Johnny Cueto’s first major league start mesmerized me. I wrote about it at dugoutcentral.com in the form of a plea. It went something like, “Please let me see. No more blindness I begged. No more missing greatness when it’s happening right before my tv eyes.” And then I vowed to watch every Johnny Cueto start until the sky snatches him from diamond earth.
Critics said he was too small at 5′ 10″. They said the same about Pedro Martinez. They accused Cueto of copying Luis Tiant; tangoing his hips 180 degrees towards center field during each delivery. I took it as a tribute to the Cuban legend; a lot like Yovani Gallardo does with his rock the cradle delivery mirroring El Presidente; Dennis Martinez.
In last year’s wild card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cueto was caught on camera laughing. His Cincinnatii Reds were losing and their season was about to end. The media questioned Cueto’s party hat demeanor, but the media always questions exuberance or fun and players from the Domincan Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are typically the ones judged.
“That’s not how we play the game in the United States” is what the cold bloods say. There’s no place here for celebrating home runs like Carlos Gomez or Yasiel Puig, no place for Cueto smiling in defeat. This is serious business, It smells like cultural arrogance to me or insecurity in the face of other players enjoying life. Reminds me of authorities in black boots freaking out when the immigrants enjoy a belly laugh.
I watched the World Baseball Classic and enjoyed Carribean teams; their players dancing in the dugout; fans dancing in the stadium. It seemed healthy; something to emulate.
The word cueto in Spanish translates to something like hill, fortified settlement, inaccessible mound. Some sniff out superstition when it comes to the meanings of names. And others turn the sort of science into a colorful possibility. In Cueto’s case, I tend to lean towards the possibility.
Like many major league players, Johnny Ortiz Cueto hails from San Pedro Democaris, Dominican Republic. His major league debut was April 3, 2008 and he was spinning and smiling and dancing on that mound right from the start.
That first game was in Cincinnati against the Diamondbacks and he struck out the first batter he faced-Chris Young and then 10 out of the next 18, perfect game through five innings. He won the game.
His second game was against the Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee. I phoned friends back home and encouraged them to go and see the greatness. Johnny Cueto had arrived. They blew me off, called me Sparky as in manager Sparky Anderson and his habit of identifying rookies as future Hall of Famers. Chris Pitarro comes to mind.
Cueto didn’t figure in the decision against Milwaukee, but he pitched into the 7th innings and struck out 8. He slipped a bit in that first full season, but over the last 5 years, He’s been one of the best and most consistent pitchers in all of baseball when healthy.
And it keeps getting better because Cueto keeps getting better. He could always throw hard. Most major league pitchers can. That’s why they get drafted or signed in the first place. You can’t teach velocity. But Johnny Ortiz Cueto has also learned how to pitch; the timing and precision that eludes so many.
He was on the mound Saturday night to face the Brewers and Yovani Gallardo. Some say the Brewers bats went dead, That’s one way of seeing it.
I watched in awe and concluded that the Brewers couldn’t really figure out Cueto– inaccessible mound. He pitched 8 innings and allowed only three hits; struck out 10. He also drove in a run at the plate. He was smiling during the game and after the game. Final score; Reds 6, Brewers 2.
The Brewers are 21-10.