SANTIAGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC-Santiago is the Dominican Republic’s second city, a fact that goes a long way toward understanding this Caribbean Series. In many Latin American countries the second city is an afterthought since a huge chunk of the national population typically congregates in the capital city, seeking the money and opportunity that accumulates in what’s considered the major urban center. As a result, the second city often feels like it has something to prove. Despite a great tradition of winning baseball, Santiago never seems to get its due: it’s not the famous capital city, Santo Domingo, and neither does it get the respect accorded the much smaller town of San Pedro de Macoris as a baseball hotbed.

In the modern history of the Caribbean Series, 2008 is the first time that the tourney has been held in any Dominican city other than the capital. Santiago’s been waiting for this recognition for years, and the national government has poured money into the city to clean up its historic district and get it ready for its big coming-out party to the world. Two parts of the city’s public face that are definitely working in its favor are the ballpark-which is gorgeous and modern-and the ballclub that plays there. More so than the other teams in the tourney, the Cibao Eagles have been able to obtain and retain top players, making them the favorites to repeat as the Caribbean Series champs.

One of the areas in which Santiago isn’t quite ready for the world are hotel accommodations. The city had optimistically expected a couple of new hotels to open in time for the Series, only to find that none of them would. This meant that all the hotel space in the city was booked in accommodating just the teams, league officials, and assorted personnel, leaving little room for the press or fans. With plenty of both coming to attend the games, the press corps is scattered to the winds. I’m staying on the northern coast, about an hour and a half away from the Stadium.

Entering Santiago from the north was a disorienting experience, as that part of the city looks like it was put together at random; modern buildings standing alongside colonial architecture and the occasional run-down zinc-roofed structure. Going down a narrow street lined with sports betting places, the stadium popped into view with no warning. The parking lot was choked with scalpers who wouldn’t quite wait for you to get out of your car or slow down before trying to sell you tickets.

Once inside the stadium-and getting in was a task, since a crush of people were outside hoping to find a way in to the sold-out event-Cibao Stadium still had the look of someone fussing with her makeup before a close-up. About an hour before first pitch, I stepped on something I thought was a carpet, which turned out to be the freshly-painted on-deck circle, which had been dragged into the stadium walkway. With red paint on the soles of my shoes, it was time to watch some baseball.

Because it’s the champion of the host nation as well as being the host city’s team, Dominican Team #1, the Cibao Eagles, get to play the nightcaps of each day’s doubleheader, even though for tournament purposes they aren’t always the home team. Mexico would play “visitor” to the Eagles in the nightcap, but first, Venezuela’s representative would play “at” Dominican Team #2, the Licey Tigers, in an all-feline matchup. Some bullet points on Game One:

  • I avoided talking about the rosters in the Series preview because everything is so fluid in the winter leagues-players thought to be committed to the roster one day often just don’t show up to work the next. This kind of thing was particularly tough on the Venezuelan team. The Aragua Tigers lost their big star, Miguel Cabrera, to their Detroit namesakes. Cabrera had been suffering some problems with his left leg, which left him visibly gimpy in the Venezuelan league’s final series. Raul Chavez, Martin Prado, Horacio Estrada, Edgardo Alfonzo, Luis Rodriguez, Ronny Cedeno, Willie Collazo, and Kevin Tolar also didn’t bother to make the trip to the Dominican. While individually each of those may not sound like any big loss, the result is that Venezuela’s team features only one current major leaguer, Alberto Callaspo, and is seriously short on depth.
  • Licey also had to deal with defections and quitters. One of the main reinforcements the team selected, Cuban slugger Kendry Morales, turned it down. Outfielder Jose Guillen, third baseman Willy Aybar, and shortstop Erick Aybar all opted out of the tourney, while lefty Damaso Marte was unable to join the Caribbean Series effort after a minor car accident left him with neck pain. Another key member of the Licey bullpen, closer Carlos Marmol, is reportedly limited to only four innings of work for the tourney. Hey, at least he showed up.
  • Another side effect of the roster confusion is that projected rotations, such as the ones I gave in the Preview, sometimes don’t hold up. Licey starter Jose Capellan-yes, the veteran righty-had been with Cibao’s other team, the Giants, who are based in San Francisco de Macoris. Because the Giants were soundly thrashed in the preliminary round of the Dominican League playoffs, Capellan hadn’t pitched since January 9, and the rust showed in the early innings. Capellan seemed to have trouble getting his fastball over, loading the bases on two walks and a single with just one out in the first, before striking out the next two batters to strand the runners.
  • Ronnie Belliard gets the Rodney Dangerfield treatment in the Licey lineup-he’s a major leaguer, but last night he batted behind Jose Offerman and far behind Quad-A-type Juan Melo. According to members of the Dominican press, there were fisticuffs between Offerman and Belliard after the Dominican League finals, because Offerman felt Belliard wasn’t giving it his all. The insults paid off, as Belliard smoked a homer to left-center field, knocking in two runs in the third, and came back to single in two more runs the following inning.
  • Under the heading “the Ronnie giveth, and the Ronnie taketh away,” Belliard made an ill-advised attempt to barehand a slow roller, good for an error and two runs scored due to some heads-up Venezuelan baserunning. Ultimately, Licey had to burn off an inning and a third of their Carlos Marmol allotment, because the Licey bullpen, led by Carlos Perez, tried to cough up the lead. Nonetheless, the second Dominican team held on to a close win.

