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February 7, 2007
Originally, the plan was for my wife and I to take one day and go to the ballpark as ticketed customers, so I could write about the ballpark experience and attending the games as fans. It didn't quite work out-the ticket situation interfered with plans to attend Sunday's games, then work interfered, and it just didn't come together. Nonetheless, I decided that game one of Tuesday's action-the Mexico/Dominican Republic tilt-would be more about the game-watching experience than the game. So while we'll discuss the game action, you'll forgive me if my attention is a little more focused on the sidelines, the stands, and even the concession stalls than it is on the Mexicans and Dominicans.
My travels around the ballpark started in the upper deck, on the right field side. Through the third inning, the upper deck was only sparsely populated. The crowd kept arriving fairly steadily throughout the first game, although even at the end of the first game there were still a ton of good seats available.
All the sightlines from the upper deck were very good. The deck was not so steep as to induce vertigo, and the seats were nice with adequate leg room. The stadium is small enough that you really don't have any bad seats in the house. Despite the fact that the ballpark was mostly empty when something happened-Vinny Castilla's RBI single in the second, Jose Fernandez's solo homer in the third-the applause, music, and other assorted sounds of the fans filled the stadium.
Below me, the two starting pitchers were major league veterans. For the Dominican Republic, it was Jose Capellan. Capellan was famous before his career even started, for the large signing bonus he received from the Braves organization. The 2006 season was the first full year he spent in the majors, working out of the Milwaukee bullpen. Even from far above, Capellan looked all of his listed 6'3" height, but his listed weight-170 lbs-seems hopelessly outdated. The Mexican starter, Michael Tejera, has over 200 major league innings pitched with Florida and Texas. In the first inning, he experienced the control problems which marked his major league tours of duty.
After the third inning, with the Dominicans leading 3-1, I headed down to the lower level. This gave me a chance for a better look at the field, and also put me in a much larger and noisier concentration of fans. Since I started on the rightfield side of the ballpark, I was clearly in Dominican territory-the Dominicans were the home team against Mexico, so their most vocal fans took up shop behind that dugout. Between innings, these fans would partially drown out the noise from the stadium sound system-Spanish pop music, advertisements, cheesy sound effects-with music, whistles, and air horns.
Being at field level also provided an opportunity to really notice the foul territory. Unlike a major league game, where action in foul territory is limited to the base coaches and ball boys (or girls), in the Caribbean Series the foul territory was teeming with action-multiple mascots working only a few feet from the foul line during the course of an inning, ballplayers and coaches casually stepping out of the dugout, and security and production personnel milling about in foul territory between innings.
The production personnel were the part of this action I found most interesting. In the Caribbean Series, a television production person coordinates between the broadcast booth and the field, motioning the umpire when it's safe to start the inning. In theory, this practice should eliminate any missed pitches coming out of commercial. I can't imagine why Major League Baseball doesn't require that there be a person like this at each ballpark, making sure that the ump doesn't start the inning until the guys broadcasting the game are actually done showing commercials.
On the other side of the infield was the Mexican contingent, mainly centered in just the area immediately behind the visiting dugout. What the Mexicans lacked for in numbers, they made up for in flash and gimmicks. The coolest gimmick was fans showing up in wrestling masks. The easy joke is that a fan whose team is 0-4 takes his anonymity anyway he can get it, but these brave masked souls were in Carolina well before the team faltered. Another cool thing-but maybe not so cool for the folks sitting behind them-was the use of large, heavily adorned formal sombreros. One gimmick perhaps straddling the line between fun and annoying was the giant crank-operated noisemakers wielded by Mexican fans in the first few rows behind the dugout.
In the sixth inning, those cranks came out in full force. With the score still 2-1 Dominicans and a man on first and one out in the inning, Luis Garcia singled to center. Dominican center fielder Alex Fernandez made a mistake, throwing to cut off the lead runner at third. That throw was late, but just fast enough to convince Batista to throw to second to try to nail Garcia. That throw was off the mark, and it escaped the infield. Just like that, the game was tied.
For a moment, there was a feeling that no one had been prepared to consider-what if the Dominicans lose to these guys? On Monday, the Mexican pitchers showed the world that not every game has to be a blowout. Could they grind this one out against the Dominican juggernaut? Fortunately for the Dominicans Julio De Paula was able to bail them out of the inning.
