Yankees Magazine: The Captain of Captains

An icon in Cuba, Antonio Pacheco is molding the next generation of Yankees

September 7th, 2016
Pacheco's strong belief in quality repetition made him a star player in Cuba. He adheres to that same philosophy as a defensive coach for the Tampa Yankees. (New York Yankees)

Judging by the photos that surfaced online from time to time this summer, Derek Jeter is probably not looking to become a Minor League coach. The future Hall of Famer looked perfectly content golfing with former teammates in the Dominican and marrying model Hannah Davis in Napa.

But imagine, for a moment, if Tampa's most famous resident got the itch to return to baseball and decided to pop over to Steinbrenner Field and lend a hand. After the starstruck factor wore off, wouldn't the young members of the Single-A Tampa Yankees benefit immensely from having someone of Jeter's caliber around?

Unbeknownst to many, the T-Yanks already employ someone with a similar pedigree.

Defensive coach Antonio Pacheco Massó was Cuba's all-time hits leader for more than a decade, amassing 2,356 hits in 1,853 games from 1983 to 2001. A career .334 hitter, Pacheco helped Santiago de Cuba win three straight National Series championships from 1999 to 2001. He also collected 1,304 RBI, 1,258 runs, 366 doubles, 284 home runs and 63 triples.

A longtime captain of Cuba's national team, Pacheco shined bright on the world stage. The second baseman batted .402 in international competition, including .362 in three Olympics, earning the nickname "The Captain of Captains" from his peers.

"If you talk about the history of Cuban baseball, you must mention Antonio Pacheco," said Yankees batting practice pitcher Danilo Valiente, who coached in his native Cuba for 15 years before coming to the United States in 2006 and beginning his ascent up the Yankees' coaching ranks. "He is one of the three most complete all-around players in Cuban baseball history. He was always one of the most respected players, not only as a baseball player, but as a human being outside of the field. He's a great human being."

A Rising Star

Sitting in a quiet corner of the cafeteria at Himes Field, the Yankees' Minor League training complex, Pacheco mimics the motion and sound of a carpenter hammering nails.

Tuk. Tuk. Tuk.

An interlocking "NY" adorns Pacheco's snug-fitting shirt, revealing muscular arms that, even now that he's in his early 50s, look like they could make quick work of an inside fastball. There is a gleam in his eye as he shares his life story, from playing with a rubber ball in the streets of Palma Soriano with his nine siblings through his legendary career as a player and manager in Cuba.

At the root of all his success, he said, was discipline and hard work. And so, the way a carpenter hammers hundreds of nails every day until he achieves perfect form and it becomes second nature -- Tuk. Tuk. Tuk. -- that's how Pacheco approached hitting.

"My concept was swing, swing," he said in Spanish, his words later translated into English. "I wasn't thinking I'm going to get tired; I was thinking the more swings I take, the more comfortable and confident I will feel."

He took his first steps toward a professional career when he enrolled at a sports initiation school, where former National Series pitcher Mario Ferrer honed Pacheco's natural ability to hit to the opposite field.

Pacheco was just 16 when he debuted for Santiago de Cuba during the 1980-81 season. The following year, he tied for the league lead in triples. He joined Cuba's national team in 1983, and in 1984, at age 20, Pacheco batted .429 in the Amateur World Series, helping Cuba take gold while Barry Bonds and Team USA settled for bronze.

It was around this time that Pacheco, a star shortstop, was asked by his Santiago manager to consider moving to second base to make room for an up-and-coming shortstop named Evenecer Godinez.

"I thought about my team," Pacheco said. "And I decided to take the chance."

Shaping the Yankees' Future

The buzz surrounding Jorge Mateo was growing. The young infielder, just 20 at the start of this season, was regarded as one of the top prospects in the Yankees organization -- a surefire future Big League shortstop according to some.

But soon after he began his fifth professional season, team brass decided they wanted to see how he would fare at second base. For Mateo, 2016 would require him to raise his game if he wanted to succeed.

