Caribbean Series sure to be passionate
Emotions for annual championship expected to run high
For six days, four teams from four countries will transform Venezuela's Margarita Island into the isle of baseball.
The 2010 Caribbean Series, the annual round-robin tournament featuring the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, has arrived. It's time to play pelota.
Baseball, make that beisbol, will be the only language spoken this week near the capital of Caracas. Politics, Venezuela's other curveball, will remain on the bench.
All of the games will be aired live on MLB Network. The games can also be followed on MLB.com's Gameday.
"The Caribbean Series is an opportunity for us to host something that's very important in our country," said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a native Venezuelan. "Our country is going through a very tough situation right now, politically, but it doesn't have anything to do with baseball. People are very excited about this series."
This year's field consists of the Dominican Republic's Leones del Escogido, Mexico's Naranjeros de Hermosillo, Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez and Venezuela's Leones del Caracas.
The Dominican Republic squad is often considered a favorite, in part because a Dominican team has won the Caribbean Series title 17 times since 1970 and 11 times since 1990. However, the Dominicans will be challenged by Puerto Rico and its 14 overall championships, along with seven-time champion Venezuela, winners in 2006 and 2009.
Mexico has five championships, the last occurring in 2005 in Mazatlan.
Puerto Rico will square off against the Dominican Republic in Tuesday's 2:30 p.m. ET opener, followed by a matchup between Venezuela and Mexico in the nightcap at 7 ET.
"Most of the time we saw this series and it was [in] Caracas or Maracaibo, and now it's in a brand-new place," Guillen said. "It's in Margarita, and everyone is going no matter who is playing. It's going to be packed."
Guillen should know. He played in the tournament in 1983, '85 and '86 with La Guaira. He suited up for Caracas in '87. He hit .154 in 15 games.
"If you don't win, you don't look too good with the people," he said. "They take this thing seriously. They are really into it."
The history of the Caribbean Series in Latin America traces back to the union of the leagues in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela -- and the formation of the Caribbean Federation in 1948. After Cuba in 1949, Puerto Rico played host to the Caribbean Series in 1950, Venezuela in 1951 and Panama in 1952.
The initial design was 12 games, with each team squaring off against each other twice. From 1949-60, Cuba won the title seven times. Puerto Rico won four times during that span and Panama won its first and only Caribbean Series title in 1950.
In 1959, Fidel Castro took over in Cuba and declared it a Communist nation, ending the country's participation in the event after 1960. Depleted, the Caribbean Series eventually disappeared for 10 years until a revival in 1970 that included the addition of the Dominican Republic and Mexico and the removal of Panama from the tournament.
What makes the Caribbean Series interesting is the fact that the championship teams in the Winter Leagues are allowed to pick up additional players from their respective leagues. However, these days many Major League players opt out of the tournament in order to prepare for Spring Training.
What makes it unique is the feeling in the stands. Some say the atmosphere rivals a Red Sox-Yankees playoff game, only with more dancing, chanting and noisemakers. Along with the usual ballpark fare, there's local cuisine sold in various parts of the stadium during the Caribbean Series to put everyone in an extra festive mood.
It's a party fit for a baseball-loving country like Venezuela.
"Baseball is part of the national culture and I would say it's part of the soul of the country," said Milton Jamail, the coordinator of Latin American culture and education programs for the Tampa Bay Rays. "Every team has a different approach, but all take Venezuela seriously. Look at the high-quality players coming out and the list of prospects each year. There will be even more in the future because teams know what is there."
Jamail, a former professor of Latin American politics at the University of Texas, has watched the number of Venezuelan big leaguers grow to more than 200 during the past two decades. His book, "Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom: Andrés Reiner and Scouting on the New Frontier," chronicles scouting in Venezuela in the 1990s and the rise of Venezuelan players.
Last year, the Dominican Republic produced the most Major Leaguers born outside the U.S. with 81. Venezuela was second with 52.
Baseball in Venezuela has a storied past. Venezuelans began playing the game in the 1890s after the sport was brought to the country by Cuban émigrés and now the list of the country's most famous players reads like a who's who of Major League Baseball. Players of the past like Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion and Andres Galarraga are still admired as much as current players such as Francisco Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Guillen and Johan Santana.
A turning point for the sport occurred in 1941 when Venezuela upset Cuba in the finals of an amateur series in Havana. Five years later, the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League was born and the country eventually developed into a Caribbean baseball power. Baseball became part of the nation's identity.
A milestone occurred in 2005 when Guillen became the first manager from Venezuela to lead his club to a World Series title. Chicago's victory remains a source of pride for Venezuela and its people. Off the field, the country is often in the spotlight because of crime, kidnapping and movements for and against its leader, Hugo Chavez.
"Nothing is as important as politics in my country but baseball is also important because it's our passion," said Venezuelan journalist Efrain Ruiz, a writer for El Universal in Caracas. "Venezuela is the only country from South America where baseball is more important than soccer, and that means something. Yes, people will be watching the Caribbean Series, especially if the Venezuelan team starts to win."
What happens if the Venezuelan team starts to lose?
"That's when they become the team from Caracas everybody knows," he said. "They are from the capital and they have more money than everybody. They have won more championships and some people love them for it. Some hate them. It's the Yankees' syndrome, but that's baseball."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.