During the tense inning that followed, I'll admit that I was somewhat preoccupied with trying to sample the ballpark's fare-all for the sake of you readers, of course. Three bucks is a big number at Roberto Clemente Stadium-it'll get you a 20 ounce Pepsi or a 12 ounce Bud Light or a virgin Pina Colada (at least I hope it was a virgin colada, since the guy behind me gave one to his nine-year-old kid). For those not sharing their drinks with minors, you can also get hard liquor and mixed drinks in the stands at the Caribbean Series.
Sadly, with another game yet to be played, I couldn't investigate that aspect of stadium refreshment in detail. What I could do was buy a hot dog, to see how it stacks up with frankfurters stateside. Keep in mind that the hot dog is not big snack food in Hispanic America; stands offering hamburgers, sandwiches, skewered meats, and a number of varieties of pastelitos were far more numerous. The hot dog vendor was a single, lonely stall with a rotating grill. The Nathan's brand hot dog they served me had good texture-it "snapped" rather than being chewy-but the flavor was nothing special. Unless you're extremely nostalgic for home or very closed off to new things, you'd probably be better served seeking some of the more adventurous fare the stadium has to offer.
As I inhaled my hot dog, the Dominicans rallied, with Luis Polonia--another three-hit game!--leading the charge. Three singles, a bases-loaded walk and a sacrifice fly put the Dominicans ahead for good. The Mexicans came back with a run in the next half inning, thanks to a couple of wild pitches by lefty Arnaldo Munoz. This is not news with the White Sox farmhand--he's thrown 54 wild pitches in 586 minor league innings. Still, the Dominicans held on, tacking on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth and sending Mexico to a 5-3 loss.
With the Dominicans winning, the nightcap became an elimination game for Puerto Rico. So I retreated to the press box to do game two as an open diary:
8:06 - Alex Cora, the Puerto Rican leadoff hitter, grounded out to the pitcher, William Collazo, getting the nightcap underway. Collazo's a finesse lefty who made a bit of an impression on me in last season's Caribbean Series because of the way he handled himself against the Dominican Republic. He was drafted out of college by the Braves in the 10th round of the 2001 draft, then was plucked away by the Angels in the minor league portion of the 2003 Rule 5 draft (you gotta be careful not to call it the Rule V draft, because Kevin Goldstein will go all Natalie Portman on you). After a brutal 2005 season at two levels, Collazo was done with the Angels, and is now property of the Mets. He should be part of their new Triple-A affiliation with New Orleans this season.
8:20 - There was a brief ruckus during Luis Figueroa's first at-bat concerning two floodlights that had been set up by the police, just past the center field fence, which must have been peeking over the hitting background. That fixed, the Puerto Rican team proceeds to go down in order.
8:36 - Venezuela's starter was 26-year-old Josmir Romero. Romero was with the Twins organization through 2003, getting as high as Double-A. He spent 2004 and 2005 in Oaxaca of the Mexican League. His stats are not terribly pretty, particularly the strikeout rate, but Oaxaca's at about the same altitude as Denver, so Romero's performance near sea level could be an entirely different animal.
9:05 - Puerto Rico's first real challenge to Romero comes in the third, as they get two men on with one out. Romero gets both Wycho Figueroa and Hiram Bocachica to make outs in the air, and no damage is done; Bocachica's been pretty weak this tournament.
9:21 - In the bottom of the fifth, Cesar Crespo dropped a near-perfect bunt for a hit. I'd thought such a thing impossible on the freak Carolina turf, but he pushed it at the ideal speed to get it past the pitcher and make the third baseman field it. Alex Cora was then hit by a pitch, and again they had two on and one out. And again, Romero retired Figueroa and Bocachica to escape the jam.
9:31 - In the top of the sixth, one out, Javier Valentin made a great play, diving to grab a popped up bunt just past the runner's lane up the first base line. The Puerto Ricans almost got out of the inning when Gregor Blanco hit a double-play grounder that third baseman Cora double-clutched. Cora only got the out at second, and the inning went on. Two singles later, we have a score!
