Cuba's return adds to Caribbean Series excitement
International baseball powerhouse back after absence of more than 50 years
ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- The hometown chants will begin about an hour before game time and crescendo at Estadio Nueva Esparta when the first pitch is thrown to Cuba's leadoff hitter.
There will be horns, music and noisemakers when the 2014 Caribbean Series begins here on Saturday. There will be dancing in the stands, mascots gyrating on the dugouts and cheerleaders running up and down the aisles. Expect to see men dressed as Mexican wrestlers and mariachi band members -- among other things -- and families waving their home country's flag.
And there will be food.
The usual baseball fare will be available, but there will also be plenty of local treats like arepas, taquenos, empanadas and patacones on hand to remind fans they are visiting a South American jewel. There will also be police and military guards on the concourse armed with shotguns and machine guns, another reminder we are not in Kansas City anymore.
But most of all, there will be Caribbean-style baseball. This year's version between the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic (Tigres de Licey), Mexico (Naranjeros de Hermosillo), Puerto Rico (Indios de Mayaguez) and Venezuela (Navigantes del Magallanes). The tournament runs until Feb. 8 and it includes Cuban Serie Nacional champion Villa Clara as a special participant.
"Cuba was a pioneer in this tournament, and the [Cuban] teams were a big part of the formation from the very beginning," said Caribbean Confederation commissioner Juan Puello Herrera. "We have tried for several years to get them here, with the idea for them to participate with the full rights that other members have, and have them host a Caribbean Series, too. But politics [are] involved, so they are coming as a special guest to Venezuela. I don't think they will participate in Puerto Rico next year because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, but we will see."
The Cuban roster features a host of players with international experience, including several of the island's stars who participated in World Baseball Classic tournaments. International baseball fans and Major League Baseball scouts watching will recognize names like catcher Ariel Pestano, right-handed pitchers Freddy Asiel Alvarez, Ismel Jimenez and Norge Luis Ruiz, third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, second baseman Jose Miguel Fernandez, first baseman Ariel Barrero and designated hitter/outfielder Alfredo Despaigne.
"Cuba will certainly be competitive, and it's a short tournament, so anything can happen," said Cuban baseball historian Peter Bjarkman. "There's also a caché that comes with Cuba that will spice up some interest, and that's as important to the tournament as it is to Cuba itself. Now it's a real Caribbean series."
But is Cuba the favorite to win?
A team from the Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series title 19 times. Puerto Rico has the second-most number of championships, with 14, although the island has not won since 2000. Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico, which has won the championship twice in the past three years, have seven Caribbean Series titles each. Last year, Mexico's Yaquis de Obregon won the 2013 Caribbean Series in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Consider this: Licey has won 10 Caribbean Series titles, the most in the history of the tournament, and they are managed by former big leaguer Jose Offerman, with Manny Acta, the former manager in Washington and Cleveland, serving as the club's general manager. Toronto's Emilio Bonifacio and Ricardo Nanita, along with White Sox prospect Leury Garcia, are on the Tigres' roster. Pitchers Guillermo Mota, Carlos Marmol and Yunesky Maya are schedule to pitch.
Magallanes, which is led on the field by veteran outfielder Endy Chavez, and Mayaguez, which is managed this year by former big league second baseman Carlos Baerga, have each won two Caribbean Series championships. Former big league pitcher Joel Pineiro is expected to start for the Indios sometime this weekend.
Hermosillo, which will feature pitchers Oliver Perez and Alfredo Aceves, won its only title in 1976.
"This is going to be a good Caribbean Series because of the added competition, and we know Cuba will be ready," Herrera said. "I think fans that follow the games are really going to enjoy it and appreciate that we are expanding while also getting back to our roots."
The history of the Caribbean Series in Latin America traces back to the union of the leagues in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela -- then called the Baseball Organization -- and the formation of the Caribbean Federation in 1948. After Cuba hosted in '49, Puerto Rico played host in '50, Venezuela in '51 and Panama in '52.
The initial design of the series was 12 games, with each team squaring off against each other twice. Cuba won the title seven times from 1949-60. Puerto Rico won four times during that span, and Panama won its first and only Caribbean Series title in '50.
In 1959, communist leader Fidel Castro took over Cuba and ended the country's participation in the event after '60. Depleted, the Caribbean Series eventually disappeared for 10 years until a revival in '70 that included the addition of the Dominican Republic and Mexico and the removal of Panama from the tournament.
Last year, a new format extended the double round-robin format an extra day, with a championship game played between the teams with the two best records. This year, each team will play each other once, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.
The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico will play the first game of the series on Saturday afternoon, followed by Mexico and Cuba in the nightcap. Venezuela will take on Cuba in the host country's first game of the Caribbean Series on Sunday night.
"What you will see with the addition of Cuba is more international attention and elevated play," Herrera said. "Cuba always brings its best to tournaments, and that can only enhance what we already have in place."