Once again, between games of the opener the home team held a gala, with dancing, singing, fireworks, small children, large animals, and really, really strange costumes. I was pretty sure someone had slipped some acid into the post-game spread when I saw a bunch of horned, whip-toting, gold lamé-wearing folks start to linedance. It was as if someone had combined Indiana Jones, Mexican wrestling, and Japanese anime into something horrible and disturbing. Even worse, the whole show dragged the start time for the second game past 9:30 PM. A few more bullet points:

  • Even the Mexicans were affected by Caribbean Series defectors, most prominently outfielder Jason Botts, who was the team’s best hitter. In comparison, the Eagles didn’t lose any of their most important contributors to lack of interest or a need to get ready for spring training. Their lineup is stocked with four guys who were major league regulars in 2007: Rafael Furcal, Miguel Tejada, Edwin Encarnacion, and Tony Pena Jr.), plus two more guys who got major league playing time, Victor Diaz and Brayan Pena. The Mexicans have Alfredo Amezaga. Period.
  • It was pretty amazing that we had a ballgame at all after the beatdown the Eagles handed out in the opening inning of the nightcap. Surprise starter Alberto Castillo-Betancourt couldn’t throw strikes and got hit hard when he put the ball over the plate, which pretty much establishes that pitching against the Eagles is harder than taking on the Atlantic League, his venue for the past four years.
  • Castillo-Betancourt got the call when the Mexican manager resolved not to start Puerto Rican Nelson Figueroa against the team whose rotation he anchored in the Dominican League finals, the Eagles. Both of the Dominican teams suffered this type of defection-they’d used players in their seasons or playoffs who’d be ineligible to play for them in the Caribbean Series because they’d spent time in a different league before joining the Dominicans. Figueroa had played in Mexico prior to joining the Eagles in the playoffs, so he could only play with the Mexican team; Armando Rios had played in Venezuela before joining Licey, so the same deal applied to him.
  • The Mexicans were able to get back into it due to some hot hitting by Amezaga, who had three hits, and some unfocused pitching work by Alfredo Simon, who alternated between looking greasy-deceptive and being a line-drive machine for the Mexican offense. This follows Simon’s story down in the minors, where, despite decent stuff, he has been very hittable at every level above High-A.
  • Once the Eagles bullpen applied a tourniquet to stop the advancing Mexican offense, Miguel Tejada helped shut the door, going yard back-to-back with Brayan Pena in the seventh. Tejada had a game for the ages, with another solo shot and a double earlier, four runs scored overall, and a steal of third base thrown in just for good measure. The dingers put him in the all-time Caribbean Series lead, ahead of Tony Armas Sr., and his two RBI left him only four short of his friend and Dominican League teammate, Tony Batista. A motorcycle-safety PSA featuring Tejada, played just before the second game, served as a reminder of the recent death of the All-Star’s brother, to whom he’s dedicated this tournament. If Tejada keeps hitting like this, Rico Carty‘s single-tournament record for homers (five) might be in peril, and the Eagles will look good to take home their second consecutive Caribbean Series crown.

The Caribbean Series continues today with another doubleheader, as the two Dominican teams swap foreign opponents. I’ll be there, openly denying the existence of the Super Bowl with all my might. Anyone else who wants to share stories of measures taken to avoid football’s big hype machine can contact me using the links below.

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