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01/31/11 12:05 AM EST

Puerto Rico hopes to shine in Caribbean Series

The Caribbean Series is an homage to baseball, America's favorite pastime, by men from North, South and Central America.

It's a global event, equal parts Americana and Latino.

Contests in the Caribbean Series can be as intense as those between the Yankees and the Red Sox, and fans are just as patriotic as those who root for Team USA during the Olympics.

But it's the pulsing merengue music, blaring noisemakers in the stands and dancing in the concourse that set the Caribbean Series apart from other tournaments.

Sure, it's a party, but the Caribbean Series round robin is also a showcase. It's an opportunity for big league scouts to see prospects in game action and give unsigned veterans a final look before Spring Training begins.

For Puerto Rico, this year's host of the series, the six-day competition against the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela that starts on Wednesday also represents the island's shot at reminding the sporting world that baseball is still its No. 1 sport.

"With [Puerto Rico's] league struggling to stay afloat, the Caribbean Series will be an important test in terms of how Puerto Rico presents the series to the fans all over Puerto Rico and to Latin America," said Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations. "It's a very important time. From a Major League Baseball and Caribbean Confederation standpoint, you want to see the league in Puerto Rico continue to improve and hold its own."

Puerto Rico's problems when it comes to professional baseball are well known. Three years ago, the Puerto Rican Winter League took a one-year hiatus because of financial instability. The number of Major League players from Puerto Rico has declined in the last decade, despite the emergence of the Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose and, Yadier), Carlos Beltran, Javier Vazquez, Alex Rios and Alex Cora. Only Cora returns to play on the island each winter.

There were 21 players from Puerto Rico on Opening Day rosters last season, 17 fewer than in 2002. By contrast, the Dominican Republic, now often referred to as the "island of baseball," had 86 players on Opening Day rosters last year.

Some blame the Puerto Rico's participation in the First-Year Player Draft for the dwindling number of Puerto Ricans in the big leagues. Others blame apathy among the local youth, while others attribute the decline of the sport to the rise in popularity of volleyball and basketball. Team owners are also held responsible by media and fans.

"This Caribbean Series will let us measure how we compare with other leagues right now and how far we have to go," said Jorge Colon Delgado, the former official historian of the Puerto Rican Professional League. "We used to be on top, but we haven't won since 2000 [Santurce], and that's too long. Maybe this is the year it changes."

This year's field consists of Puerto Rico's Criollos de Caguas, the Dominican Republic's Toros del Este, Mexico's Yaquis de Obregon and Venezuela's Caribes de Anzoátegui.

The backdrop is Estadio Isidoro Garcia in Mayaguez, the stadium that hosted the Central American Games last summer. Located in the middle of the west coast, the city is home to Los Indios de Mayaguez. Los Indios and Ponce are the only two teams to have played every season in Puerto Rico's Winter League since the league began in 1938.

The birthplace of former Major Leaguer Jose Vidro and current Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, Mayaguez also boasts 16 Puerto Rican Professional League titles, the most in league history.

It's not just a baseball city. Known for its art and culture, Mayaguez is also famous for the University of Puerto Rico, Cerveceria India -- the maker of Medalla beer -- and the sweetest mangoes on the island.

"It is hard to say that Ponce does not have the greatest baseball tradition on the island, and Caguas is also very proud, but Mayaguez has a rich history, too." Colon said. "A team's popularity depends on where you live, but Mayaguez's role in Puerto Rico baseball history is undeniable. It's been tremendous."

The history of the Caribbean Series 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 1950, followed by Venezuela in 1951 and Panama in 1952.

The initial design was 12 games, with each team squaring off against one another twice. From 1949 to 1960, 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 1960. 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 attendance for the finals in Puerto Rico has been very good, and the playoff games were very good, and those are both great signs leading into the Caribbean Series," Melendez said. "The rivalry and intense nationalism are what lead to the intensity of these games. It's the fuel for the fire of the Caribbean Series, but it's an event, so it's also about providing good baseball with entertainment fans can engage in. We all hope for success in Puerto Rico."

The field:
Criollios de Caguas (Puerto Rico):
One of the oldest teams in Puerto Rican baseball, Caguas won the first of 15 league titles in 1941 with a squad that featured Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. The team's history also includes Caribbean Series titles in 1954, 1974 (featuring Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt) and 1987. Other Hall of Famers to play for Caguas are Roberto Clemente, Gary Carter, Cal Ripken Jr., Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar and Hank Aaron.

Caguas is managed by Lino Rivera, who also managed league winners in 2006 and 2007 while with Carolina.

Overall, a team from Puerto Rico has won 14 Caribbean Series titles, second only to the Dominican Republic, which has won 18 championships. Last year, Puerto Rico's Mayaguez team placed second, with a 4-2 mark. The island went 2-4 in the 2009 Caribbean Series but did not participate in 2008 because of problems with the league. Puerto Rico had a 4-2 record in 2007 but struggled in the three previous years, going 3-15 from 2004 to 2006.

Toros del Este (Dominican Republic):
Established in 1983 and originally named the Azucareros, the Toros are based in eastern city of La Romana, an area known for its sugar cane (azucar is Spanish for "sugar"). The only other league title and appearance in the Caribbean Series came in 1995 -- also in Puerto Rico -- when the Toros were led by manager Art Howe. The Toros' only two losses that year were to Puerto Rico's "Dream Team," a squad made up of the island's best Major League players.

Including last year's Caribbean Series title 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, and 12 times since 1990.

Yaquis de Obregon (Mexico):
Marco Quevedo allowed a run on four hits over seven innings to pace the Yaquis to a victory against Guasave in Game 7 of the Championship Series and send his club to the Caribbean Series for the second time in four years. Obregon also represented Mexico in the 2008 Caribbean Series, clinching its first Mexican Pacific League title since 1981 that year. The Yaquis finished 2-4 in the round robin.

Overall, a team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series five times since it began participating in the tournament in 1970, with the last title coming in 2005, in Mazatlan. The first team from Mexico to win the title was Hermosillo, in 1976. Culiacan has won two Caribbean Series titles for the country (1996 and 2002). Mexicali brought home the trophy in 1986.

Caribes de Anzoátegui (Venezuela):
Big leaguers Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Silva, Víctor Martinez, Carlos Zambrano and Rafael Betancourt have all called the Caribes club their Winter League home during its 20-year history, but this year's league title is the franchise's first. The Caribes qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 2000, and four years later were defeated by the Tigres de Aragua in their first appearance in the finals.

A team from Venezuela has won the Caribbean Series seven times, with the last two titles coming in 2006 and 2009. The country played host to the round robin last season but Caracas, last year's league champion, finished in last place with a 1-5 record.

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.