Play stopped in the bottom of the third inning while the team from the Dominican Republic changed pitchers. The Mexican club, Las Aguilas (the Eagles) de Mexicali, had just taken a 3-0 lead, and the stadium, Estadio de Teodoro Mariscal, in Mazatlàn, Mexico, was in a fandango of excitement.
A young man left the stands and took a victory lap around the outfield while carrying a banner that read VIVA MEXICO. Just as the new Dominican pitcher began to release a warm-up pitch, a child ran in front of home plate waving a Mexican flag. Groups of children surrounded each of the three outfielders to get autographs, and a television camera crew and a half dozen writers scoured the Mexican dugout for interviews. While the mariachi band blared in the stands, fans chanted, "MAY-hee-co, cha-cha-cha...MAY-hee-co, cha-cha-cha," and a vendor, balancing his tray of macaroons on his head as he swayed to the beat, joined a crowd of dancers atop the home team's dugout.
So it goes during a break in the action at the Caribbean Series, an annual seven-day, four-country, double round-robin competition to determine the champion of Latin America's four major winter leagues. Even the next night, after Mexicali had collapsed like the peso against Las Aguilas de Zulia from Venezuela, the good people of Mazatlàn chugged their Pacífico beer, sang their songs ("aye, yi-yi-yi") and danced the night away. They didn't care about salary arbitration. They didn't care about Collusion I, II or LVIII. They didn't care about George 'n' Winny, Wade 'n' Margo or lockout language. This, amigo, was beisbol.
La Serie del Caribe, which this year ran from Feb. 3 through 9, is supposed to alternate among Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the four nations represented in it, but the event ends up in Mexico almost every other year because Mexico is the only country that can guarantee sellouts and a profit for the four leagues. One reason that Mazatlàn, a city on Mexico's western coast some 1,800 miles from the Caribbean, has hosted the event twice in the last five years is that the series falls during Mardi Gras week—and Mazatlàn's Carnaval is billed as the third largest such celebration in the world, after those in Rio and New Orleans.
February 20, 1989
When the series comes to town, many of the players head for Se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬µor Frog's, Mazatlàn's most famous night spot, where they can go straight to the front of the long line of those waiting for a table. But the primary party is at the stadium. Fans aren't allowed to bring bottles, but that restriction is no problema: Folks simply fill up plastic supermarket bags with tequila or brandy and guzzle right from the bag. Yet even when Zulia scored seven first-inning runs against Mexicali, the fans never got Yankee Stadium ugly. True, instead of tossing around beach balls from section to section they were throwing brassieres and other women's undergarments—items brought to the stadium along with the bags of booze. Still, the chaos was orderly.
The children who ran onto the field to collect autographs between innings were always back over the fences before the next pitch was delivered. The public address announcer got a tad excited during one game in which Puerto Rico's right-fielder Keith Hughes, who also plays for the Baltimore Orioles, made an error in Mexicali's four-run lOth-inning rally, and blurted out, "Gracias, Sen‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬µr Hughes." But such remarks are in keeping with the series' participatory spirit. "Mexican fans are so into the game that they jump into the dugout to tell me they've figured out the other team's signs," says Mexicali manager Dave Machemer. Sure enough, a fan read Zulia's signs and told Machemer, who called for a pitchout when a Zulia runner was stealing on a 2-and-1 count. No matter that he was safe anyway.
While the fans are filching signs, major league officials and scouts are looking for future Clementes and Valenzuelas. The pickings last week were rather slim, but given the ever-pressing need for pitching in the States, several scouts expressed an interest in Mexicali lefthander Mercedes Esquer, who Machemer says is "the best pitcher in Mexico." Esquer blew away the Dominican Republic in his only start, but there seems to be some question about his age. "He's told me everything from 27 to 33," says Machemer, who is trying to get Esquer to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers. Machemer happens also to manage the Brewers' Triple A Denver Zephyrs.
There was no doubt about the age of Zulia's righthander Julio Strauss—who's 22—but there was plenty of uncertainty about what major league organization he'll play for. The Montreal Expos made a deal with Zulia for the rights to Strauss in January. Trouble was, Chicago Cubs scout Luis Rosa had already signed Strauss and paid him a bonus without going through Zulia. So after spending four summers pitching in the anonymity of the Venezuelan summer league, Strauss is now the property of two teams in the National League East. No problema: The major league commissioner's office will adjudicate the matter. Then again, scouts at the series quickly learned that Peter Ueberroth's Latin American representative, Miguel Rodriguez, is also a players' agent on the side.
After years of observation, the U.S. scouts have deduced that the Caribbean Series is governed by five unofficial rules:
•Uno. All pitchers must throw at least 75% breaking balls. The best Dominicans—Jose DeLeon of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jose Rijo of the Cincinnati Reds and Juan Guzman, a Toronto Blue Jay prospect—were the only conspicuous violators. Their club lost its first five games.
•Dos. No batter shall pull the ball. Veteran utility infielders Domingo Ramos of the Dominican Republic and Chicago Cubs and Luis Quinones of Puerto Rico and the Cincinnati Reds hit third and fourth for their respective lineups.
