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February 3, 2007

Caribbean World Series

Day One

by Derek Jacques

Oh. My. God.

There was a point in the first game of yesterday's Caribbean World Series doubleheader--men on second and third, two outs, 16th inning, Gregor Blanco swinging right out of his socks on the first pitch, and whiffing two pitches later--when I thought, this game will not die. It's like Dracula, the Wolfman, and John McLane, rolled up into one.

I'm getting ahead of myself. I arrived at Estadio Municipal Roberto Clemente Walker (as the stadium of the Carolina Giants is formally known) more than six hours prior to Blanco's strikeout. The mission was simple--pick up my press credential, get up to the press box, and dig in for a doubleheader. The first game was Venezuela against the Dominican Republic, or the Aragua Tigers against the Cibao Eagles. The second game--Puerto Rico (the aforementioned Giants) against Mexico (the Hermosillo Naranjeros)--was the main event of the first day, given the hometown crowd. However, DR/Venezuela was the highlight, the grudge match between last year's champion and runner-up, a confrontation anticipated even before the Caribbean Series schedule had been released.

So I arrived at the ballpark about 75 minutes early, later than I wanted, but sufficient given the fact that I wasn't aiming to do any pregame interviews--or any player interviews at all--in the clubhouse. Heck, Will Carroll wanted me to do a short spot with him for BP Radio, and I optimistically figured I might even have enough time to do this prior to the game. Unfortunately, the process of picking up my credential involved getting bad directions, making a couple of laps around the stadium, and waiting in a very long line leading to a room hidden by a horde of fans picking up game tickets. By the time I'm credentialed and ready to go upstairs to the press box, it's 15 minutes past the scheduled start time, and the first inning is well underway.

The scoring started in the fourth, with a Jose Castillo double and a Miguel Tejada error (charitably charged a hit) keying Venezuela's first run of the game. In the bottom of the frame, the Dominicans came back on a booming solo homer by Tejada. After allowing the first run, Jose Lima (the Dominican starter) came back with a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth before going into full "Lima Time!" meltdown mode in the sixth. A single, an error, and Jose Castillo's second double chased the popular veteran from the game before he could record an out; Nationals farmhand Santiago Ramirez stopped the bleeding. In the bottom of the sixth, the Dominicans responded again, with a towering homer by Tony Batista that appeared to leave the stadium completely.

That was the last scoring for a long time. The Venezuelans attempted a two-out rally against Leo Nunez in the eighth, which stalled. Seattle farmhand Yorman Bazardo came in for an impressive inning of relief work in the bottom of the ninth. Without knocking the great work by both bullpens, you have to put some of the blame for the 11-inning scoring drought on the depleted lineups of the two teams involved. The Dominican lineup featured three guys who could be called power threats: Tejada, Batista, and Nelson Cruz (.499 career slugging percentage in the minors). For the Venezuelans, there was Ramon Hernandez (career MLB slugging percentage: .428) and Randall Simon (.422). Both lineups were larded with Punch-and-Judy types, which made it hard for these teams to score.

Not to pick on anyone in particular here, but Luis Polonia is the Dominicans' DH. He's 42 years old, and he hasn't played in the majors since 2000; also, in the interest of full disclosure, he's a distant cousin of mine. He wasn't that great a hitter back when he was a speedy waterbug type for the Angels, Yankees, A's, Tigers, and Braves. Now his wheels are gone and he can't play the outfield. What is he doing here?

Around the 13th inning, word circulated through the press box that the longest game in Caribbean Series history was a matchup between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in 1989, lasting 16 innings before ending in a 3-2 Venezuelan win. This makes the rounds through word of mouth, so every 15 minutes or so someone comes to the gaggle of reporters where I'm seated and asks "I heard you talking about the longest game in Caribbean history. When was that again?" Causing one of us to dutifully repeat the information we received before.

In the 16th, with the Caribbean Series record for most innings tied, the Venezuelans got a couple of guys on with one out, prior to the Gregor Blanco whiff that led off this piece. The Dominicans look moribund in the bottom of the 16th and 17th innings, going down in order against lefty Kevin Tolar and Venezuelan starter Francisco Butto. In the 18th, Twins farmhand Luis Maza--the guy charged with filling Miguel Cabrera's shoes at third for Venezuela--breaks through with a one-out double against reliever Hector Almonte. Maza scores on a double by Ronny Cedeno, but the threat stalls there, as the 9-1 hitters, Steve Torrealba and Blanco, fail to bring Cedeno around.

