February 3, 2007
Caribbean World Series
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:
I'll take Saturday off and be back in the Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.