Bellwether (noun) a person or thing that assumes leadership or forefront, as of a profession or industry. Alexeis Bell of The Santiago de Cuba Avispas was a bellwether if only for one season.
Viewing Cuban Baseball through a Different Lens
I’ve chronicled my introduction to Cuban baseball in some of my previous articles and video projects. I was fascinated from the moment I stepped inside 5th of September Stadium in Cienfuegos. My journey into the history of baseball on the island and even contemporary history has happened in stages. My camera is the greatest catalyst for my research. I have been working backwards after capturing photos of some of Cuba’s best baseball players.
Bigger numbers of Cuban players are playing in the world’s top professional baseball leagues. The stories of players that often were their teammates, fiercest rivals or statistical equals aren’t as publicized. There is logic to much of this. The biggest stories are produced on the biggest stage and we only have limited bandwidth for information. For those who want to learn more about more of Cuba’s finest, I hope you join me on this journey.
Alexeis Bell formerly of the Santiago de Cuba Avispas is one such player. For at least one season He was a bellwether of home run hitters outpacing Yoenis Céspedes, Jose Abreu et al. Let’s take a deeper dive into his Cuban career.
A Santiago de Cuba Wasp Flies North
My apertures introduction to Bell came in 2015. The Ottawa Champions were in their first season in the Independent CanAm League. A league which has employed many Cuban players in the past few years. This is via an agreement that allows players to play in Canada during the summer and return to their Cuban clubs. Bell was playing for the visiting Quebec Capitales along with fellow countrymen Yuliesky Gurriel & Yordan Manduley.
At Age 31, he put up solid if unspectacular numbers in his lone season. His .317 batting average and .363 on base percentage were respectable. Yuniesky Gurriel paced the entire league with a .371 average. Bell however disappointed in the power department only connecting on 2 home runs in 224 at bats. He did leg out 14 doubles and 2 triples. Alexeis made it stateside and signed with the Texas Rangers organization rising as high as Double A in his sole season in MiLB of 2016. Being 9 years older than the average player and clearly didn’t fit into the Rangers long term plans. He decided not to pursue other baseball opportunities at that juncture.
Learning to Sting the Ball
Bell debuted in the 2001–2002 Cuban National Series for The Santiago de Cuba Avispas (Wasps) at the age of 17. Many young players in Cuba do get called up very young. Typically as Bell did they have to earn at bats via a reserve role. His 50 AB’s in his first season attests to this. Santiago was coming off of 3 straight League Championships, Bell would miss out on that glory. He would quickly become a key piece in a short turn around to more championship success. His fourth season(2004–2005) would be his breakout. It also aligns closest to his statistical average season. .321/.385/.570 with 12 HR & 42 RBI in 193 at bats.
Bell would break the .300 batting average barrier for the first time. It was the beginning of a streak in which he would bat above .300 in 10 of the next 12 National Series. He was a key part of a balanced offensive attack that would capture the title that season. Two more Championships in 2006–2007 & 2007–2008 would follow. Bell hit an identical .355 in each of those seasons. His other statistics in the repeat title season were far from identical. In fact his 2007–2008 represents one of the most productive seasons in Cuban history.
He would be recognized as the Most Valuable Player. Bell became the first player to hit 30 home runs in a season. His 111 RBI are still a record for a single season. Only Alfredo Despaigne & Yuli Gurriel have driven in as many as 100 Runs in a season. Bell’s 96 RBI paced the circuit and his 25 steals were 2nd best.
A Career Year, A Grand Accomplishment
Those 31 home runs definitely represent a spike. Bell would only swat double digit home runs in 4 other Cuban seasons in a rough average of 70 games played per season. He was Still a top run producer, this was largely fuelled by his high batting averages and extra base/doubles production. Speculation does exist that the Mizuno 150 baseball used that year might have been juiced. He would never match that home run pace again, but when he hit homeruns they were often grand.
2009–2010 he became the 4th Cuban player to hit 2 Grand Slams in a game. He connected twice with the bases loaded in the 1st inning of the opening game of the season. Bell would obliterate the previous record of 3 in a season by hitting 7 and adding another in the playoffs. His 12 RBI in a single game is also a record. Cuba would fall to Japan in the 2008 Olympics and accept silver as Bell’s bat did all it could with a .500/.556/1.031 batting line. Bell missed a chance to represent Cuba again in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. This was due to bad luck. He missed time after taking a pitch to the face and hit a disappointing .232/.335/.355 upon his return.
Alexeis Bell had a fascinating career and at points represented one of the best average hitters. He was a consistent base stealing threat while playing for a perennial contender. His 31 home runs & 111 RBI might be the outlier but none the less represent one of the most impressive individual seasons in Cuban History. He also might be the type of player whose history gets glanced over. I only explored it after trying to properly catalogue the photos I had of him. My love of Cuban baseball ultimately has as much to do with my love of photography. In this case my photos led me to the story of a player who for at least one season was the bellwether of Cuban baseball.