For some, cool Autumn ushers in thoughts of October’s Fall Classic, the rush of Football, and the onset of Hockey and Basketball. While I’m no different in that respect, my fandom also turns its attention to Caribbean Winter League baseball.
The Caribbean Big Four are in the process of opening their respective 2013-14 seasons. The Liga Venezuela de Beisbol Profesional and Liga Mexcicana del Pacifico began their seasons a week ago. Games in Liga de Beisbol Dominicano begin on October 18th, and in Puerto Rico, Liga de Beisbol Profesional-Roberto Clemente opens on November 1st.
Major League players may now begin reporting to teams under the terms of a new five year deal agreed upon between MLB and the Players Union, and since ratified by the Caribbean Confederation.
Clubs have generally always been able to prohibit their players from participating due to situations concerning injuries, overuse, or just safeguarding pitchers who endured high work loads during the season. Overall restrictions in the new agreement regarding player participation have now been modified. New specific language defines which injured players are declared ineligible. Position players with 552+ at-bats are not eligible to play winter ball. The old limit was 502 at-bats. If a class-AA starting pitcher exceeds 140 innings pitched, he is excluded from pitching in winter ball, and likewise if a pitcher’s work load increased by 25% over the previous season. Relief pitchers who exceed forty-five appearances during the regular season also may not participate. That number is down from fifty-five games. There are other less significant changes as well.
The Caribbean Series rotates between Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. This year’s tourney returns to la Isla de Margarita off Venezuela, site of the 2010 finals. The four leagues play their respective seasons which naturally culminate with a champion, who then move on to represent their country in the February tournament. The respective champions may supplement their rosters with players from other teams within their league.
Last year, los Yaquis de Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League defeated los Leones de Escogito of the Dominican Republic, in a deciding eighteen inning thriller to capture the Caribbean League title. The victory also came in front of their fellow countrymen; a feat not easily accomplished in this tournament. It was Mexico’s second title in the last three years, and their seventh overall.
There was a day when Puerto Rico was the premiere power of winter. The island is half my heritage, and I come from a baseball family, so it pains me to say this, but that time has passed. Many will point their finger squarely at the amateur draft. Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, in 1989 it was decided they should be included in the selection process. For starters, this means a player in P.R. must wait until he graduates high school before being allowed to sign a professional contract. That doesn’t even begin to address the imposed dilemma and burdens of having to attend college just to stay competitive against America’s bigger colleges and universities.
Secondly, high schools in Puerto Rico have no baseball programs to speak of. The great majority of baseball is played in leagues unaffiliated to school. This puts Puerto Rican high school players at a disadvantage when competing against baseball power houses like the states of Texas, Florida and California. Once, aspiring players (with legal representation) could sign contracts at age sixteen, but no more. As a result, there was increasingly less reason to pan for gold in Puerto Rico. Major League teams moved on, diverting their interests and money towards the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to mine for free agent prospects with few restrictions to speak of.
I last visited Puerto Rico in April, and this is my understanding of things. The recent troubles and inevitable one year shut-down (2007-08) of the Puerto Rican professional league came about through what else – waste, very poor leadership and even worse management. Otherwise, baseball on the island has crowned a champion every year since 1939. The game is far from dead there and the reorganized league will recover. As far as the problematic notions of high school, college and the draft, Puerto Rico is well on their way towards adapting and overcoming. The process has been slow, but is picking up steam. However, I can tell from just speaking with my younger second-cousins who’s time has come to make such decisions, baseball is no longer first and foremost on a new generation’s collective mind. To my (middle-aged) astonishment, sometimes baseball comes second. Kids!
Baseball’s initiative to establish academies in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are said to be having their desired effects. Before accepting the position of New York Mets general manager, Sandy Alderson worked in the Dominican Republic trying to normalize and give structure to an increasingly abusive system driven by nefarious player agents.
In the mean time, the Dominican Republic has become the formidable big brash bully of the Caribbean. They have won championships in four of the last seven years, and currently feed MLB with players at a furious rate unrivaled by any other country. They have captured the most Caribbean titles with nineteen. Puerto Rico is next with fourteen, but their last came thirteen years ago. Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba are all tied with seven championships, while Panama won their lone title back in 1950.
Cuba hosted and won the first Caribbean Series in 1949, and captured their second championship in 1952. Between 1956 and 1960, they won five straight titles, only to never compete in the winter tournament again. In 1961, Cuba’s professional league was dissolved. Because of the need for four teams, the Caribbean Series remained suspended for nine years. Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela completed the original circuit.
The tournament restarted in 1970 and with one exception has been in operation since. The Dominican Republic replaced Panama. In the first two seasons back, the Series facilitated a three team round-robin format. Then in 1972, Mexico joined the loop which helped re-establish the traditional four team format. In 1981, Venezuelan ball players staged a strike which prevented the Caribbean Series from being played. Otherwise, the yearly tournament has been in continuous play exceeding four decades.
Sadly, Cuba has not participated in over five decades. That’s an outright shame. Ever since Fidel Castro’s revolution effectively arrested a nation, baseball has been played behind closed doors – to us here in the States at least. As a result, a whole segment of fine quality baseball has been absent from traditional winter competition. This has not been lost on Caribbean Baseball officials, who would love to welcome them back into the fold, but not without assurances Cuba will be consistent, year-in and year-out participants.
After years of negotiations, Cuba’s return to the Caribbean Series in 2014 seemed like a real possibility. On June 13, 2013, Baseball America’s Michael Lananna wrote:
Caribbean Confederation commissioner Juan Francisco Puello Herrera, who has tried to bring Cuba back to the series since 1999, told The Associated Press that he’s working with the U.S. State Department to sort out any legal issues involved in the return of Cuba.
“We are really satisfied that after 14 years of negotiations, Cuba is finally returning to the Caribbean Series,” Puello Herrera said. “We don’t have approval from Major League Baseball for Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Series, but if Cuba can participate in the World Baseball Classic, we don’t see why they can’t be in the Caribbean Series.”
Major League Baseball wound up never issuing such approval. In fact, they flat out denied the motion. If I understand correctly, the issue revolves around having players signed to MLB contracts playing along side Cuban players on the same team. That is quite different from allowing a team from Cuba into the country and competing in a tournament such as the WBC.
So, only time will tell how Cuba and their rich baseball heritage evolves. The land of Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, Tony Perez, Tony Oliva, Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez, and Aroldis Chapman has so much more great talent to offer. After three World Baseball Classics, many baseball fans have come to understand this well. The Los Angeles Dodgers Yasiel Puig is only the most recent player from Cuba to display high proficiency in the game.
Outside of the WBC, the now unreliable Olympics and the Pan-American Games, for now it seems Cuban baseball will unfortunately remain largely isolated, and their players prohibited from showcasing their collective talents freely.
As only the game of baseball can, perhaps tournaments like the World Baseball Classic may have started the overall easing of tensions that bind, and attitudes that blind.