The offseason months of November, December and January,
characterized by words like arbitration, free agents, signing bonus
and other agent-speak, are what baseball aficionados call the ‘Hot
Stove’ months. Trade rumors and signing rumors abound in these
months more than any others; yet, the truly dedicated players are
nowhere near the scene.
After enduring the rigors of a 162-game regular season and, for
the more fortunate, the toll of a heavy load in the postseason,
hundreds of Major League Baseball players take time off to return
to their homes and do what they do best: play baseball.
The destination: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the game:
baseball, the purpose: patriotism. ‘El campeonato invernal de
Rep�blica Dominicana’ (The Dominican Republic Winter league
baseball championships) is what drives these players away from the
fame and fortune of the United States and back to their homeland to
participate in something based on passion and love for the game,
not money. No players’ unions dictate who plays for whom and for
how much, no corrupt club owners pocket the proceeds from ticket
revenues and merchandise sales, and no national broadcast company
invests millions into a multi-year contract with the league. No,
the roots of el campeonato invernal run much deeper than those
superficial things that now exemplify major sports in the United
For these boys of winter, the games they play in the Dominican
give them a chance to do something that may mean even more to them
than a World Series ring: represent their country in la Serie del
Caribe (the Caribbean Series), where championship teams from
Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic square
off to determine who is the best in the Caribbean.
Since late November and early December an influx of MLB
superstars have integrated the rosters of the teams of the liga
The Domincan’s version of Sox vs. Yankees
Much like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the United
States, la liga invernal has two dominant franchises competing
against each other both on the field and off it. The Licey Tigers
and the Cibae�as Eagles both have 17 Dominican Championships
apiece and yearly they attempt to persuade the best MLB has to
offer to play on their teams. The Tigers have jumped the gun this
season and taken control of the standings in the process. In the
past six weeks the Tigers have added 17 MLB players to their
roster, among them former and current All-Stars like Minnesota
Twins shortstop Cristian G�zman, former Colorado Rockie
Jos� Jimin�z and second baseman Luis Castillo of the
World Series Champion Florida Marlins. With such an influx of
talent, many have wondered how Tigers’ manager Manny Acta can find
a place for each, a problem he says he is happy to deal with.
“Everyone says that I have a problem with so many (players) that
can be regulars, but really I don’t see it as a problem,” Acta told
Enrique Rojas, editor of Santo Domingo’s Diario Hoy. “It’s
something special to count on nine stars in the field and 21 stars
on the bench.”
As if 17 professional baseball players weren’t enough, rumors
say that future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, formerly of the
Montreal Expos, could soon join the team he helped lead to the
Caribbean Series in 2001.
Not to play second fiddle, the Eagles, who have won six of the
past eight Dominican Championships, already initiated their parade
of stars. 2002 American League MVP Miguel Tejada, third baseman
Tony Bautista and outfielder Ra�l Mondesi all have joined or
plan to join the team soon.
For players like Tejada, Guerrero and other stars, the chance to
represent their country on the field is something they will not
allow to be taken away from them, even if it means accepting less
money in a Major League contract.
“One of the conditions that I ask for before signing a contract
is that I’m not kept from playing in the winter league with the
Cibae�as Eagles,” Tejada told Rojas.
The name-dropping doesn’t stop with Eagles and Tigers, however.
The Escogido Lions have Rafeal Furcal (Atlanta Braves), Neifi
P�rez (San Francisco Giants), David Ortiz (an MVP candidate
from the Boston Red Sox) and pitchers Jose Lima, Miguel Batista and
Furcal, who hit .292 with 15 home runs, 61 RBIs and 130 runs,
credits his breakthrough season to the winter league.
“What I achieved in the big leagues in 2003, I owe in part to
playing a full season with Escogido,” he said.
Meanwhile the Carolina Bulls, who are a surprising second in the
standings, have added AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa to their
roster, while the Ciboa Giants await the arrivals of Albert Pujols
(runner-up for the National League MVP award) and Placido Polanco
No money, no worldwide television broadcasts, no players’ union,
no owners, no salary cap, no problem; the Dominican winter league
offers much more to its fans and players. Perhaps MLB should look
harder at what really drives players to play their best: