while the arm holds out” no other action could have been harder than climbing the mound to say goodbye.
In twenty National Series, Pedro Luis Lazo recorded 257 victories, which placed him at the forefront of this important category.
Many also consider that he could have continued to play in one, or at most two seasons, to become the leader in strikeouts (he lacked only 73 to reach the figure of 2,499, set by his compatriot Roger Garcia.)
During 15 years in the Cuban team, Lazo also accumulated an extensive track record that includes four Olympic medals (two gold), second in the first World Baseball Classic, and several world titles, Pan American, Central American.
Still, the statistics fail to reflect the total magnitude of his performance at crucial moments, and his showmanship, nor his leadership within the Pinar del Rio team, where according to fans, his departure leaves a great emptiness, comparable only with the retirement of Omar Linares.
Nor do they refer to the multi-million dollar offers to try to buy him, nor his proven loyalty to his country and his team, summarized by Lazo himself in a short and touching phrase: “You don’t betray Pinar even in thought.”
At 37, and the possibility that his pitches had begun to lose their effectiveness, the Pinar del Rio idol has put an end to a wonderful sporting career.
At this point, there are many who consider him the best pitcher in Cuban baseball, but for Pedro Luis Lazo, the most important praise is to know he is loved by the people, because “for them I’ve given the best of my life on the field.”
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