By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
KITCHENER – Only days after the Tampa Bay Rays made history by becoming the first major league team to touch down in Havana since the late 1990’s, Kitchener’s Intercounty Baseball League (IBL) outfit has announced the signing of three promising Cuban imports.
Following a dominant 2015 campaign that brought Kitchener a mere 2.5 games behind the front running Barrie Baycats, the Panthers, led by lBL Triple Crown winner Sean Reilly, fell within a few wins of capturing the team’s 11th league championship last September.
With the trio of well-polished prospects now within the Panthers plans for 2016, team officials think another run at the league crown is within reach.
“The addition of these players will help solidify our roster as we look to improve on last season’s second place finish” explained Panthers General Manager Scott Ballantyne in Saturday’s press release. “We had a deep roster without these players, so with them we’ve made a strong team even stronger.
For now, the team has announced the acquisition of a pair of pitchers in Noelvis Entenza and Ian Rendon, both of which currently play for the Havana Industriales of Cuba’s Nacional Series. Rounding out the trio, a position player is expected be introduced later this month.
Rendon, 30, has played in parts of 12 seasons with the Industriales while appearing in a variety of different roles including both starting and long relief. A south-pawed hurler by trade, his arrival should help the Panthers neutralize some of the leagues top left-handed bats in Adam Odd, Jon Waltenbury, Chandler McLaren et al.
Entenza, 29, checks in as a hard throwing right-handed hurler who, prior to helping the Industriales reach postseason action earlier this March, once shared a roster spot with the likes of current big league standouts Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig well before the duo established themselves as MLB stars in America.
Having come so close to a league title last fall, the players are looking forward to seeing what their new teammates can bring to what promises to be a potent and well rounded club in 2016.
“With Cuba being a hotbed for prospects in major league baseball, it can only get us even more excited to see what these guys can bring to the field” said Panthers hurler, Matt Vickers who struck out 23 batters over his 30 and two thirds innings of work for the Panthers in 2015 .
To date, over 190 Cuban-born ballplayers have made the major leagues, the majority of which having to defect from their native country in order to get a shot at achieving stardom.
As the relationship between the Cuban and United States government has gradually improved in recent months, those involved in the game hope that the next wave of Aroldis Champan’s, Yoenis Cespedes’ or Jose Fernandez’ will have an easier time making the transition to North America.
Still, there are many steps that need to be made before that dream can become a reality. But with the documented success of Cuba’s current stars, Tampa Bay’s historic visit to Latinoamerican Stadium and the Panthers recent efforts; the window of opportunity is beginning to open.
Having gathered the opinions of many key individuals such as Heriberto Suarez (Director of Nacional de Beisbol Cuba), Higinio Velez (President of the Federation Cubana de Beisbol) and International Relations Specialist Judith Langaney Marrero, bringing the talented trio north was no small task.
Quarterbacked by Panthers Director Mike Boehmer, negotiations took upwards to six months and required multiple trips to the Latin American Island before a final deal was struck.
“We are thrilled and cannot thank Mike enough for his tenacity and passion in making this a reality” expressed Bill Pegg, President of the Kitchener Panthers. “It’s big news for the community, province and country”
This deal represents the first time since the 1950’s in which an IBL club has legally fielded Cuban talent. Kitchener captured their first league title in 1957, and last in 2001.
A charter member of the IBL, Kitchener has fielded a team every year since 1919 making the Panthers the longest standing franchise in the history of Canadian baseball.
With their newest recruits now in place, Panthers brass hope help make the IBL an even stronger destination for ballplayers from around the world.
“We do not intend this to be a one year project.” added Ballantyne. “The idea here is that we can provide these players with a positive experience and they will go back to Cuba as better players and better people. Ideally, the relationship can flourish from there and other IBL teams will be able to participate as well.”