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It’s time again for that famous annual baseball extravaganza, at least in the geographical mass that Christopher Columbus dubbed, “The New World.” It’s called the Caribbean Baseball Classic, where young players hope to make an impact and washed up veterans try to resurrect their careers. Mostly, though, the event is like a grand fiesta with a heavy dose of national pride.
The tournament goes back to the late 1940s, when Cuba first reigned supreme with its great teams on center stage. Fidel Castro would later forbid the island’s elite athletes to leave the country without permission, an obstacle future stars from Orlando Hernandez to Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes would overcome. Clubs from Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua would soon emerge as strong forces, only to be excluded for not following the political format.
So, forever it seems, the affair has featured the “Fab Four”: Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The latter nation will be the party hosts this year for six days of doubleheaders at Santo Dominigo’s Quisqueya Stadium. This is not an all-star gathering, but instead a match-up of the championship teams from each country’s winter season. Each club, however, draws from a large “property player” list that makes final rosters a bit confusing. Last year, the Yaquis of Obregon, Mexico’s entry, walked away with the hardware, and the team qualified again to defend its title. The following is a preview of what can be expected of the combatants, although predicting a clear favorite would be a Las Vegas bookie’s worst nightmare:
Yaquis de Obregon
The nickname Yaquis sounds a lot like Yankees, and the Mexicans have a lot in common with the “Bronx Bombers.” This is an aging team of veterans who live and die by the long ball, led by 32-year-old Barbaro Canizares, who happens to be Cuban. The 6′-3″, 240 pound slugger was the Pacific League’s home run king with 20 jacks, and also managed a .312 batting average with an on-base percentage of .426. Also adding to the big-fly list were second baseman Carlos Valencia (14), right fielder Victor Diaz (13) and 36-year-old American Doug Clark (10) who also leads the Yaquis in stolen bases.
Obviously, the above-mentioned players are not household names, and none of them have any ties to major league organizations. That might prompt a person to cheer for this group of misfits, even though they have impressive credentials. The Yaquis star pitcher, Luis Mendoza, does happen to be a Kansas City Royals farm hand. And cagey former Yankee Luis Ayala, plus 37-year-old lefty Randy Keisler help anchor the staff.
Indios de Mayaguez
The Indios big reason for success is 24-year-old middle infielder Sergio Miranda, a prize Milwaukee Brewers prospect who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. The switch-hitting Miranda batted a sizzling .354 in the playoffs and helped a mediocre Mayaguez squad peak at the right moment. Also coming up big were Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Ruiz, and veteran free agent Ruben Gotay, who’s hoping the international spotlight will land him a job this spring.
New York Mets journeyman Mike Antonini handles the mound chores for the Indios. Another hurler who has done well is Oakland A’s journeyman Travis Schlichting, a career minor leaguer who has turned some heads on the island, at least during the regular season.
Although I hate to stick my neck out, I would surmise that the Puerto Ricans are in a bit over their heads. But then again, that’s why you play the game(s).
Tigres de Aragua
The Venezuelan league had a good mixture of well-known participants, including Endy Chavez, Carlos Gomez, Jose Altuve and Gregor Blanco. None of those players were members of the Aragua team, but they emerged in triumph anyway. The “name” Tigres representative was Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, and he didn’t even play the whole season due to his well-documented kidnapping ordeal. Hence, the team pulled things together in the playoffs, thanks to Ramos and some clutch hitting from aging star Edgardo Alfonso and outfielder Jorge Cortez.
Leones de Escogido
The host team is sprinkled with veterans like Fernando Tatis and Julio Lugo, who still perform at high levels. They also have the services of Detroit Tigers second baseman Ramon Santiago and fellow Tiger Andy Dirks, who was a walk-off hero in the postseason.
Pitching-wise, the Leones count on Houston Astros starter Aneury Rodriguez, Jordan Norberto of the Oakland A’s and veteran reliever Fernando Rodney. The Dominicans are well stacked from top to bottom and with the home crowd behind them, they could be dangerous.
The daily activities can be viewed on ESPN Deportes and other Spanish language cable outlets. The event winds down with the championship game scheduled for Tuesday, February 7.