If you’re a Mexico baseball fan, you have the right to feel very proud these days. Sit back on your couch with a cold cerveza and enjoy the moment.
When the underdog Yaquis de Obregon ultimately prevailed against the ferocious Leones de Escogido in an 18-inning marathon on February 7, they did a lot more than win the Caribbean Series winter ball championship. This team put Mexico baseball back into the international spotlight and aroused renewed national interest in baseball, a sport that is king in the northern part of the country.
It was Mexico’s turn to host this four-team tournament that also included the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and it was done with style. The event was perfect timing to inaugurate Hermosillo’s brand new facility, Estadio Sonora, and favorite son, Fernando Valenzuela, christened the mound by tossing the first pitch.
For a while, it wasn’t certain if the Yaquis would even be in the hunt during this double, round-robin affair. As expected, the Escogido club established themselves as the best entry, running away with a 5-1 record at the end of regular play. Mexico was in a three-way tie with a 2-3 mark, but advanced to face the Dominicans with a convincing, 10-0 romp over Puerto Rico’s Cirollos de Caguas.
If the format had been the same as last year, Escogido would have already won the tournament. In an attempt to make the event more interesting, however, the teams with the two best records were required to play each other in a winner-take-all game for the first time. The Dominicans, led by super stars Hanley Ramirez and Fernando Rodney, grumbled about this change before their final contest against Venezuela, and the team pouted in their clubhouse over pay issues before finally taking the field.
The Yaquis went into the title game knowing that they had lost to the Escogido team twice before. Compared to the slick, pinstriped islanders, the rag-tag Mexicans looked like a Sunday softball team, with a half dozen sponsor patches covering their jerseys and pants. And they were an old, grizzled group, with over half the team in their mid to late 30s. But bolstered by a boisterous throng of support, these veterans performed like the players they once were in their prime.
Rodrigo Lopez, a 37-year-old right-hander who has a minor league deal pending with the Philadelphia Phillies this spring, started the championship game and held his opponents to just one unearned run in seven-plus innings. The former big league ace was in line for the win until Luis Nanita hit a shot off Luis Ayala in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game, handing the Baltimore Orioles reliever a blown save. Despite playing on the road, Escogido held the home half “hammer” as the top seed team.
The game remained knotted until Karim Garcia, the “Latino Bambino,” hit a bomb to right-center in the 14th inning off Jailen Peguero, who had pitched brilliantly in the series before coughing up a critical mistake. But Mexico’s usually reliable Edgar Gonzalez, who like Peguero is a Houston Astros hopeful, gave up a two out single to Miguel Tejada. That allowed Mets prospect Jordany Valdespin to score and swing the momentum back in the Dominican’s favor.
The climax came after three more scoreless stanzas, when 36-year-old Doug Clark hit a wall-scraper to right field that brought a thunderous roar from the capacity crowd, putting the Mexico baseball squad back on top as the battle approached the seven hour mark. So, when the Yaquis finally took care of business behind Marco Carrillo‘s yeoman work, it was finally fiesta time at 2:43 in the morning.
“This is the best feeling of my life,” beamed Clark, a 15-year minor leaguer who has revived his career after three seasons in Mexico. “My wife is here and my son is here – he was born in Mexico. This is a moment we’ll never, ever forget.”
For players like Clark, an American who has adopted Mexico and became a hero, the Caribbean Series is a unique experience. There’s an opportunity to compete at a high level with teammates like Garcia, Oscar Robles, Alfredo Amezaga and tournament MVP Luis Mendoza, all who have had success in the major leagues. Also, there is that patriotic chill a player gets, especially after winning a well-deserved trophy at home. Now, thanks to the Yaquis, the whole country is pumped up, especially in Sonora, and just in time for the World Baseball Classic next month.
It was equally awesome for players like Mendoza, who has a chance to make the Kansas City Royals starting rotation, and nearly threw a no hit game against Puerto Rico. And the Vera Cruz native was very appreciative of the the loyal fans in attendance.
“They are the ones who pushed us,” said Luis, pointing to the stands where people were still in party mode long after the closing ceremonies. “They were here the whole game.”
The 18-inning championship game was the longest ever in the 55-year history of the tournament. The total time was seven hours and 28 minutes. There were 507 pitches thrown and 18 pitching changes. That’s pretty amazing considering that the starting pitchers, Valdez and Angel Castro, both pitched into the seventh inning. And it’s ironic that Escogido dominated this contest offensively. They pounded out 16 hits, while the Yaquis could manage only six base knocks. But the Dominicans stranded 21 base runners and were 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position.
The Caribbean Series continues to have its hiccups and controversy, like the Dominican financial situation. But that’s baseball in Latin America. I do think the decision to have a meaningful conclusion with a championship game was the right thing to do. The round-robin concept is fun, but I believe Cuba and Panama should also be a part of this event. In that case, the six teams could be split into two groups, and the top two teams in each pool would advance to the semi-final and championship rounds. Just a thought.
One of the unsung participants for Mexico was Michael Benacka, who pitched in hot water throughout the 13th and 14th innings, but kept his team in the game. The 30-year-old Chicago native played independent ball in Laredo, Tex., last year before getting the opportunity to play for the Yaquis. In the big game, the right hander navigated through the meat of the Dominican batting order, walking three but not allowing a hit and notching a pair of swinging strikeouts.