You have to go pretty far in the sports world to get away from football during Super Bowl week. In my case, that’s about 1,599 miles, the distance between New York City and Carolina, Puerto Rico, site of the 2007 Serie del Caribe, the Caribbean Series. For the next week, Carolina-the birthplace of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente-will be the capital city of baseball, blissfully unaware of the big show the NFL’s putting on in Miami, just a few hundred miles away.
The Caribbean Series (that’s the actual translation of the series’ name-how the “World” often gets jammed in there remains a mystery to me) has been played since 1949, when the teams involved were Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Cuba. Around 1960, the tourney was discontinued when political problems arose with Cuba. It was resurrected ten years later with the current four teams-Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
For those of you who are familiar with international baseball tournament play (or who paid attention to the World Baseball Classic last March) the format of the Caribbean Series will be familiar. Four teams play a weeklong round-robin tournament, two games a day with each team playing each opponent twice, for a total of six games. In the event of a tie-and as someone with plane tickets back to the States, I hope this remains theoretical-a playoff would be played on the day after the scheduled end of the series, on February 8th.
The teams that play in the Caribbean Series are the four league champions of the winter leagues in the member countries. To each of those teams, a number of refuerzos-reinforcements-can be added from the other teams of the participating leagues. The result is not quite a national team-each winter league allows its teams to carry a limited number of foreign players, and those foreign players are welcome to participate in the Series-and it bears the name of the winning team from the local winter league.
Add in those reinforcements-and the fact that until gametime, it’s pretty hard to get a solid roster for the teams-providing an accurate read on how the teams stack up is pretty dicey. Still, here’s a brief overview of what each team brings to the table:
Venezuela – Aragua Tigers
How’d They Get There: By creamolishing the Magallanes Mariners, 4-1 in the best-of-seven Venezuelan Winter League final.
Gripe About Those Darn Yanquis: Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers‘ starting third baseman through the Venezuelan League playoffs, was denied permission by the Florida Marlins to play in the Caribbean Series.
Why They Can Win: The Venezuelans didn’t need an All-Star team to capture the Caribbean Series title last year. As the defending champs, the Venezuelans are likely to be motivated by the fact that their country has never won back-to-back championships, and that the last country other than the Dominicans to win two in a row was Puerto Rico, back in 1992 and 1993.
Dominican Republic – Cibao Eagles
How’d They Get Here: They got tough with defending Dominican League champs Licey, beating them 5-2 in a nine-game series. It sounds closer than it actually was, as the Eagles outscored the Tigers 46-17 in seven games.
Familiar Faces: Miguel Tejada is the big name at shortstop. On the more…veteran side, you’ll recognize the names of Jose Lima, Tony Batista, and
Gripe About Those Darn Yanquis: Nine of the 12 homers the Eagles had in the Dominican League final were hit by Mendy Lopez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Melky Cabrera. None of those guys will be joining the Eagles in Carolina. Neither will Wily Mo Pena, Alexis Gomez, or Wandy Rodriguez. In addition to taking Cabrera out of the Eagles’ picture, the New York Yankees also denied the Dominican team access to Robinson Cano, who’d been sought as a reinforcement. In exchange for all those power hitters, the Eagles have been picking up a bunch of replacement-level middle infielders like Anderson Hernandez and Pablo Ozuna.
Why They Could Win: If anyone can figure out how to win with a roster of six middle infielders, it’s Eagles manager Felix Fermin. The Dominicans are motivated by a desire to erase the bizarre end of last year’s series-where in the climactic game between the Dominicans and Venezuela, shortstop Erick Aybar lost a pop fly which then hit him on the head and allowed the winning run to score-from their memory.
Mexico – Hermosillo Naranjeros
How’d They Get Here: Swept Mazatlan 4-0 in a seven-game series. All four games were pretty close, but it was still an anticlimax after both Mazatlan and Hermosillo went the full seven games in the semifinals.
Familiar Faces: Slugger Erubiel Durazo and onetime Rocky Vinny Castilla are the names you’re most likely to recognize. Durazo is coming off a huge season in winter ball that led to the A’s signing him to give Dan Johnson some competition for the first base job. Elmer Dessens, Alfredo Amezaga, Geronimo Gil, and Karim Garcia are the others on the roster with big league experience.
Gripe About Those Darn Yanquis: Not much. Unlike Venezuela and D.R., the Mexicans don’t have many stories of big-leaguers refusing to attend the Series.
Why They Can Win: Hermosillo had the strongest hitting in the Mexican League this season, and they’ve added a number of reinforcements to the pitching staff.
Puerto Rico – Carolina Giants
How’d They Get Here: Beat the Arecibo Wolves 5-2 in a nine-game series.
Familiar Faces: The Giants have assembled their own version of the Molina brothers catching tandem, this time with Angel Jose Molina and Cardinal Yadier Molina. Javier Valentin of the Reds is shunted over to infield work by the Molinas. Many of the Giants’ infielders have seen time in the majors, including Cesar Crespo, Ruben Gotay, and reinforcement Alex Cora. Those of you with a strong sense of nostalgia will probably be able to pick out two-time AL MVP
Gripe About Those Darn Yanquis: Not much. The Giants have brought on lots of reinforcements to try to capture the title on their home turf, and there haven’t been many reports of participants in the winter leagues refusing to show up for the cause.
Why They Can Win: For what it’s worth, the last three series have been won by the home country. The Giants not only have home country advantage, they also have home field advantage in this tourney. With that comes huge pressure to win.
Since I’ve come all this way, we’ll be featuring Game of the Week-style coverage of the Caribbean World Series on the website. Saturday, we’ll talk about Friday evening’s opening games, on Monday, we’ll run down the happenings of Sunday’s game for anyone who decided to skip the Super Bowl in favor of a superior sports experience, and so forth. I set out some links on Unfiltered for match schedules on the local regional cable nets where you can follow the action. (You can also spend $10 to watch the games live on MLB.tv if you prefer.)
As always, you’re welcome to e-mail me your thoughts before, after, and during the games.