Pop Cuesta is standing in the middle of Jefferson High School's baseball field, just like he has for the past 37 years, watching about 20 first–and second-year students practice the hook slide, wondering what happened to the fundamentals. He shakes his head as one kid runs toward an imaginary second base and plows into the ground like a sleepy water buffalo. Pop shakes his head. He sends the young junior varsity players on a run around the outfield perimeter. "Let's go, son! Get moving," he shouts calmly. He gathers them around first base and asks, "Does anyone know what a one-way lead is?" He shakes his head again as only a few kids raise their hands. They listen closely as Pop–Coach Cuesta to them–goes over the fundamentals of base running. "Fundamentals," he will repeat repeatedly during the two-hour practice, "base running, bunting, sliding. Nobody taught them to you, so I'll have to teach you all."
Teaching fundamentals might be why Jefferson High School's baseball program under Pop Cuesta's 37-year tenure has turned out some of the best players in professional baseball. Cuesta's calm yet assertive hand guided Fred McGriff, Louis Gonzalez, and Tino Martinez. Most recently, Ryan Chambers of the L.A. Angels and Robert Gordon of the N.Y. Mets are the latest Jefferson alums to make the big time. "I've got to add their names to the list," he says, referring to a giant billboard pointing toward the street filled with the names of Jefferson grads who have gone pro.
The locker room is a virtual baseball shrine, the walls lined with autographed bats. Tony LaRussa's bat hangs over the door to Pop's office, while Fred McGriff's locker-currently in use–is marked with a plaque. The young kids milling around the locker room, hoping to play in this Friday's inter-squad practice game, may not have been entirely aware of the names taped above their lockers before they got here. Every once in a while, though, they catch a glimpse of the school's storied past–and maybe their future–when one of Jefferson's All-Stars stops by for a visit. "Tino's come by a few times; Louis has talked to them. The kids get pretty excited."
Emeterio "Pop" Cuesta was born in Ybor City on the corner of 19th Street and 8th Avenue and grew up playing on the fields of Cuscaden and Macfarlane Parks. He credits his early training in baseball to Andrew Espolita, who coached for the Tampa Municipal League at Cuscaden Park on 21st Street in Ybor City. "I started playing for him when I was around 10 or 11, all the way to when I was 16 or so." Little league, as it is known today, didn't exist back then. Instead, kids came up in the city–run or privately sponsored leagues like the American Legion. The Inter-Social League, which fielded teams as early as 1910, comprised local fraternal organizations like the Elks Club, the Cuban Club, or the Centro Asturiano, one of Ybor City's Spanish mutual aid societies. In Ybor City, cigar factory owners formed The Cigar City League, which fielded teams of cigar workers to play other factories. Cuesta Rey, for example, won the 1913 Cigar City League Championship.
After high school, Cuesta played minor league ball with the Tampa Scrappers, part of the Florida State League. "When I was growing up, the older kids in Cuscaden Park were our coaches. Tampa had a Municipal League, and they used to pick an All-Star team to play the Cubans in Cuba or teams down in Miami and St. Pete. Andrew Espolita coached the team for the City."
Tampa has always been a baseball hotbed. The area has produced some of Major League Baseball's top players, from Al Lopez to Lou Pinella, Wade Boggs to Tino Martinez. Tampa's roots as a spring training destination, the Latin inter-social leagues of West Tampa and Ybor City, and local minor league teams like the Tampa Smokers all played some part in planting a fertile ground for Tampa's budding ball players. In all, Tampa and St. Petersburg have hosted 16 minor league teams, beginning with the arrival of the Chicago Cubs in 1913 and continuing today with the New York Yankees.
"We've had good ballplayers come out of Tampa because they were well coached growing up. They were fundamentally sound. We used to have coaches in West Tampa who had played semi-pro and professional baseball, and they understood the game. They taught the kids the basics. Then all those guys stopped coaching."
The game also changed. Independently owned minor league teams are mostly gone, and the inter-social leagues, funded by the area's fraternal organizations, are no more. Without the pro and semi-pro experience, says Cuesta, it's difficult for today's coaches to instill a high level of understanding in their young players. "They can hoot and holler a lot, but they're not really teaching."
When spotting good players, Cuesta says it's all about work ethic. "A kid often has potential, but they don't want to put the time in. Those kids usually don't make it." With his small staff, Cuesta calmly reinforces the fundamentals. Without them, he says, "They're lost."
NOTE: Pop Cuesta is Uncle to Cigar City Magazine's founder and publisher, Lisa M. Figueredo. He drove her to Jefferson High School, Monday-Friday in his driver's ed car, ensuring she did not skip classes. She may not have learned the fundamentals of baseball, but she was taught the fundamentals of life thanks to her Aunt Sylvia "Tata" and her Uncle Pop!
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
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