Sunday, February 13, 2011

BBM Commentary: WHAT’S THE FUTURE FOR CARIBBEAN SERIES?

Now that the dust has settled on the 2011 Caribbean Series and there’s over a month to go until the Mexican League season begins, I thought I’d take a break from straight reporting and share a few of my impressions of the CS and where this event and Latin winter baseball may be heading in years to come.

The CS itself was played in the beautiful, state-of-the-art Isidoro Garcia Baseball Stadium in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico (pictured). The 10,500-seat facility was completed two years ago at a cost of $48.7 million, and you couldn’t help but be impressed by it. You also couldn’t help coming away with an impression of the size of crowds attending the games, which were disappointing. The announced attendance for the six-day event was 42,500, or a little over 7,000 per day. The three visiting teams brought their own small cadres of enthusiastic fans, but the afternoon games were almost without exception played in front of sparse gatherings. A crowd of 11,000 jammed the ballpark February 4 for that evening's Caguas-Este game, but no other day drew more than 8,000 fans and only 4,500 were said to click the turnstiles on February 3.

Some of the greatest names in baseball history have played winter baseball in Latin America and it was once considered a rite of passage for upcoming young ballplayers to gain experience playing in front of passionate crowds. However, with the advent of the Arizona Fall League and other more recent stateside offseason rituals, MLB does not send its best young players to the Latin leagues anymore (of 900 players listed in Baseball America’s 2011 Prospects Handbook, not one played in Mexico last winter), nor are MLB teams as willing to allow Latino veterans to play in their home countries because there is so much money invested in them. The result is a smaller pool of available player talent for winterball teams to draw from. Mexico is equipped to handle this because it has a Class AAA league with a large number of homegrown players to draw from, but the other CS countries do not and will continue to rely on MLB to supply enough talent.

This is not to say the winter leagues are dying. Far from it. Despite lacking top imports, seven of the eight Mexican Pacific League teams averaged 5,000 or more fans per regular season game. Winterball appears to be on fairly solid ground as a whole at home, although ongoing concerns about the health of Puerto Rico’s league could not have been abated by the low turnout for the Caribbean Series. However, the CS appears to have lost some prestige even within participating countries and faces some pressure from MLB organizations to finish competition earlier. The end result may be a shortened regular season schedule or scaled back playoffs, but the question of how the Caribbean Series gets its groove back remains. One answer: Expansion.

The same four nations have competed in the Caribbean Series since its rebirth in 1970 and the lack of a playoff beyond the double round-robin formation can lessen interest among casual fans. A jolt may be provided by the addition of a new competitor. The inclusion of a team from the Cuban National Series would be a tonic, but logistical problems would arise because Cuba would be in midseason and a lack of interest among authorities there to join make that whole scenario unlikely at this point, so the more practical step may be to consider adding Colombia.

The modern professional six-team Colombian League plays a schedule parallel to other Caribbean nations, has ties with MLB and is operated by a foundation headed by shortstop Edgar Renteria, the first native Colombian named World Series MVP last year while playing for San Francisco. Renteria signed a one-year deal last month with Cincinnati worth up to $3 million. The league has actively pursued a slot in the CS for years and will keep lobbying to join next year in Santo Domingo. The quality of baseball and facilities there are said to be lacking, although MLB is consulting with Colombian authorities on a new ballpark in Cartagena (which has a 12,000-seat ballpark at present).

While there is not great enthusiasm among CS leaders, they may need to bring in Colombia to increase the field (and number of visiting fans) while going to a single round-robin format with semis and finals to maintain the CS as a six-day event. Interests in Nicaragua have also expressed interest in joining the CS, but that nation’s league is a distant longshot.

With participating Latin leagues and teams needing more homegrown talent to fill their rosters, the faces of winterball will continue to change even as declining interest in the Caribbean Series creates concern among participating countries. Changes will have to come, but only time will tell what the long-term results will be. The CS should survive in some way, but it may not be able to continue as we’ve known it.