The crowd at Roberto Clemente Stadium tends to sort itself into big blocks of fans--a Dominican section, a Venezuelan section, and so forth. If you miss them by their color-coordinated shirts, they'll helpfully wave flags between innings to let you know where they are. As the Venezuelan rally unfolded, you could see the Dominican section deflate, and the Venezuelans suddenly become rambunctious. Between innings in winter ball, they play merengues and salsas, and in the middle of the 18th inning, after six hours of baseball, the Venezuelan fans were gleefully shaking their booties to the music.

Then, the bottom of the 18th started, and it all fell apart. Dinky-hitting Alberto Castillo led off the inning with a tapper to the mound that Butto threw away to put a man on second with nobody out. With all of three steals in an 11-year career as a major league backup catcher, Castillo takes his lead off of second--and Torrealba tried a snap throw to pick him off that winds up in center field. A Bernie Castro single ties the game, and with one out, the much-maligned Polonia kept the rally going with a single. After looking like they'd pitch to Tejada with a man on third, the Venezuelans walk him to face Tony Batista with the bases loaded. Fly to center, game over, Dominican victory.

All told, the two teams used 38 players. The game lasted six hours and 14 minutes. All that, and the home team and Mexico were still waiting to take the field for game two.

They say the time that you know when you have an addiction problem is when a reasonable person would stop. I can't say that going home never crossed my mind after the epic tilt. I called my wife--the very best wife in the whole wide world, by the way--and offered her the option of my coming back to our temporary headquarters in Old San Juan rather than staying out until all hours in Carolina. Before you think I'm a total wuss for calling my wife, I was locked out of the temporary HQ, so whatever time I came back, I'd have to wake her to let me in. This turned out to be about a quarter to five in the morning. As I said, she's the best wife in the whole world.

But I had a bunch of excuses to not go home. Masses of fans from the first game (as well as approximately 90% of the Dominican and Venezuelan press contingents) would be going home, so traffic would be horrible. I still had to record a bit for BP Radio. When some of the guys I'd met during the day came up to ask if I was sticking around, I made noncommittal noises, but I never started to pack up my gear.

The first game ended at about 10:30 p.m. The Roberto Clemente grounds crew had to clean up the field for the scheduled opening festivities, then get the field back in shape to start the second game, which had been scheduled for 8:30. The Dominican and Venezuelan players and coaches would be coming up to the box for their press conferences, so I had to find a quiet place to call Will. There aren't a lot of quiet places in a baseball stadium. I wound up commandeering the snack room off the press box, doing a recorded telephone interview while ravenous hordes of press continually busted into the room, as if every crumb of edible matter there had not been consumed hours before. At one point mid-interview, someone was kind enough to shut off the lights in the room.

After the interview, things got easier. The throng of Dominican and Venezuelan press left, and I was finally able to score an outlet for my laptop. During the gala festivities prior tothe second game--which included all four teams on the field, at least four national anthems, at least two dozen ethnic dancers, a full orchestra, maybe a hundred little kids with flags, and a fireworks display that left the whole stadium shrouded in smoke for ten full minutes--I had time to set up the wireless network, get access to Gameday and even get a snack (mini doughnuts, fresh out of the deep frier) on the stadium concourse. My notes on game two follow, bullet-point style:

  • During the between-games gala, I wondered how it must have felt for the Dominican and Venezuelan players. Let's say you're Jose Castillo: you've just played 18 innings of baseball, lost in the harshest way possible, and now you have to stand on the field for half an hour for a parade? You start being able to understand why some folks skipped the tourney.

  • When the game starts, at 11:48 pm, I'm answering reader e-mail. Leadoff hitter Alfredo Amezaga hits a ball deep to right, and out of my view (the windows in the press box are broken up by supports). I write in my e-mail that we have a score, based on everyone's reactions and a reporter's exclamation of "Lo boto!" ("He dumped it!") in the press box. In actuality it was F-9 for Amezaga, E-10 (bobble) for Jacques, and an e-mail of apology for the reader.

