Puerto Rican Baseball Winter Leagues "Almost Better than the Real Thing"
Baseball's winter leagues have long been a point of heated debate for Americentric fans as well as players. Some players participate for pride-in-heritage, while others do it to stay sharp over the off-season. Whatever the reason, the fans are ultimately the winner, because the four Caribbean leagues are an amazing place for them to sharpen their game, perfect difficult shifts in techniques, and all while putting on an amazing show for the small crowds on hand.
You can call it "winter ball" if you like, but that doesn't mean you need a parka, or that you can leave the SPF-40 at home.
The number of good example of a rising (or risen) star you can find south of the border tooling their crafts in the off-season is as great as the number of expat players.
Florida-based agent Scott Shapiro, who has helped negotiate contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for such clients as Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva and Jose Hernandez, says, "Winter ball's been great for me. A lot of what I did was just meeting a lot of people in the Dominican [Republic]."
Winter Ball is where he forged deals with former Dodgers players Mariano Duncan and Wilson Betemit, Yankees' Robinson Cano and too many others to name.
He once introduced himself to former Angel pitcher Matt Perisho when both found themselves in the same Santo Domingo hotel one winter. Perisho asked Shapiro to represent him, and later introduced Shapiro to teammate Carl Pavano, for whom Shapiro would later negotiate a $39-million contract with the men in pin stripes.
Shapiro explained that, "The Dominican Republic is like our backyard… It's almost an extension of South Florida. There's a different impact when you go down to their country and they know you're there. That you know the culture, [and are] willing to meeting their families, know where they live, understand what life is like at home. A lot of what I've learned over the years is to be there for these guys beyond what a typical agent would do."
The Puerto Rican League is a quarter of that excitement, even though it makes up a smaller minority by population. In the Puerto Rican League the focus is all about the long-awaited return of big-league stars such as Pudge Rodriguez and Bernie Williams.
Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, a free agent catcher nearly without equal (just try to steal 2nd base, I dare you,) who finished the 2008 season with the Yankees, and Williams, who hasn't played since finishing the 2006 season with New York, are using the Puerto Rican League to prepare for this spring's World Baseball Classic.
Both players represented Puerto Rico in the first WBC three years ago and aspire to represent their homelands again.
The Puerto Rican League suspended play a season ago citing financial difficulties and one cause, team owners said, was the unwillingness of Puerto Rico's top big-league stars to play in their homeland, as major leagues from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico commonly do.