12/01/2004 11:17 AM ET
Winter Leagues important to many
Offseason baseball serves varied purposes
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
For some, namely minor league players trying to climb the ladder and player development executives trying to get them there, the Winter Leagues are all about added experience and development.
|David Ortiz is among many big leaguers who have used the Winter Leagues to stay sharp. (Andres Leighton/AP)
For others, like established Major Leaguers, playing during the "offseason" is a way to stay sharp while playing in front of adoring fans in their home country.
Then there's the group of one-time big leaguers, the slightly older set either trying to hold on to a career or just having some fun at home for a few months.
For the owners and fans of the teams, Winter League baseball is about one thing only: winning. Coming home with a Caribbean World Series title is the be all, end all.
|2004-05 Winter Leagues
|Complete coverage from the Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan leagues. More >
Regardless of one's perspective, however, there is no debate that the Winter Leagues help make baseball a truly year-round sport while adding to the globalization of the game.
"Winter League baseball has been a part of Major League baseball for many, many years," said Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball's vice president for International Baseball Operations. "Whether you consider it developmental or whether you consider it a place where your veterans can go and stay in shape over the winter, the Winter Leagues provide that place to Major League Baseball.
"I prefer Winter League baseball to the Arizona Fall League because you get the opportunity to play in front of big crowds. It really provides a forum to get the feel to play before a big crowd, especially for a young player. In the AFL, which is an excellent developmental league, you miss that. That's why Winter League baseball gives you a few things the AFL cannot provide."
Beginnings of the Caribbean Confederation
When looking for the start of Winter Leagues and the Caribbean World Series -- which will be held in Mazatlan, Mexico, from Feb. 1-6, 2005 -- you have to go back to the 1940s.
Before Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Winter Leagues were always chock full of talent, with many of the Negro League stars that were banned from Major League Baseball heading to Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Panama every winter to play. After Robinson signed, however, the owners of the clubs in the Caribbean realized that as the floodgates opened and more African-American players signed with Major League clubs, they would be at the mercy of Major League Baseball and its owners when trying to get the top players to come down each winter.
So the owners from these four countries joined forces, forming the Caribbean Confederation in 1948. In addition to making sure the interests of these leagues would continue to be met, it was decided that an annual series would be held with rotating hosts. The first tournament was held in Havana in 1949, with the Almandares of Cuba swept the series with a ton of offense, led by future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin's 11 RBIs, and three victories from Cuban legend Agapito Mayor.
Things ran smoothly until 1960, when the revolution in Cuba kept the island nation out of the tournament. For a decade, the Caribbean World Series wasn't held, with each league running independently. Rodrigo "Guigo" Otero helped revive the Series in 1970, getting the leagues in Mexico and the Dominican Republic to replace Cuba and Panama in the tournament. The Dominican Republic, which used to play only in the summer months, shifted to accomodate for its players to compete in Major League Baseball and enabled it to join the Confederation. Mexico joined a year later, in 1971, successfully continuing its summer league while adding a winter league on the Pacific coast.
There have been various spurts of instability in the Series over time. Venezuela couldn't compete in 1974, so the host nation -- Mexico -- provided two teams. The tournament in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas was cancelled in 1981 because of money disputes. With financial problems affecting the nations scheduled to host, Mexico stepped up and held the tournament on its soil for five of the 11 series between 1978 and 1989.
Things stabilized by 1993 -- though Venezuela did not participate last year because of political strife in that nation -- and winter ball got a huge boost in 1994-95, when players and fans alike were desperate for baseball action after the strike that cut the 1994 MLB season short.
Who plays winter ball?
From the outset, league rosters have been filled with an intriguing combination of future, current and past stars of the game. Just glancing at this year's rosters tell the story.
Fernando Valenzuela is pitching for Aguilas in Mexico, clearly fitting into the "just playing for the love of the game" category. And yes, that's the Teddy Higuera who tossed nine innings for Mexico's Culician in his mid-40s.
Other blasts from the past include Luis Polonia in the Dominican Republic and Rich Garces in Venezuela.
A special mention should go to Carlos Baerga, who not only plays in Puerto Rico every year, but owns one of the teams and recently helped save another from extinction.
At the same time, there are many big leaguers in the middle of their careers staying sharp over the winter. Angel Berroa has gotten a few at-bats with Azucareros in the Dominican. Jeff Cirillo is trying to add to his value by playing second in Mexico. Yadier Molina is staying sharp in Puerto Rico, perhaps for the Cards' starting job in 2005. Outfielder Endy Chavez is getting some playing time in Venezuela.
"Winter League baseball has been a part of Major League baseball for many, many years. Whether you consider it developmental or whether you consider it a place where your veterans can go and stay in shape over the winter, the Winter Leagues provide that place to Major League Baseball."
-- Lou Melendez
The Tigers' Carlos Pena, playing in Puerto Rico, recently said that a player hasn't experienced true baseball until he's played winter ball. That's particularly true in the Dominican, playing for Licey, the team Pena is playing for. The rivalry between Licey and Aguilas has often been compared to a Yankees-Red Sox type of heated matchup.
It's that kind of atmosphere, as Melendez alluded to, that attracts what many consider to be the most important part of winter ball -- the development of prospects.
There are countless players in each league who are on various top prospect lists. The Dodgers' Joel Guzman has continued his tremendous season by hitting well in the Dominican. Jason Dubois was the AFL MVP in 2003 and is now playing in Mexico, hoping to use that as a springboard to a regular big league job in the Cubs' outfield in 2005. Enrique Cruz, Jose's brother and a former Rice standout, is among the league leaders in Puerto Rico. Franklin Gutierrez, the Cleveland outfield prospect, is making up for lost time and stands among the Venezuelan league leaders in home runs and slugging percentages.
And it's more than just at-bats and innings pitched these prospects are getting. As both Melendez and Pena alluded to, playing in front of a packed, enthusiastic crowd is something that can't be duplicated in the minors or the AFL.
"It's still a league that guys can pick up a year or two on their development," said Oneri Fleita, Cubs director of player development and Latin American Operations. "The atmosphere is one not of devlopment, but one of win at all costs, where fans love you at all times, win or tie."
Being thrown into that kind of environment prepares would-be Major Leaguers for the biggest stage, in many ways better than anything a player comes across down on the farm during the regular season. A player accustomed to playing in Clinton, Iowa or Buffalo, N.Y., who then gets to play in a few Licey-Aguilas grudge matches won't be nearly as shocked when they face a packed house in a pennant race.
"I don't know if the minor leagues can ever put them in that atmosphere," Fleita said. "Even though we like to win, there's an undersanding it's about development first and win second. Down there, nobody wants to hear about development.
"They want to win and expect to win. You have owners who have a lot invested in their teams and look at it like our owners do here."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.