'Pandemonium' expected for Caribbean Series
Excitement, patriotism to fill stands in Dominican tournament
Cleveland manager Manny Acta, a longtime veteran of the Dominican Winter League, was asked to describe this week's Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic, and the first word to come out of his mouth said it all.
"Pandemonium," Acta said. "I've been part of it before, and it's a great opportunity for baseball. It's real competitive baseball, especially when it's played back home in the D.R."
The 2012 Caribbean Series, the annual round-robin tournament featuring the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, starts Thursday with the first of six consecutive days of doubleheaders at Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo.
This year's field consists of the Dominican Republic's Leones del Escogido, Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez, Venezuela's Tigres de Aragua and the defending champion Yaquis de Obregon from Mexico. This year's action in the stands will consist of horns, noise makers, musical groups parading in the concourse, and a heavy dose of patriotism.
With all due respect to New York's bleacher creatures, Wrigleyville's famous fans and those lovable monsters above the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Caribbean Series fans are in a class of their own.
Let's put it this way: four grown men dressed as cows dancing on the dugout and a man dressed in a red grasshopper costume running up and down the aisle is not unusual, it's expected.
What's more, there's a Mexican noisemaking device at the Caribbean Series that puts the vuvuzela to shame, and there are more wrestling masks than a Nacho Libre look-alike contest.
Flags are everywhere.
Oh, and the music. Don't forget about the salsa and the merengue.
"On a smaller scale, people have seen that atmosphere during the World Baseball Classic," Acta said. "The thing is, we do speak the same language, but we are different in ways and the music that we play and our cultures. It's fantastic when you combine the four cultures together and you can see how different people chant and how they dress in the stands. It's very entertaining."
Here's another reason why the Caribbean Series is unlike any international event in the world: Every team is considered a favorite regardless of how much talent is on the roster.
"It's about country pride," Acta said. "It's about bragging rights and holding the title for a year and be able to rag the other three countries. Everyone takes a lot of pride in the titles they have won, and it's also a great event where people travel from country to country to follow it."
Acta, who is from San Pedro de Macoris, knows of what he speaks. He managed Licey in the D.R. from 2002-04, and he won a Caribbean Series title at the helm in '04. He later managed the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic in '06.
"I will never forget managing Licey," the manager said. "I never imagined that I would be able to manage so many superstars in one team. It was the first time in history that a Dominican manager won the Caribbean Series in the Dominican, and it made it special."
The round-robin can be traced 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 '50, followed by Venezuela in '51 and Panama in '52.
The initial design was 12 games, with each team squaring off against one another 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 its participation in the event after '60. Depleted, the Caribbean Series disappeared for a decade until a revival in 1970 that saw the addition of the Dominican Republic and Mexico and the disappearance of Panama.
There is some talk of adding Nicaragua and Colombia and reinstating Panama to the Caribbean Confederation, but the proposal has stalled because the leagues do not meet the organization's standards. Cuba has an open invitation to join the Confederation, but has chosen not to participate.
The tournament's storied history includes players such as Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Roberto Alomar, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, along with men like Luis Aparicio, the Alou brothers, the Molina brothers, Vinny Castilla and Ozzie Guillen. Miguel Tejada, Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Pena, David Ortiz and Nelson Cruz are among the countless Major League players that have played in the annual round-robin.
In recent years, the Caribbean Series has been a showcase for up-and-coming players like Minnesota's Danny Valencia, Cincinnati's Juan Francisco and Houston's Fernando Martinez.
When you consider all of the tournament's history, an argument can be made that the Escogido club boasts a considerable home-field advantage this year.
Including the 2010 Caribbean Series title, also won by Escogido, a team from the Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series title 18 times since 1970, the most among teams currently competing in the tournament. The D.R. has also won the title 12 times since 1990.
Last season, the Dominican Republic's Toros del Este, went 3-3.
Mexico's Yaquis de Obregon could be the Dominican Republic's biggest challenge. The Yaquis won last year's title, and overall, a team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series six times since it began participating in the tournament in 1970.
Venezuela also enters the tournament feeling confident. A team from Venezuela has won the Caribbean Series seven times, with the last two titles coming in 2006 and '09. Last year, Caribes de Anzoátegui finished last with a record of 2-4.
Last year's Criollios de Caguas from Puerto Rico also finished with a record of 3-3. Overall, a team from the Enchanted Island has won 14 Caribbean Series titles, second only to the Dominican Republic.
That said, Acta's pick to win this year's version should surprise no one.
"The Dominican Republic," he said. "We have been the team to beat over the last 20 or so years."