•Tres. No game shall be played in less than three hours. "These games are like yacht races," said Los Angeles Dodger scout Jerry Stephenson. "The three-hour limit is the starting line. They jockey for position for three hours, then the game really begins."
•Cuatro. Each team must have at least 100 people in its dugout. Tom Gamboa, manager of Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayagüez, looked around his dugout during a game to find Miss Puerto Rico and five of her friends sitting on the bench talking to his players. The Mexican dugout got so crowded one night that several players sat in the clubhouse beneath a painting of the Virgin Mary, which was surrounded by red plastic flowers and flashing Christmas lights.
•Cinco. A ball is kept in the game—no matter how many concrete walls it hits or how many mud puddles it rolls through—until a player tosses it to a se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±orita in the stands.
Mazatlàn old-timers remember the days when this series was a nationalistic showcase, when Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente would play for Puerto Rico, Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers for the Dominican Republic and Luis Aparicio and Tony Armas for Venezuela. "Now the native players who are established big leaguers make so much during the regular season, there's no reason to play for one's country," says Gamboa. "Between that and the fact that cable has brought the regular [major league] season to the [Latin American] countries, the winter leagues are all experiencing smaller crowds and financial problems."
Both the Dominican and Mexican leagues put further limits on U.S. imports—there can be no more than seven Yanquis per team now, compared with 14 as recently as '86—which has lowered the quality of play, and many of the Americans who do play don't stick around for the full season, which runs from October through January. "They want to get rested for spring training, and I can't blame them," says Gamboa, who lost the Puerto Rican league's best player, Philadelphia Phillie first baseman Ricky Jordan, just after Christmas.
Escogido, the Dominican representative, won last year's series, but this year it fielded DeLeon, Rijo and a bunch of kids. Missing were the likes of George Bell, Pedro Guerrero, Tony Fernandez, Juan Samuel and Alfredo Griffin, all major leaguers from the Dominican Republic who had played for Dominican teams early in their careers. Escogido's best player was Junior Felix, a speedy 21-year-old centerfielder from the Toronto organization who batted only .253 in Double A last summer.
Zulia, which operates out of Maracaibo, went from being the worst team in Venezuela last season to Caribbean Series champ. "The biggest reason is that our [American] imports not only stayed, but they also played hard right into February," says manager Pete Mackanin, who also manages the Cubs' Triple A Iowa Cubs. Five of his seven original imports from the U.S. completed the season. One of them was first baseman Phil Stephenson, 28, who's in his eighth pro season but has never played a day in the majors. He was named MVP of the Venezuelan league after batting .318 and winning the home run and the RBT titles. The Cubs have promised Stephenson a shot at their vacant leftfield job.
With the Mackanin connection, Zulia took on the look of the Chicago North Side gone south. In Joe Girardi, who will likely be with the Cubs come April, the Venezuelans had a superb defensive catcher. Veteran Chicago righthander Mike Bielecki was a mainstay for Zulia, and the club was boosted by two youngsters, 23-year-old righthander Len Damian from the Cubs' system and lefty Dale Polley, a prospect in the Atlanta Braves' organization. Aside from Strauss, the leading native Venezuelan was 22-year-old Carlos Quintana, a Boston Red Sox outfield prospect who batted .306 during the winter before being selected as MVP of the Venezuelan playoffs, in which he had four home runs in 10 games.
Zulia simply outlasted everyone else. In its first game it rallied for two runs in the eighth to beat Mexicali 5-4. The next day it defeated the Dominicans 3-2 in 16 innings. After that it knocked off Mayagüez, the favorite going into the tournament, 5-2 in 12 innings on Stephenson's three-run home run, and routed Mexicali 10-1. Zulia clinched the championship on the next-to-last day by edging Escogido 8-7 on a 13th-inning homer by Gus Polidor, who also plays for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Although the scouts were impressed by Felix, Quintana, Polley, rightfielder Sammy Sosa, 19, of Escogido and the Texas Rangers system, rightfielder Matias Carrillo, 22, of Mexicali and the San Diego Padres organization and, most of all, Mayagüez righthander Julio Valera, 20, yet another of the New York Mets' superb young arms, the series belonged to Stephenson, who hails from Guthrie, Okla. "I'd seriously thought of quitting playing and going into coaching last May," said Stephenson, who had 10 hits, three homers and seven RBIs in five games and was named series MVP. "At that point, I was backing up Mark Grace [at Iowa], and I was just minor league insurance in case Grace was recalled."
Grace was indeed recalled, and on June 1, Stephenson started playing every day. He hit .293 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs in 426 at bats. "I figured I needed the winter to showcase myself for one final chance," he says. "When the Cubs traded Rafael Palmeiro to Texas, they put me on the roster. I haven't played the outfield since 1985, but who cares? I'd do anything. This series and this winter gave me the chance to show the Cubs what I can do."
So what does La Serie del Caribe MVP get? A Disneyland spot? A fancy sports car?
"I got what every U.S. player dreams of from December on," said Stephenson. "I got my plane ticket home."