Holding the title of president seems to be inherently polarizing. Higinio Veléz held the title of president of the Cuban baseball federation from 2008 until his passing May 12th, 2021. Veléz was definitely polarizing. I met Higinio in passing multiple times over the years both in Canada and Cuba. I also had the chance to capture him in photo multiple times. Join me as I take a look back at the late Higinio Veléz 1947-2021.
Revered as the manager of the Santiago Avispas he led the Wasps to three straight Cuban National Series titles from 1999-2001 and four titles total. He would move onto managing Team Cuba including winning gold at the 2004 Olympics. Higinio Vélez led Cuba as their grip on International superiority started to loosen. Their 2nd place finish in the 2006 World Baseball Classic likely represents the last podium showing for Cuba after a half century of dominance in every international baseball tournament.
The amount of true control a president holds is debatable. The decline of Cuban baseball is not the fault of one man. The money and motivation for players to pursue MLB careers grew exponentially especially after the 2006 WBC. If your tenure doesn’t produce results, as president you will be held accountable.. This is the polarizing aspect of Higinio and his time as president.
Higinio Vélez was perceived as stern or dour. Ironically my camera seemed to capture him more at ease than his public persona projects. I wrote how Cuba is a nation formed by revolution but now moves at a glacial pace and Higinio’s run as president might be emblematic of this. Cuban baseball players once only had aspirations of playing in the National Series and for the National Team. These motivations have changed as more players got out and more information got in. I don’t envy anyone trying to run an organization where your competitors can outbid you by millions of dollars for your top talent. I have quoted the number many times, but some 300 players left Cuba between 2015-2017.
Many pointed the finger at Higinio Vélez as the cause for this decline or at least his approach. I am not sure if this is fair but again the person at the top will receive the most scrutiny. Despite him being considered a purist he did oversee some progressive changes. He did permit more players to pursue professional contracts in Japan and other Caribbean nations. The talents that joined the CanAm league don’t venture north without his stamp of approval. He also was the main delegate in the brokerage of the now failed 2018 deal with MLB.
No matter where you stand on his tenure leading Cuban baseball you have to respect his success as a manager. He also deserves respect for leading the Cuban Baseball Federation during it’s most complex and daunting era. Cuba in general is trying to move forward in its approach in politics and the reinvention of its economy. Vélez successor has big shoes to fill and a daunting task in front to them. Rest In Peace Higinio and hats off to a career baseball man.