Caribbean Series Concludes
The 2008 Caribbean Series has concluded, with Licey of the Dominican Republic winning its 10th title. This year’s version, in my opinion, should be remembered as a farce for two reasons.
This year’s Caribbean Series was the first in the city of Santiago and the first round-robin of its kind to feature two teams from the Dominican Republic. The reason for this is that Puerto Rico pulled out, so the host nation added its regular season runner up, The Licey Tigres into the mix. Licey should never have even been there in the first place, yet they won the entire tournament. The Aguilas Cibaenas (3-3, Dominican Winter League Champions) finished second, while Venezuela and Mexico each finished with 2-4 records.
The 51st annual version of the tournament, scheduled for next year in Mexicali, Mexico, might be remembered for a completely different reason altogether: its start date and participants.
The lack of Major League participation from players outside of the Dominican Republic has the Caribbean Confederation officials considering moving up the start of the tournament from the first week of February to Jan. 26. The latest the newly proposed tournament would end is Feb. 4. Of the 33 players on Caribbean Series rosters currently on 40-man Major League rosters, 30 were on the Dominican Republic teams. This creates a balance of power heavy in the Dominican’s favour, compromising the integrity and the legitimacy of the storied tournament.
Caribbean Confederation commissioner Juan Francisco Puello hopes the change would encourage more participation from Major League players from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, because it gives them at least 10 days before they are expected to report to their respective camps in Spring Training. This year’s tournament ended six days before pitchers and catchers begin reporting.
As for Mexico, the biggest challenge could be on the field, regardless of who plays or when the tournament starts. The country is 3-15 since it won the 2005 Caribbean Series in Mazatlan.
“It’s hard to say it was success for us when you look at our record, because the tournament is about results,” Mexico manager Homar Rojas said. “Next year, we are hopeful. We have always played hard and will keep playing hard. I just think the teams in this tournament are at a higher level than we are right now. Maybe that can change next year.”
Adding new teams to the tournament is also an option for the future of the Caribbean Series.
“In the case of Colombia, it depends on them. In the case of Nicaragua, it depends on them. In the case of Cuba, it depends on them,” Puello said. “It does not depend on the Caribbean Confederation. For Cuba, the door is open to them. In the case of Colombia and Nicaragua, it’s when they improve their stadiums. Puerto Rico will have its tournament. I have no doubt about that.”
Caribbean Series as a Showcase for Talent
As mentioned above, with seemingly more Major Leaguers deciding to skip the Caribbean Series, the risks of players competing have earned their share of attention. The rewards, beyond national pride back home, are lesser known, but they exist for those who want them.
Nelson Figueroa is one of those who benefitted
There was a point very recently this offseason when Figueroa thought he’d have to pitch in tryout camps to have any chance at the big leagues. He had pitched well enough, he felt, in the Mexican Leagues over the summer and into the winter, but had barely drawn a sniff in the states. Whether it was his velocity or something else, interest from team scouts was extremely limited.
“It was getting to the point where it was extremely frustrating, trying to figure out what did I do, who did I cross,” Figueroa said. “I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. Because all I kept hearing was there’s no pitching in the big leagues, there’s no pitching in the Minor Leagues. Everybody’s looking for pitching, and I couldn’t get signed.”
In the Caribbean Series, just as in the states, good pitching beats good hitting. It’s not always about talented pitching, but smart pitching.
“Arms are funny here,” Figueroa said before Thursday’s games. “There’s 95- to 100-mph throwers here, and I don’t want to knock anyone, but they’re throwers. They throw hard. A guy like myself, like Jose Santiago [of Venezuela], we’ve been at the big-league level. We’ve got the experience. Experience takes over. Talent can only do so much.
Figueroa served as one example that a good starter doesn’t necessarily have to light up a radar gun.
“There are guys that come in throwing 97 and scouts are excited,” Figueroa said. “I think that speaks volumes about the beauty inside the game. For the scouts that sit there with the guns and place everything on the number that pops up, this isn’t the state county fair. I’m not trying to win a Barbie doll. I’m not trying to win a teddy bear. I’m trying to get a hitter out. I’m trying to make sure that my family’s going to eat well, trying to make sure that I can get back to the big leagues.”
“You have to show teams that this is where I’m at today compared to where I was two years ago when I tried out at the open tryout,” Figueroa said. “I might’ve only been throwing at 83, 84 [miles per hour] then, but I could get guys out. Now I’m back to where I was before my surgery [in 2005].”
He’s still pitching well enough to impress. After pitching nine-plus innings of one-run ball against Dominican power Licey on Sunday, he came back to throw 1 1/3 innings of relief on Wednesday to beat those same Tigres.
His breakout performance against the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Caribbean Series changed that. Not only did he receive a contract offer with an invitation to big league camp, it came from the New York Mets, his hometown team.
Don’t count on Figueroa to rest on his laurels though.
As a non-roster invitee, the need to make a good impression is bigger early, trying to survive each round of cuts. While most pitchers are gearing up their arms throwing on the sides, he comes to camp in game shape.
“I’m 280 innings deep from April of last year,” he says proudly. “I’m still pitching, and I feel as good as I did in my first inning last April. I know I’m ready. You hear about dead arm all the time [in camp]. I might’ve had my dead arm when I was down in Mexico.
“And again, when you’re around a team that wants to win, an organization with winners, you want to get it done. You want to be a part of that. So you want to definitely show your best stuff, especially here in this situation. This is the only baseball being played right now.”