Pacheco took Mateo -- and all of the Tampa Yankees infielders -- under his wing. He works them hard, teaching them the finer aspects of things such as receiving throws from the catcher and tagging base runners. He feeds them a steady diet of drills to improve their hand-eye coordination: short-hop drills, one-hand drills where they're just feet apart, almost like a two-man juggling routine.

Tuk. Tuk. Tuk.

"This game is about repetition, and it's like anything; the more you do something, the more comfortable you get and the closer you get to mastering it -- although you're never going to master this game," said Tampa Yankees manager Patrick Osborn. "So, he is deeply rooted in quality repetition."

The T-Yanks enjoyed a great season, record-wise, but Single-A ball is all about development, and Pacheco's influence unquestionably contributed to success in that department.

"It's an amazing opportunity that we have because he's a guy that teaches us something new every day," Mateo said through interpreter Marlon Abreu. "And the way he teaches us is very honest. It's very legit and honest, and that's something we really appreciate. We have a lot of respect for him for that, and it's easier for us to learn from him because when he is giving us new information, we focus on what he's saying because we know he's a genuine person who's really helping us."

Osborn said that Pacheco, having grown more comfortable in his third year in America, has started to open up a bit and smile a little more often. More importantly, the way Pacheco connects with the players is something that cannot be underestimated.

"He has a huge heart," Osborn said, noting Pacheco's humility and politeness. "He cares about these kids, he only wants the best for them, he wants to make them better, and he knows what he's doing. This is a very, very intelligent baseball guy with years and years of experience at high levels, so he has impacted these kids in a way that's extremely valuable for our organization.

"This is a guy that our players should try to emulate."

A Legend and a Friend

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The 1988-89 season ended with Santiago de Cuba defeating Havana's powerful Industriales for Pacheco's first National Series title. He continued to star at second base and thrive in international competition. In 1991, he was named captain of Cuba's national team, and at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona -- the first time baseball was a fully sanctioned medal sport -- the 28-year-old hit .350 with three homers, 11 runs and 12 RBI in nine games, helping Cuba win gold and earning a nickname that stuck for life. </cuba's>

"My teammates called me 'The Captain of Captains' because they didn't only see my athletic abilities, but also my living example for the team through my actions," Pacheco said. "I was an example of not only words: Any colleague, any situation, any problem, Pacheco would be there to help. That's what a captain is -- a man that leads through his actions, not his words. An athlete that is hurt, but still goes out to play for his team and wins the respect of his colleagues; those are the captains."

Pacheco's actions spoke volumes in the 1990s as Cuban players who experienced so much success in international competition started going to great lengths to test their mettle in the Major Leagues.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez was a star pitcher for the Industriales during that era, as well as a key contributor on the national team. At his 2015 Latino Baseball Hall of Fame induction, he called winning gold in Barcelona the most special moment of his career. Yet for all his success, El Duque was known for being humble and jovial, "a normal person who did not see himself as superior to anyone," Pacheco said.

So when Hernandez was banned from baseball in Cuba as punishment for his half-brother, Livan, defecting, the pitcher was heartbroken. Many treated him as an outcast, fearful that they, too, would be punished for showing Hernandez any kind of support.

But The Captain of Captains would not turn his back on a friend.

"He was special," said Hernandez, who fled Cuba in 1997 and helped the Yankees capture three straight world championships from 1998 to 2000. "One day, when I was working in the Hospital Pediatrico in Havana, he came up to me and said, 'Hi, how are you?' The rest of the people didn't come. They were a little scared, and I understand why. But he had a good answer to everybody. It's a good memory."

Pacheco prefers not to discuss defections and politics, but he recalls why he felt it was the right thing to do.

"I'm going to speak from the heart and with sincerity; I supported him with all my heart because I saw how he was living, and I saw how they removed him completely from the game," said Pacheco. "A teammate, who ran and struggled by your side, winning an Olympic medal and taking championship titles -- to see him in that way, I felt pity and thought, 'Oh, this could happen to me, too.' Therefore, I supported him with all of my heart, and I always supported him and did not allow anyone to speak badly of El Duque. It was only modest support that I could provide, but I always respected his decision 100 percent."