9:53 - Julian de Lavalle, a student from Colombia, reports via e-mail that people in his homeland are getting excited over reports from the U.S. that expansion of the Caribbean Series to add teams from Nicaragua and Colombia is imminent, and could happen as early as 2008. It's annoying to have to burst someone's bubble, but since I previously talked about the Commissioner's Day Three press conference, I have to say that this sounds totally off base. When Puello said that he expected Colombia "to join soon" he was taking about Colombia becoming a non-voting member of the baseball confederation, not actually fielding a team in the competition. Prior to Nicaragua or Colombia being able to field a Caribbean Series team, he said, they'd have to "develop their leagues" to the level of quality the Confederation requires, and they'd have to show that their seasons can "continue without interruption." That doesn't sound like something imminent to me.
10:01 - In the top of the seventh, Venezuela capitalized on another small defensive lapse to score. This time, Puerto Rico came close to escaping a scoring threat when Oscar Salazar popped foul, toward the bullpen down the first base line; the ball seemed to fall between the first and second basemen. That made it 2-0, and PR's tournament hopes hang by a thread.
10:05 - Edward Buzachero (nickname: "Bubbie") came in for Puerto Rico. He's an Indians prospect who spent the last two years in the Eastern League.
10:07 - DirecTV had their own mascot at the game, promotional booths all around the Stadium, logos on all the umps and players, and even their own (non-jailbait) cheerleading squad.
10:29 - Now it's the Gigantes Jailbait Dancers' turn, and I must admit, it's their best performance yet. The addition of a purple skirt over the yellow unitard reduces the lechery quotient by a good 30 percent. Still, I am worried that these girls' daddies aren't doing a good enough job of keeping them off the pole.
10:34 - With one out in the eighth, stepping in against Victor Moreno, the formerly great Juan Gonzalez hits a ball deep into the night, which is still only a double. Despite the fact that Juan Gone runs like an old woman, no pinch runner is sent out. The Venezuelans go to Kevin Tolar, yet again, to go after Javier Valentin and Armando Rios.
10:43 - After walking Valentin, the battle between Tolar and Rios is epic. It looks like Rios is struck out at least twice as he works the count full. In pitch 10 of the at-bat, he singles up the middle. It's five games and it's batting average, but Rios is hitting .600, and if PR were to come back to win this thing, he'd likely be the MVP. The bases are now loaded for Yadier Molina.
10:48 - In Puerto Rico, it's widely believed that Yadier Molina walks on water and can heal the blind. Part of this is because of his playoff performance in the 2006 postseason. Still, he sucked with the bat during the MLB regular season, and he hit only .214 during the Gigantes' regular season…what's the appeal? Why isn't his brother playing, even if just to give him a breather (Yadier has started five consecutive games)? Why will people ignore a large data sample (1,033 PA of 633 OPS ball in the majors) in favor of a much smaller one (101 PA of 809 OPS in the postseason)?
10:56 - A grounder by Ruben Gotay clanked off Ramon Hernandez's glove at first, and put Puerto Rico on the scoreboard. Venezuela's defense continued to kill them in the tourney. Fortunately for Hernandez, that one run is all the Puerto Ricans get.
11:04 - Then Oscar Salazar homered, and it got really quiet in the stadium and the press box. Greg Molina, who runs the unofficial Spanish language Red Sox site, asks, "If the Puerto Ricans lose, do the Dominicans get a press conference? Do they pop champagne?" Are they even still at the stadium? I wondered.
11:18 - Signs of the apocalypse, part three: in the ninth, one on, two out, Juan Gonzalez beat out a groundball to short for an infield hit. Flat-out legged it out. He deserves an invite to Spring Training for that at-bat alone.
11:22 - Game over, and congratulations to the 2007 Caribbean Series Champions, the Cibao Eagles of the Dominican Winter League! Before you ask the next question, yes, there will be baseball on Wednesday. It just won't be nearly as fun as it would have been had the Puerto Ricans won to set up a decisive final game of the tourney. Still, I'll be at the ballpark for Venezuela-Mexico at 3:00 pm Eastern, as well as the Dominican-Puerto Rican final game at 7:00 pm Eastern.