Good baseball players. Better guys

Miami Sugar Kings duo epitomize meaning of team

Roy Hobbs Baseball

Spend time around the Miami Sugar Kings and one will likely hear Spanish spoken or English with a Cuban accent or Manager Pete Rivero switching seamlessly from one language to the other.

Then there is catcher Rob Streib, who grew up in a Baltimore suburb called Perry Hall and doesn’t speak any Spanish. Language barriers, though, are no barrier for real teammates.

Rivero calls their catcher an “honorary Cuban.”

That is high praise, indeed. Rivero said Streib plays “like a Cuban player, with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.”

Whatever the language, the Sugar Kings are baseball players first and foremost and always.

SugarKings team
Sugar King teammates: Rob Streib (L), Pete Rivero & Ariel Tapanes.

Rivero and others first met Streib as members of the Baltimore Thunder. Rivero said he and a few other Cuban players were welcomed by the Thunder and made to feel part of their family.

Now, they’ve returned the favor, making Streib feel part of the Sugar Kings family. He’s also developed a taste for Cuban food. When Cuban food was mentioned in a phone conversation, Streib said, “Ah, yes.”

Streib still considers his Thunder teammates friends but a chance to play for the Sugar Kings meant a chance to play at a higher level of competition.

Team has talent, character

The language barrier is not an issue.

“All the guys speak English to a certain extent,” Streib said.

The talent and character of the Sugar Kings convinced Streib to play for the team. Rivero estimated about 80 to 90 percent of the team’s roster has pro experience in Cuba and the age range is 45-to-60.

Pitcher Ariel Tapanes said he is happy Streib has joined the Sugar Kings after playing with him on the Thunder.

“Just like the Baltimore Thunder accepted us when we went to play for them,” Tapanes said through a translation from Rivero.

“Baltimore Thunder is our family,” Rivero said.

They’ve built another family.

The 2021 Roy Hobbs World Series was the first for the Sugar Kings, who won AA and expect to move up to AAA this year.

“We got a stacked team,” Rivero said. One that plays to win.

“We may lose but we’re not happy about it,” Rivero said.

One of the reasons the Sugar Kings are competitive is the talent of players such as Tapanes, who speaks very little English. But he is eloquent on the mound in the language of baseball. Tapanes has an impressive baseball resume, one that includes pitching 11 seasons in Cuban professional baseball from 1988 to 1999.

In the 1994-95 season for Matanzas he was 8-2 with a 3.18 ERA. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the left-handed Tapanes is still dealing.

“He throws like he’s still 25,” Streib said.

Pitcher, catcher polar opposites

Befitting a veteran with more than a decade of professional experience, Tapanes’ work on the mound is about more than his stuff.

“He has the most incredible pick-off known to man,” Streib said.

Rivero said this battery is “polar opposites” in some ways. Streib grew up in a suburb in America and Tapanes grew up in Matanzas, a city known as the Athens of Cuba. Now, they are co-captains of the Sugar Kings and bat fourth and fifth in the lineup.

Yes, a slight language barrier remains.

“I usually have to do a lot of translating,” Rivero said.

But the game and pitch calling remain the same in either language.

Tapanes moved to the United States in 2005 and now resides in Miami and drives a bread delivery truck.

When Streib missed the Sunshine Classic in Fort Myers last February because of cancer surgery, the Sugar Kings didn’t forget him. They hung his No 55 jersey up in an empty locker and sent him a photo.

Streib showed the photo to his wife, Kellie, and two teenage sons, Brady and Brendan. “My wife loved it,” he said. “It spoke volumes.”

It spoke volumes in a language that didn’t need words.

“They checked on me all the time,” Streib said.

Streib already knew about their talent.

“They’re all good baseball players,” Streib said. “They’re better guys, husbands, fathers.”

Team name with a history

The Sugar Kings name pays homage to a legendary Cuban baseball team, one that pre-dated the 1959 revolution that led to Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.

The name has nothing to do, Rivero said, with another white substance associated with Miami in recent decades.

“We thought the Sugar Kings name was synonymous with all of Cuba,” Rivero said.

The original Sugar Kings played in the Triple-A International League from 1954 to 1960 as a Reds affiliate. The team began in 1946 and played in El Gran Estadio del Centro, or Grand Stadium.

The team’s roster over the years included big-leaguers such as Luis Arroyo, Tony Gonzalez, Cookie Rojas, Elio Chacon, Leo Cardenas and Mike Cuellar.

When Rivero and Tapanes suit up as Sugar Kings, they evoke a magical Cuban baseball name. In a 1999 book, “The Pride of Havana, A History of Cuban Baseball,” Yale Sterling Professor Emeritus of Hispanic and Comparative Literatures Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria wrote at length about the Sugar Kings.

The Sugar Kings televised games in the 1950s and wore uniforms as fine as those worn in the big leagues.

As the professor wrote of the original Sugar Kings: “… the most paradoxical and ironic venture that joined baseball, Cuban nationalism, and capitalism, and that gave off a final flash before extinguishing itself.”

But first, there were dreams of turning the Sugar Kings into a Major League Baseball team. The team even had a slogan – “One more step and we get there.”

They never got there, but the name lives on more than 60 years later with a Roy Hobbs Baseball team that includes a man from Maryland.

For Calhoun. Tignor, Flood and the rest of the team, that means at the ball field, in the dugout or the batting cages.

With their teammates, no matter their hometown or accent.

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