Postcards from Vacation: Baseball’s Winter Leagues

The Australian Baseball League is just one of the many winter leagues in baseball. (via Simon Clancy)

Each fall, a baseball fan will hear players, broadcasters, journalists, and most others with an outlet make some comment about how baseball has two seasons: the regular season and the postseason. I like the cliche and its implications for the teams in the playoffs, but the statement leaves something out. To fans stateside, it is something that occasionally pops in stories discussing how a player was working on a new pitch, or in injury news, or when a player discusses how he spent his winter vacation, but that ignores a rich baseball tradition. It’s something that matters to the hundreds of players, including familiar names from major league baseball, and thousands of fans in places like Latin America and Australia.

There are currently MLB-endorsed Winter Leagues in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Australia, with play for the Latin leagues beginning in October and lasting through the end of December. The Australian Baseball League begins its season in the middle of November and plays until February—for an interesting account on playing in Australia, check out former Red Sox player Lars Anderson’s ongoing series at Fangraphs.

They each have their own stories, their own players and fans, and for the Latin American leagues, they meet every February for the Caribbean Series. Here are some postcards of how baseball spends its winter vacation.

Serie del Caribe, aka The Caribbean Series

Every four years, the World Baseball Classic inspires many American baseball fans and writers to devote more of their attention to international play than is typical in the days leading up to Opening Day. But if they were paying more attention each winter, they would see that in addition to five winter leagues held each year, there is also a highly competitive tournament played each February that finishes just before pitchers and catchers report.

The first Serie del Caribe (or Caribbean Series) occurred in February of 1949 and was held in Havana. The fathers of the Series are Oscar Prieto and Pablo Morales, who were inspired to start an annual tournament featuring international teams from the region after watching the 1946 Serie Interamericana between teams from four countries, including the semipro Brooklyn Bushwicks.

The format for the Serie del Caribe was to have the top teams from the various Latin American leagues compete to see who was the best. To make things more interesting, they typically enjoy “reinforcements”—a system where an advancing team can add players from teams that didn’t qualify for the tournament—making the representative rosters something more akin to all-star teams. The original tournament featured teams from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela that played over the course of six days.

Following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and his subsequent nationalization of the country’s baseball teams, the Serie del Caribe was cancelled for eight seasons beginning in 1961. When it returned in 1970, Panama was dropped and the Dominican Republic was added to the tournament. Mexico joined in 1971. The Serie del Caribe’s host rotates between the participating countries and in 1990 and 1991, it was even held in Miami.

Despite not playing in the first 12 iterations of the Series, teams from the Dominican Republic have the lead in titles, winning 19 since 1970. Puerto Rico comes in second with 15 titles, including last year’s. Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela have nine, eight and seven respectively, with Panama’s sole championship coming in 1950 in the second year of tournament play. Cuba returned to the series for the first time in 54 years during 2014 but other than winning the championship in 2015, has had disappointing performances.

The Serie del Caribe unites these four leagues and the countries they come from. The fans have their own traditions and some of the teams that have competed in the Series have become legendary. Puerto Rico is using the winter league as a way to recover from the recent hurricane damage. Its goal is overcoming a long series of obstacles to defend its championship in the 2017 Serie del Caribe.

The Fan

Monte Cely is not a name you will find in any official record of a Serie del Caribe game. He is not a player, manager, executive or official. What he is, though, is one of the thousands of raucous fans who will be in the stands cheering on their team. Most people will root for the team of the country of their birth. For an American like Cely, this is not possible, so he cheers on his adopted team of Mexico.

Cely attended a World Baseball Classic in 2009 between Venezuela and Puerto Rico and enjoyed sitting among the Venezuelan fans. Several years later he discovered that a vacation in Puerto Rico overlapped with the Serie del Caribe. Not only did he attend some games but by coincidence, his hotel was the official hotel of the fans from Mexico. He took in the action, made friends, and got hooked.

Dear Santa: Or, What I Want for Baseball Christmas (2018 Edition)
It's that time of year again, folks -- time to tell Santa what you really, really want.