As players fled, the Major Leagues crossed Pacheco's mind. But like many, the thought of possibly never seeing his children again was too much to bear. He continued to focus on his career in Cuba, reaching incredible heights. Another gold in Atlanta in 1996. Three straight National Series championships, capped off by a pinch-hit grand slam in the eighth inning of a 4-1 win in the 2001 clincher. The Captain of Captains became a legend.

Tuk. Tuk. Tuk.

When Cuban officials started allowing certain veteran players -- ones they deemed potential future managers -- to play professionally in Japan, Pacheco jumped at the opportunity. He played three years in Japan, where he admired the Japanese ballplayers' pursuit of excellence.

"From my experience, I saw that the Japanese didn't have the same natural physical talents that we have, but I saw their work ethic and discipline," he said. "They worked tirelessly toward perfection -- they 'work, work, work' -- and it was a chance for me to see how players who don't have optimal physical conditions can match up with a big player and get on his level with a strong will and mental training."

Upon his return to Cuba, he hoped to begin a coaching career at the lower levels, but the baseball federation would have none of it. The Captain of Captains was handed the reins to his old Santiago de Cuba team, managing the Avispas -- Wasps -- to three titles in four years between 2005 and 2008.

He also managed the Cuban national team, but the backlash he received after a silver medal finish at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 soured him on the job. Between the lack of resources he was given to work with and realizing that his immense efforts were no longer being appreciated, Pacheco started to think that it was time for a change.

"I figured out that I needed to leave because what I had accomplished as an athlete, I was losing as a coach," Pacheco said. "I did not ask to be there; it was not my choice to be manager [of the national team]. But I figured I needed to leave for my health and for my overall well-being."

At Home in Pinstripes

Of course, The Captain of Captains would never roll up to Steinbrenner Field wearing medals around his neck and handing out baseball cards with his stats on the back. After fulfilling a contract with Cuba's sports federation to coach youth baseball in Canada, he arrived in Florida in July 2014 quietly and humbly, simply looking for an opportunity.

Pacheco had spent the previous year coaching kids at a school in Huntington, Ontario, outside of Toronto. There, he reconnected with a Cuban woman named Noemi Zaldivar Salgado. They were married, and when Noemi's application to work as a nurse at Tampa General Hospital was accepted, they were permitted to move to the Sunshine State.

Tampa's Cuban community quickly caught wind of the fact that Pacheco was in town, and an exhibition game at Rome and Sligh Park was organized to welcome their hero and raise a few dollars to help him get his American life started.

Their warm embrace -- and a climate much more familiar than that of Canada -- had Pacheco feeling right at home. Now he just needed a job. He was willing to take anything, even at the youth level, as long as he could remain involved with the game he loves.

Fortunately for Pacheco, he had an old friend in Florida who has some pull with the Yankees.

"Somebody asked me about him, and I said, 'I think that he's a good player, and a good coach, too,'" said El Duque, who has served as a guest instructor during Spring Training. "After that, I didn't help him. He helped himself. He has a lot of history, a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge.

"He's one of the best guys I've known."

Valiente, the Yankees' batting practice pitcher, agrees. He remembers being a third base coach for the Cuban national team and seeing firsthand Pacheco's remarkable ability to move runners over, to deliver in the clutch, to anticipate where balls were going to be hit. And, of course, the respect he garnered from teammates and opponents alike.

Valiente, who stays in touch with his compatriot during the season and works with him when they're together in Tampa, also bonded with Jeter during the last portion of the legendary shortstop's career. The New York Times wrote in April 2014 how Jeter's insistence that Valiente be announced alongside the rest of the team during baseline introductions on the captain's final Opening Day made Valiente weep. Does Valiente see any similarities between the two leaders?

"The same qualities," he said. "It's as if they're the same person."

If Jeter does decide he wants to coach someday, the Yankees would surely make room for him. But while he's off in his honeymoon phase, enjoying retired life, Antonio Pacheco is quietly molding the next Yankees icon, showing young players what it takes to be a leader on and off the field.

Tuk. Tuk. Tuk.