From last March until February, it's been a banner year for baseball internationally.
Starting in the spring with the World Baseball Classic—and lasting through the final out of Mexico's second consecutive win in the Caribbean Series, strides have been made to help the sport expand its reach and, eventually, its talent pool.
After three tries, the Dominican Republic finally got over the hump and won the WBC, closing out a perfect tournament run with a 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the finals.
Buoyed by a two-run double from all-star third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and five strong innings from Twins righthander Sam Deduno, the Dominican Republic clamped down a strong lineup from Puerto Rico that included Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina.
Reigning American League saves leader Fernando Rodney finished the win with two strikeouts in the ninth, including a punctuating punchout of Luis Figueroa to seal the championship and set off a raucous celebration at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
Ricardo Nanita, a 32-year-old journeyman outfielder who was a reserve for the Dominican Republic, said that, for a nation that prides itself as a baseball powerhouse, the impact of the win was immeasurable.
For a couple of reasons, he said, the win was much bigger and more important than the 19 Caribbean Series the Dominican Republic had claimed. One key difference was the audience.
When the Classic is on, the world is watching. Not so, with the Caribbean Series, although even that is being disseminated more widely these days thanks to streaming Internet and cable packages that offer ESPN Deportes to baseball junkies around the globe.
Second, and most important, was the talent field. Nanita pointed out that by the time the Caribbean Series rolled around, most of the big-name players had exited to prepare for spring training in the United States.
To wit, the biggest names, at least from a prospect standpoint, in this year's final were Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas, a pair of Twins farmhands who don't stand to bear much impact on the big club, especially with Rosario staring down a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse.
For those reasons, Nanita said the WBC win was bigger than any of the championships he'd win with the Toros de Este or the ring he claimed in absentia with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2011, which the team won after he'd been bumped to Triple-A.
Mexico Wins Caribbean Crown
For all the star power on Dominican champion Tigres de Licey this year—Carlos Marmol, Emilio Bonifacio, Julio Lugo, Francisco Peguero and Ronny Paulino—it didn't make it to the Caribbean Series final.
Instead, they were stopped in the semifinals by Mexico, the eventual champions.
In their second consecutive Series victory and third in the last four years, the Mexicans hit .285/.350/.455 over their six games, all of which were tops for the tournament. Their seven homers, including a game-breaking grand slam from catcher Sebastian Valle in the championship, also paced the field.
Chris Roberson, a 34-year-old outfielder who spent time in the Phillies and Orioles systems, led the offense for Team Mexico with 10 hits, including a double, triple and two homers, in 27 at-bats. The output helped him earn the tournament's MVP honors. Juan Delgadillo, who started and won the clincher, pitched 14 shutout innings while allowing just eight hits. He walked nobody and struck out nine.
To claim victory, Mexico had to go through Puerto Rico, which was fronted by Twins farmhands Rosario and Vargas. Though neither player tore it up, they provided the squad with the most prospect power.
Before reaching the final, Mexico also had to dispatch Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and, for the first time in 54 years, Cuba. And although they were soundly beaten in three of the four games they played, the Cubans did bring four of their nation's top talents.
Alfredo Despaigne, Jose Fernandez, Yulieski Gourriel and Norge Ruiz all saw action, although none quite performed up to the reputations they'd earned during their time in Serie Nacional. Despaigne, who holds Serie Nacional's single-season home run record, went deep once in 15 at-bats, and Gourriel hit .267 (3-for-15).
Team Cuba's presence presented a complicated problem for a few of the tournament's other participants, especially one who found fame and fortune when he fled to the United States years earlier.
Yunesky Maya, a former Cuban star who defected in 2009 and signed with the Nationals in July of 2010, refused to pitch against his former country in the first game of the Caribbean Series, which pitted his Dominican squad against the Cubans.
Seeing the possibility on the horizon, Maya made his decision even before his Licey team had outdueled Escogido for the Dominican League crown.
“The first thing I would do is (greet) them . . . but not play against them." Maya told a Dominican television station toward the beginning of January.
Mexico's Yunesky Sanchez, also born in Cuba, did not make the same decision. He not only played against his home country, but went 3-for-5 with a double, a run and an RBI in their only matchup, which opened the series.
U.S. audiences got early looks at Ruiz, Gourriel and Fernandez, as well as a host of other Cuban players, when Team Cuba and Team USA met in Cary, N.C., for a five-game friendship series, which the U.S. swept.
Newly defected pitcher and infielder Raisel Iglesias and Barbaro Erisbel Arruebarruena were also on the team, as well as 22-year-old infielder Yasmani Tomas and 25-year-old righty Vladimir Garcia, both of whom impressed in their brief time.
Despite their team's failing in the Caribbean Series, Iglesias, Arruebarruena, and Gourriel, as well as Tomas and Fernandez, were part of a championship this summer. Cuba triumphed over a four-team field that included Chinese Taipei, Curacao and the Netherlands at the World Port Tournament.
The tournament, held in July in Rotterdam, Netherlands, was finished with a 4-0 Cuban shutout of the Dutch team, which included a pair of hits from Fernandez and an RBI from Gourriel.
Asia Series Opens Doors
The Asia Series, played in Taiwan and won for the first time by the Canberra Cavalry, also saw expansion.
For the first time in the tournament's history, the winner of the European Cup was invited into the field. This year that was the Italian Baseball League's Fortitudo Baseball Bologna, which featured former major leaguer Chris Aguila. The Marlins' third-round selection in 1997, Aguila spent parts of four seasons with Florida and the Mets and made a 14-game cameo with the Japanese League's Softbank Hawks in 2009.
Bologna lost both games it played, but its presence alone was a big step forward for the advancement of the sport.
Canberra punctuated its championship, the first by a non-Asian team in the tournament's history, with seven RBIs—including a two-run single and a grand slam from catcher Jack Murphy, to rout the Uni-President Lions of the Chinese Baseball League.
Those four tournaments, all of which featured some of the best talent the world has to offer, all helped the sport take big steps toward widening its global reach. Fans abroad will only have to wait until March 22 and 23, when the Diamondbacks and Dodgers square off in Australia, for another taste of the big leagues.