  • The advice that everyone gave me when I told them about the credential was the same: there's no cheering in the press box. That's what it was like for game one; everyone except one guy kept their poker faces until the very end of the game. In the second inning of game two, though, Armando Rios singled in Juan Gonzales ("Igor") for Puerto Rico and the press box explodes with cheering. You'd have thought we were in a bar in Spanish Harlem.

  • Later in that same inning, Ruben Gotay hit a broken-bat grounder to second, scoring Javier Valentin, and the Puerto Rican press corps has regained its composure. I'm informed that Javier, a catcher playing first base, is the brother of Jose Valentin, whom everyone in Puerto Rico calls Tony. As in, to the extent that iff you refer to the more famous Valentin as "Jose," you get a blank look.

  • Mexican starter Elmer Dessens is a high-effort pitcher, throwing nearly overhand with a sharp, violent yank at the end of his pitches. Just about everything he's throwing is hard: between a fastball and a slider, I'm not seeing much of a speed differential, although this is one place where radar gun readings would be useful.

  • Juan Gonzalez makes the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz look nimble and flexible. Watching him run the bases, I constantly expected to hear a loud snapping sound followed by a trail of body parts. Igor still has the long looping swing, but his bat speed isn't where he can really turn on Dessens' heat in the third. He's trying to cheat, and it just isn't working.

  • In the fifth, Amezaga again flashes a lightning-quick bat, and this time he actually hits a homer, and I see the shot go deep into the night, by the 385 sign in right-center field. This leads me to wonder why the measurements are in feet; the metric system and Celsius temperature readings are all over Puerto Rico. Apparently baseball is still a game of inches and not centimeters, even here.

  • Puerto Rico's starter, Carlos Alvarado, has got a classic pitcher's build: tall, thick lower half, solid torso. To give you some sense of proportion, here, Alvarado just had his 29th birthday, and last season he spent most of his time in the Southern League. He seems to survive only as long as he keeps the ball down. With men on, he goes to a little slide-step that seems particularly designed to keep his pitches above the waistband, a bad idea. Still, he escapes the fourth inning, with the only score being Amezaga's homer. Puerto Rico leads, 2-1.

  • A horrible hometown scoring decision in the bottom of the fourth gives Yadier Molina a hit on a line drive that was (from my vantage point) touched by Amezaga. Amezaga seemed to be caught napping, like he only picked it up late. The play puts runners on second and third and one out, setting up a huge error by Vinicio Castilla (a Buckneresque grounder under the glove) on which Armando Rios scores to make it 3-1 Puerto Rico. After a hit by pitch, Alex Cora clears the bases by looping a fly over left fielder Webber's head. Cora gets thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a triple, but the damage was done, 6-1.

  • In the bottom of the fifth inning, it's déjà vu all over again with Amezaga. This time he trips on his own feet after misjudging the line drive, so the ball skitters past him for a "triple." The first one was a bad scoring decision, but this one is just the nonsensical error rules at work. Because Amezaga didn't touch the ball, it can't be an error, even if any competent fielder would not only have touched the ball, but fielded it. If Alfredo Amezaga was a better outfielder, this would be a close game. Instead, a sac fly makes it 9-1.

  • Between innings in winter ball, you get dance music, mascots, and cheerleaders. For the hometown team it's the Gigantes Jailbait Dancers, the oldest one almost certainly still in high school. Watching them dance in revealing yellow unitards is purely an exercise for the lecherous. The crowd, however, is a different matter. The Caribbean World Series draws a large following of beautiful women from four different countries, all dressed for 80+ degree weather. Much more wholesome viewing during a blowout...not that I notice such things, of course. I have the best wife in the world.

  • When two more runs get tacked on around 2:30 am, bringing the score to 11-1, not a few voices in the press room suggested that this might be a good time to implement a mercy rule in the Caribbean Series. The game went on, and I stayed until the bitter end, but that final score does seem a good time to enforce a mercy rule on this column.

I'll take Saturday off and be back in the Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Derek's other articles. You can contact Derek by clicking here

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