Wednesday, June 14, 2017

2018 Caribbean Series moved to Mexico; will Jalisco host?

After weeks of rumors swirling about whether the 2018 Caribbean Series would be moved out of Venezuela due to ongoing political turmoil, the Confederacion de Profesional Beisbol del Caribe (or CPBC) announced Wednesday that next February's event would be shifted from Barquisimeto to Mexico.

The continued death spiral of Venezuela's oil-based economy and measures taken by the government under President Nicolas Maduro have been accompanied by worsening unrest throughout the nation of 32 million bordering the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  One result has been security concerns for both Barquisimeto, a city of 2 million residents, and 20,450-seat Estadio Antonio Hernandez Herrera, leading to CPBC's decision to move the Serie del Caribe.  Historically, the CS has rotated annually between Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  It was held in Culiacan last February and was scheduled for Barquisimeto next year. Instead, the crown jewel of latin baseball will return to a Mexican Pacific League city for the second consecutive year.

The CPBC has not announced where the Caribbean Series will be sited, but Guadalajara may be the eventual pick.  The city hosted the first round of the World Baseball Classic in March. While Pool D play ended in controversy, attendance was strong over the first four four days at the expanded Estadio Charros (an average of 14,058 per game) and though there was much disgust directed toward WBC rules and processes, Jalisco Charros owner Armando Navarro and his organization received high marks as hosts.  Navarro has proven very ambitious since moving the LMP team from Guasave in 2014, and has actively lobbied to have the 2018 CS shifted to his city and ballpark.

This CPBC decision has done nothing to quiet concerns over the long-term viability of the Caribbean Series.  Long a cauldron of pride among Latino baseball fans, the Serie del Caribe has represented a convergence of passion, music and dancing in the stands to create an atmosphere unlike any other baseball tournament in the world.  It's more than a celebration of a sport, it's also a celebration of life.

Venezuela is not the only CS nation in which baseball is struggling.  Puerto Rico has been on shaky ground financially for years, including pro baseball.  The Roberto Clemente League was scheduled to host the CS in 2019, but the Al Bat website says the CPBC instead hopes to return to Venezuela if the political and economic situations there improve.  But what happens with the Dominican Republic, whose next turn was in 2019?  The idea of hosting the CS in Mexico (where the largest crowds attend) every even-numbered year while the other nations would rotate as host every odd-numbered year has been floated by at least one cronista south of the border.

Another problem Caribbean Series organizers and baseball fans alike is that Major League Baseball organizations are sending fewer prospects to play winterball in Latin America, choosing to direct them to training complexes in Arizona or even (in some cases) the Australian Winter League, which has nowhere near the quality or fan interest of the Caribbean leagues.  In addition, MLB Latin stars used to routinely play in the CS, but they're routinely discouraged from participating by their big league club and money does talk.  The result has been a drop in overall quality of winter teams, who rely more heavily on career minor leaguers and the occasional former big leaguer to fill the gap.  You don't see a Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente patrolling the outfield at Caribbean ballparks between October and February anymore.

The Caribbean Series added Cuba on a trial basis as the event's fifth participating nation in 2014, with Villa Clara representing the island nation for the first time since dictator Fidel Castro pulled Cuba out of the CS in 1960.  Pinar del Rio won the CS title in 2015 but the Serie del Caribe itself has yet to return to Havana.  A sixth nation will be added in 2019 when Panama (like Cuba, an original CS participant in 1949 along with Puerto Rico and Venezuela) will join the field.  Panama took part in the first twelve Caribbean Series, with Carta Vieja winning in 1950 and Panama City hosting three times.  Following the 1960 tournament, the CS was dormant through the rest of the 1960's.  Mexico and the Dominican Republic replaced Cuba and Panama to fill out the field in 1970, when the tournament returned.