(via Monte Cely)

A dedicated SABR member from the Austin area, Cely has been a follower and chronicler of Latin baseball for a decade and has attended around 90 games in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The 2018 Serie del Caribe will be his eighth consecutive Serie.  “A game south of the border is part fiesta, part baseball,” he says. “Fans like to make a lot of noise and are passionate about the game.”

The connection between the fans and those on the field is palpable, even to the point of mingling with the players. Cely recalled a moment when he shared an elevator in Venezuela with former Cubs All-Star Carlos Zambrano and the two struck up a conversation. Zambrano proceeded to hold court in the hotel lobby; he answered questions, signed autographs, and even kissed babies. This sort of interaction between the players and fans is common, with the teams and fan delegations oftentimes staying in the same hotel. Cely feels that this sort of access helps to build an unique form of camaraderie between the teams and their supporters.

As a baseball fan, Cely says the daily double headers, which features everyone from prospects to retired major leaguers, are what initially attracted him to the tournament. But it’s the experiences with fellow fans who have become new friends that keep him coming back.

The Former Teammate

Austin Bibens-Dirkx had one of those seasons that’s a few dramatic events short of receiving a movie that begins with “The,” like The Rookie or The Natural. He was 31-year-old rookie for the Texas Rangers who, since being drafted in 2006 by the Seattle Mariners, had played for dozens of teams in various leagues. including a stint in independent ball as recently as 2016.

In his movie though, Bibens-Dirkx would not have that awkward moment of the new guy walking into a locker room full of ambivalent faces. As he told Texas Rangers Magazine that, after receiving a hug from a towel-clad Andrew Cashner, he reconnected with Venezuelan born players Elvis Andrus and Robinson Chirinos.

He knew the two from playing winter ball, spending six years playing for teams in Venezuela and another season in the Dominican Republic. The most recent team was the Tigres de Aragua, in the 2016-2017 Venezuelan Winter League season. The team had 68 players on its roster, of whom 28 had played in the major leagues. His teammates that winter included Marwin Gonzalez, Eduardo Escobar and Avisaíl García.

Bibens-Dirkx had a productive 2017, going 5-2 working both as a starter and out of the bullpen and allowed just three hits in a seven inning performance against the Max Scherzer-led Nationals in June. When asked how his year with the Rangers was going and how the winter leagues played a part he replied, “…one of the reasons I feel like I have been able to be successful at this level is I’ve pitched against a lot of big league guys and had to get them out down there.”

The Greatest Team Ever: Puerto Rico Edition

A common conversation among baseball fans is which team they consider the greatest ever. For fans in Puerto Rico, or for winter ball historians, the greatest team of all time is the 1954-1955 Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers).

The Crabbers are based in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, and have one of the more distinctive logos in sports. It’s a variation of the St. Louis Cardinals’ classic two birds resting on a bat, but instead of two red birds, it features two blue crabs in their place. The team was founded by Shell Oil executive and former amateur player Pedro Zorilla in 1939. During its early years the team often fielded American Negro League stars including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella.

In 1951, the team acquired a young Roberto Clemente; the team had success the following year, winning both the League and Caribbean Series before falling to last place in 1953-1954. However, the Crabbers made a fateful arrangement before the 1954-1955 that helped them become not just a league winner but a legend, when they were able to get the World Series champion New York Giants to agree to send Willie Mays to Santurce following his first MVP season.

Mays arrived in Puerto Rico on October 16, 1954, just two weeks after a World Series highlighted not only by the Giants sweep of the Cleveland Indians but by “The Catch” that ended Game One. The Crabbers roster also included Don Zimmer, Sam Jones and Bob Thurman, in addition to the Puerto Rican players on the team. With the Clemente and Mays combo in the lineup, this group accounted for plenty of offense and earned the nickname “El Escuadrón del Pánico” or “The Panic Squad.”

After winning the Puerto Rican Championship, the team travelled to Venezuela for the 1955 Caribbean Series. With its star power it was both the heavy favorite to win and the crowd favorite, attracting attention few if any teams had in the past. Clemente was successful at the plate and after a slow start, Mays joined as well, even hitting a walk-off home run during their third game. The team clinched victory in the Caribbean Series against the Carta Vieja Yankees, the team from Panama. Despite the presence of Clemente and Mays, the Series MVP trophy was awarded to another import with a long career in the major leagues, Zimmer, who had provided several clutch home runs and hits through the Crabbers postseason run.

