A Dispatch from Caracas
The 2002 Caribbean Series
by Steve Holmes
A concession stand favorite is a fried lump of corn dough. I understood
just two words the P.A. announcer said: "Pepsi-Cola." And those dancers?
Can they get away with those moves?
Welcome to the Caribbean Series. Welcome to Venezuela.
Each February, the Serie del Caribe matches the winter-league champions
of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico. The week-long
affair rotates between the four nations and even went to Miami for a couple
of years. In 2002, Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, took its turn as the
focus of the Latin baseball world.
Going by history alone, the Dominican representative should have had an
easy time of it. The Licey Tigres (Tigers) own eight Caribbean Series
titles, as many as all the Mexican and Venezuelan teams combined. Among Licey's
competitors in 2002, Venezuela's Magallanes Navagantes (Navigators) have
won the Series twice. Puerto Rico's Bayamon Vaqueros (Cowboys) and Mexico's
Culiacan Tomateros (Tomato Growers) each has taken a single crown.
Yet Mexico came back from four runs down to knock off the host team in the series
opener for both squads. The next night for the Venezuelans' contest, there were
plenty of empty seats. Venezuelan fans are more fickle than I expected. A win
produced a big crowd for the following game. A loss meant I'd have plenty of
room to stretch out in the stands manana. Strange for a place where a manager
once said, "Every game is a World Series." After his team qualified for the
playoffs, he pulled his starters to give them a rest. Angry fans rushed the
field. The game was forfeited.
Venezuelans are also passionate about their politics, and the country's unstable
political situation spilled over into the ballpark. The Navagantes center
fielder, Endy Chavez, shares a last name (though unrelated) with Venezuela's
president, a populist whose leftist leanings have split the country along class
lines. When Endy came to the plate, thousands of fans chanted, "Endy si, Chavez no!"
One night, I saw fireworks from anti-government protests a few miles away.
This was mild compared to what another group of Americans experienced in Venezuela
ten years ago. In the documentary "Winterball," edgy gringos watched from a
hotel balcony as jet fighters roared overhead during a coup attempt. When it was safe
to go out, some of the Americans fled for the airport. It takes a hardy and flexible
personality to survive and thrive on another continent.
Some Americans are doing just that. Rosters include a sprinkling of gringo
managers and players like Ricky Bones and Wayne Franklin. Each Venezuelan team
can have seven extranjeros on its regular-season roster. For other leagues,
the number ranges from five to nine.
The type of American who plays winter ball has changed. Thirty years ago,
stars like Pete Rose and Dave Parker came south for the season, which
begins in mid-October. That was when major-league stars needed the money
and Venezuela's oil production provided it. Since then, salaries in the
big leagues have gone up and Venezuela's economy has gone south. Now,
the gringos tend to be high-level prospects or young or marginal
major-leaguers. [Editor's Note: In the mid-1990s MLB instituted "The I-Rod Rule"
in response to a photograph of Ivan Rodriguez catching in the Winter Leagues,
after he had promised the Rangers that he would only DH. These restrictions
strictly limit who can be put on the rosters of Winter League teams.]
I saw no difference between the style of play down there and that of
the North American pro leagues. No surprise, due to the presence of the
Americans - and natives like Bob Abreu, Felix Jose and Carlos Baerga who
have made it big in the majors and return home to play in the winter.
More help for a Caribbean Seires club comes from its vanquished victims. For 2002,
each national titlist added around a dozen players from other teams in its league.
The Dominican Republic's refuerzos (reinforcements) included Vladimir
Guerrero and Miguel Tejada.
Formidable players to face, but the Mexicans kept winning. By Wednesday, the
tournament's fifth day, they had first place to themselves. The Venezuelans
kept losing. The early-week crowds, whose enthusiasm tested the strength of my
eardrums, thinned out. The visiting teams each brought a few hundred fans. It
felt like a college football atmosphere with the mascots, painted faces and
swirling flags. Another American said the crowd's electricity reminded him
of overtime in a Stanley Cup hockey playoff game. It's a good-natured rivalry,
though (memo to self: do not charge into the Venezuelan section while waving a
Dominican flag unless you like beer-soaked clothes.)
Unlike my summer haunt, the American minor leagues, the Caribbean Series kept
the focus almost solely on baseball (thank goodness!). Latin music played on
the P.A. system. No ballpark has been spared from Queen's "We Will Rock You,"
though the scourge of "Who Let the Dogs Out" (heard at Mexicali this winter)
has not spread this far south.
No special promotions or giveaway days. No between-innings contests or lame
"entertainment." With a couple of exceptions.
I noticed here and in Mexico that the show is a bit raunchier south of the
Rio Grande. One of the mascots pretended to defecate and then to wipe his rear
end. High in the left field bleachers, female dancers in halter tops and
painted-on pants gyrated between innings in a show complete with fog machine
and sexually suggestive moves. Disco meets Kama Sutra. When a team made the last
out of its at-bat, the booming music and strobe lights cued hundreds of men to
rush toward the stage like iron filings to a magnet.
Watching women in skin-tight outfits shake their stuff always makes me hungry.
The ballpark had American-style hamburguesas and perros calientes
(hot dogs), and even Pizza Hut, but I chose the local cuisine: Fried plantain strips,
parrilla (meat marinated and cooked on a charcoal grill) and arepas, (flattened
balls of corn dough filled with meat or cheese.) The wealth of food booths and souvenir
stands and the pre-game Latin-style entertainment gave the concourse the feel of a
A county fair at which I felt welcome. Despite the region's anti-American reputation,
I often benefited from the kindness of strangers who spoke a bit of English. It
helped to know enough Spanish, as I do, to meet folks more than halfway in the most
basic of conversations and to have brought small gifts, as I did, from the local
minor-league team for those who made my way easier. Baseball transcends a lot of
differences. There's a kind of brotherhood at the ballpark.
Strong pitching helped Mexico's Culiacan Tomateros win the Caribbean Series.
Rodrigo Lopez allowed only three hits and one walk in a 3-0 complete game against the
Puerto Ricans to clinch the Series for los Tomateros on the competition's final
day. It was only the fourth title for a Mexican team in the 32 years of the Series'
Next year, the Series moves on to Puerto Rico. If you love baseball in an
exotic setting and prefer to catch some rays when your neighbors are shoveling snow,
give it a try.
If you see the R-rated dancers, tell them I said, "Hello."
© 2002 Steve Holmes
Read about the
2000 Caribbean Series
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