The End of an Era: Ariel Pestano
MLB reports: You may not know the name, but you will recognize the player. Ariel Pestano (Valdes) was considered one of Cuba’s greatest catchers of all time. In actuality, likely one of THE best catchers ever. Pestano, known in his country at “the veteran”, has been a Cuban baseball staple for the past 10 years. Debuting with the Cuban national team in 1999, Pestano played in the Olympics and both the 1996 and 1999 World Baseball Classic for Cuba. By retiring in 1999 after the last WBC, baseball has lost a legend and a throwback to an era that is slowly disappearing. In an age of generic players and cookie-cutter approaches, Pestano was one-of-a-kind.
I was first introduced to Ariel Pestano in the 1996 WBC and could not wait to see him again by the 1999 edition of the Classic. In comparative terms, it is hard to point to a past or present major league catcher that mirrors Pestano. I find it difficult to looking at his Cuban numbers and calculating the value of his play. Offensively and defensively, the man could do it all. But rather than judge him by numbers in a league unknown to me, I place my consideration in what I saw with my own eyes. If the WBC editions were any indication, Pestano could play ball. A patient hitter with pop, I could see him hitting 20 bombs in the major leagues if given the opportunity. A cannon for an arm, he knew how to keep runners honest and distract hitters from getting good hacks at the plate. But his true value was in his leadership. Pestano was like a general on the field, leading his team to war. Pestano was not afraid to get into the face of an opposing player or teammate if he felt that his team was being disrespected or not playing to its capacity. His approach made for great television viewing, no doubt, but his teammates were better for having him behind them.
A big problem in baseball viewership and fandom today is the reliance on the fantasy aspect of baseball, mainly statistics. I love researching OPS and WHIP as much as the next baseball junkie, but real baseball has value outside of the “moneyball” approach. I recall a pitcher on the Cuban team in one WBC game in 2006 giving up repeated hits. At one point Pestano literally ran to the mound and was about to clobber his starting pitcher. I could not understand what he was saying, but you could not put a pin between the pitcher and catcher. Pestano was literally in the pitcher’s face reading him the riot act. While many critics would call such a move “unprofessional”, “bush-league” and “showing up your pitcher”, I actually enjoyed the accountability and passion that Pestano was demanding from his teammate that day. Those types of moments do not show up in box scores the next day, but live on with a team forever.
If you have never seen Ariel Pestano play a professional baseball game, download a World Baseball Classic game on your computer involving Cuba from either 2006 or 2009 and watch the man behind the plate. Chances are that you have never seen a player like this before and will never see one again. Pudge Rodriguez has had his moments through the years, but has simmered down. But in truth, he never had the intensity and life/death mentality that Pestano displayed on the baseball field. Taking aside the armed guards with machine guns in the dugout, I have always found Cuban teams to play with heart and pride. I recall a Cuban pitcher one game running out to the field to yell at an outfielder after misplaying a ball. When a pitcher in any inning/situation gives up even 1-2 infield hits in a game, chances are the Cuban bullpen will be up and running. I don’t recall ever watching a Cuban game where the bullpen wasn’t going with at least one pitcher for nearly the entire game. This is how seriously Cuba takes it baseball and this mentality was embodied fully in Ariel Pestano.
My WBC Cuban heroes, Pestano and Lazo are unlikely to ever defect and join the MLB. Both recently retired and based on their respective ages and devotion to Cuba- defection is unlikely, if not impossible. Pestano retired to apparently work and train his son, who like his dad is a catcher. The best of luck to you Ariel, thank you for the memories.
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