Inside The Serie Del Caribe

By Bill Mitchell
February 4, 2005


MAZATLAN, Mexico–The annual Caribbean Series is relatively unknown to most Americans. But to many baseball fans from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, the series is an opportunity to show their national pride, as the winter league champions from each country meet for six days in a round-robin tournament.

This year's event is being held in the Mexican coastal resort city of Mazatlan, in the state of Sinaloa. The first three days have drawn capacity crowds, with Estadio Teodoro Mariscal bursting at the seams when the home team, Los Venados (the Deer), is playing. The atmosphere becomes a case of sensory overload, with constant music blaring from the loudspeakers and from multiple brass bands in the grandstands, fans blowing horns or shaking loud noisemakers, national flags being waved, young women dancing in the stands, and more. The noise level is consistently ear shattering.

Oh yeah, there's also a baseball game on the field.

Devil Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes, who is playing for Mazatlan, concurred about the atmosphere surrounding the Caribbean Series.

"This is unbelievable baseball down here," Gomes said. "It's the loudest 15 – 20,000 fans you can get. It's just a great experience to have at such a young age."

Major league stars return year after year to the Caribbean Series to participate with their country's team. Each winning team is able to add players from other clubs in their respective winter leagues, allowing big leaguers like Miguel Tejada (Dominican Republic), Vinny Castilla (Mexico) and Ramon Hernandez (Venezuela) to participate annually.

Some players, especially pitchers, are held back by their big league organizations, wanting them instead to be fresh coming into spring training in a few weeks. The Angels organization requested that ace reliever Francisco Rodriguez withdraw from the Venezuelan team, as did the Marlins with star outfielder Miguel Cabrera. Angels righty Bartolo Colon, who was one of the primary starters for the Dominican playoff champions, is not on his country's Caribbean Series roster.

But there are still plenty of stars on the field in the 2005 Caribbean Series. In addition to Castilla, the Mexican team has established big leaguers Erubiel Durazo (Athletics) and Elmer Dessens (Dodgers) on their roster. Joining Tejada on the Dominican club are Rafael Furcal (Braves), Ronnie Belliard (Indians), Julian Tavarez (Cardinals), Miguel Batista (Blue Jays) and Jose Lima (Royals). Infielder Alex Cinton (Diamondbacks) is a member of the Puerto Rican squad.

Tejada is a perennial member of the Dominican team.

"I give the opportunity for my country to be a winner," said Tejada. "My country is a baseball country, and I try to help every year."

As a bona fide major league superstar, Tejada is just the type of player that big league organizations prefer to hold out of winter competition. The risk of injury just before the start of big league spring training doesn't concern the Baltimore shortstop in the least.

"I'm not afraid to get hurt," said Tejada. "I love to play baseball and that's why I come here every year."

Cintron, who is playing in his third Caribbean Series, sees two benefits to his participation.

"I want to represent Puerto Rico," said Cintron, "and then I want to be here because it's close to spring training. When I get to spring training I'm ready."

Cintron is playing second base this winter, a position he moved to from shortstop in the middle of last season. Members of the Diamondbacks front office are here to track his progress at the position. "They have the opportunity to watch me and see how I'm doing defensively at second," Cintron said.

One of the younger players in this year's Caribbean Series is 20-year-old Puerto Rican Jonathan Sanchez. The southpaw from the Giants organization has also found the winter ball experience to be of great value.

"It's going to help me a lot because I'm playing with major league players," Sanchez said, "and learning how to play baseball."

Sanchez made his first Caribbean Series appearance on Thursday, pitching 3 1/3 scoreless innings against Venezuela.

Nationals outfielder Matt Cepicky is participating in his first Series as a member of the Dominican team. The lefthanded hitting outfielder has already learned a lot from his season in the Caribbean.

"It relaxes you down here," said Cepicky. "They come out and play hard, but they have fun. It's a great experience to be able to play with guys like Tejada, (Luis) Polonia, (Tony) Batista . . . Every team you play against has experienced big league guys. To be able to face the pitching you do, it gets you ready for the upcoming season."

Veteran journeyman Trenidad Hubbard, center fielder for the Mexican team, is playing in his third Caribbean series, the first with Puerto Rico in '96 and again with Mexico in '01. He also believes that playing here helps him when spring training rolls around.

"In big league camp, I always seem to be way ahead of my competition and it helps me," Hubbard said. "I take an edge into the season in being prepared by being here."

The Caribbean Series continues through Monday with a makeup game made necessary when the Dominican Republic team arrived late due to flight problems.