The Caribbean Series tournament is always full surprises and drama, and this year’s event, held on Venezuela’s secluded Margarita Island, was certainly no exception.
I guess one could say it wasn’t a shocker when Team Mexico, aka the Naranjeros de Hermosillo, once again emerged victorious. After all, when the Naranjeros whipped Puerto Rico’s Indios de Mayaguez, 7-1, it was the third time in four years Mexico took home the trophy. But the conclusion was a mere sidebar to the previous round-robin games that were baffling to both local fans and regional experts.
As usual, the two best teams on paper were the Tigres de Licey from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela’s host squad, the Navegantes de Magallanes. They were ultimately eliminated, however, by Mexico and Puerto Rico respectively. The jaw-dropper, though, was the poor performance by Team Cuba, which was making an appearance on this stage for the first time in 53 years. This brash group from the Naranjas de Villa Clara were clearly overrated and a major disappointment.
The Cubans fell out of favor with Caribbean Series directors after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. But cooler heads have prevailed in recent years, with staunch ally Venezuela lobbying heavily for Cuba’s return to the games under its watch. Unfortunately for Villa Clara, the hype and fanfare fizzled when they finished with an embarrassing, 1-3 record, in addition to being the only team that failed to advance to the playoff round.
In all fairness, the Caribbean Series isn’t an all-star classic. It features the winning teams from each territory’s winter ball league. I used the word “territory” because Puerto Rico is not a “country,” but rather a part of the United States. Anyway, even though Villa Clara didn’t feature the best talent Cuba has to offer, it was pretty damn close. The Cubans added players just like the rest of the teams, including well-known stars like Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne. The harsh reality is that the once-powerful brand of island baseball has become watered-down in the last decade, largely due to all the best players defecting to the big leagues. Alexander Guerrero, a star infielder in Cuba who has become the latest Los Angeles Dodger to become wealthy, says there are “only three or four good players left in Cuba,” and he’s right.
It seemed Villa Clara’s visit to Margarita Inland was doomed from the start. When the team bus pulled up in front of the Cuban’s state-run hotel, it was met by about 200 angry protesters who wouldn’t let the athletes exit. Average Venezuelans are not pleased that thousands of skilled workers from Cuba have come to their country because there are few jobs on the island. Therefore, most Cubans are generally disliked in Venezuela, including ballplayers. The incident infuriated Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, who promised prison terms for the opposition activists.
“This is pure fascism,” bellowed Maduro, who heard plenty of whistles and jeers at the opening ceremony.
The local fans were treated to more misery when the home-favorite Navegantes were knocked out of the tournament by Puerto Rico, a team that came out of the gate with an 0-2 slate. The Mayaguez squad was held scoreless behind the masterful pitching of Giancarlo Alvarado, 36, a 14-year pro who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. That might change this spring, though, since Alvarado signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets.
Mexico gained a berth in the finals with flair, leaving the Dominicans from Licey on the field in the bottom of the ninth inning. With runners on first and second with the score tied at two, Mexican catcher Sebastian Valle hit a slow roller up the middle, allowing Yunesky Sanchez to score and nail down a win for lefty reliever Oliver Perez.
The championship game was a scoreless pitchers duel for five innings, pitting Hermosillo’s Juan Delgadillo against ex-Los Angeles Angel, Joel Pineiro, for Mayaguez. But the veteran Pineiro, 35, was working on three days rest and ran out of gas. That enabled the Naranjeros to take care of business in the sixth frame with big flies from Chris Roberson and a grand slam shot by Valle. Roberson, a former Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks farm hand, was the tournament’s MVP and is becoming a celebrity of sorts in Mexico.
“I’m blessed to just be playing baseball,” notes Roberson, 34. “I could be stuck working a job that I hate, but instead I’m playing a game that I love.”