Hurricanes and the 2017-2018 Season

Baseball has a way of going on during difficult times. During World War I, players were allowed to continue playing, and in the early days of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote what has become known as the Green Light Letter, telling Commissioner Kenesaw Landis to continue play during the war for the jobs and recreation it provided.

Puerto Rico is going through its own difficult time. Hurricane Maria hit the island in late September as it was still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which had hit several weeks before. The commonwealth was devastated and even at the time of this writing nearly three months later, much of the island still lacks electricity and has difficulty getting other basic necessities to residents in need.

Baseball in Puerto Rico itself had been on an upswing. After interest had begun dipping in the 1990s and financial problems hit in the 2000s, more players have been playing, with an increase in the number of Puerto Rican players appearing in the major leagues as a result. In 2007, the Puerto Rican Baseball League suspended operations for a year, and when it returned in 2008 it did so with changes to the way the league’s offices were structured, changes aimed at helping to ensure its future security. In 2012,  the name of the league was officially changed to Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente. Puerto Rico had an especially memorable year in 2017, with the Caguas Creoles winning the Caribbean Series and a second-place finish behind the United States in the World Baseball Classic.

Then Hurricane Maria hit.

The devastation suffered was widespread. When lives have been lost and the daily routine of living has been made nearly impossible, sports becomes secondary. But they still matter to people. As Jorge Castillo reported in The Washington Post earlier this month, baseball provides its own small moments of relief. And so people will still find a way to make them happen, to continue.

Instead of the league’s typical start date in late October, the RCPBL began an abbreviated schedule of 18 games on Jan. 6. Only four of last year’s five teams will take the field, with the Aguadilla Tiburones (Sharks) merging with the Mayaguez Indios. Several stadiums and sports complexes sustained heavy damage, so the league has consolidated and will use only two stadiums, Isidoro García Stadium in Mayaguez and San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Because of the unreliable electricity on the island, the games will all be daytime double headers. All games will be free. Baseball will continue.

The 2018 Serie del Caribe will begin on Feb. 2 in Guadalajara, Mexico and for four teams and their fans, winter baseball will end there. For others like Lars Anderson, the game will continue a bit longer until the Australian Baseball League has its championship on Feb. 11. Other players will have returned stateside, preparing for major league spring training. Then, following a long season and playoffs, baseball’s winter vacation will start again.

Special thanks to Monte Cely and Joe Bateman for their assistance on this piece.

References and Resources


Eric Robinson is a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer, researcher, and presenter on baseball history and sometimes more. He is co-chairman of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee. For more information please check out his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
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lgfontana
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Member
lgfontana

Thank you for this article. It is long overdue for some attention to be paid to the winter leagues, especially in Latin America.
I am a baseball fan and a Spanish speaker. Once the World Series ends, I find myself dying for some live, competitive baseball. You’d think the MLB Network, which is starved for content throughout the winter, might broadcast a game or two from the Winter Leagues each week to keep the baseball junkies engaged. I know I would watch.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
Two weeks ago, i ordered the December 14, 1968, edition of The Sporting News on ebay. The last page was a weekly summary of the Winter Leagues. Their was the Puerto Rican League, Venezuelan League, and Dominican League. What is fascinating is the roster of each league. You have established veterans like Paul Blair, Felix Milan, George Scott, all three Alou brothers, Juan Pizarro, and Manny Mota among others. Frank Robinson managed Santurce in the PR League. Today, most player contracts would forbid such activity for fear of injury. I doubt these players were paid much. They did it to… Read more »
lgfontana
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Member
lgfontana

In Bob Gibson’s biography, he talked about his experiences playing in the winter leagues in Puerto Rico. He enjoyed being in the tropical climate during the winter. He also liked the extra money and the inexpensive 18 carat gold for sale in Puerto Rico.

Barney Coolio
Member
Barney Coolio

68 players on the roster? Really? How would that actually work on a day-to-day basis? I am thinking that players sharing a hotel room is a more common thing in the winter leagues.