Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Spring came Monday in form of beisbol, no matter what groundhog said

The nation’s groundhog saw its shadow Monday in Punxsutawney, Pa., while I saw all the snow and slush piled up outside my front door. It’s obvious that winter isn’t quite over with.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit of springtime joy on Groundhog Day, even though the activity I saw took place in Puerto Rico.

FOR THAT IS where the first games were held Monday for the Caribbean Series – the annual championship tourney of Latin American baseball. For the record, the Culiacan Tomateros of Mexico beat the Pinar de Rio Vegueros of Cuba 2-1 to kick off the baseball tournament.

While many of you were recovering from Super Bowl Party hang-over (I didn’t even bother to watch the game Sunday night), I am bracing for a week of baseball fun. The idea that somewhere on Monday it was 80 degrees and sunny, with a touch of humidity in the air and baseball was being played was enough to brighten my day.

Particularly when I saw that first game (which started at 11 a.m., Chicago time) in which the Tomatogrowers came from behind to win their game, with pitcher Terance Marin getting credit for the win against the team named for a locally-produced brand of cigars.

For those not obsessed with the most intense of minor league minutia, Marin is a California native who has pitched the past several seasons for assorted Chicago White Sox minor league affiliates, and who chose to play ball this past winter in Mexico and wound up playing for the team that won the Pacific League championship.

IT WOULD BE nice to think that if he is able to make the big club in Chicago this year, this bit of championship tourney experience might make him fit to boost the White Sox chances of making it to the playoffs this year and succeeding.

That is part of what makes me get a kick out of the Caribbean Series each year – the ballplayers are amongst the best out of Latin American nations and also some U.S. kids who try to boost their own experience and chances at playing in the U.S. major leagues with a stint in winter ball.

Just like Eric Farris, who made an outfield misplay Monday that cost his Mexico ball club a run, but then helped to set up the run that tied up the game a couple of innings later. Farris, for those who don’t know, once played for the Milwaukee Brewers, but has spent the past few seasons playing for Minnesota Twins minor league affiliates.

It is a chance to get a preview of what could come in future U.S. major league seasons, while also getting a chance to see competitive baseball being played at a time when we otherwise would think we’re in the dreariness of winter.

THE SIGHT OF pitchers trying to overpower and outsmart hitters helped me manage to forget just how ugly a day we experienced on Sunday, and how the residue of that day is piled up nearly two feet deep right outside my front window!

And I also got a kick out of the one Mexico baseball fan sitting behind the dugout who chose to dye his beard in the red, white and green tri-colors of the Mexican flag.

Not as hideous as those White Sox fans who paint their face in blackface (with white “Sox” script logos on their cheeks), but it does show a certain equal sense of sincere support for their favorite team.

So if you want to know what I plan to be doing this week, it will be trying to find spare time to catch as much of the Caribbean Series as I can (two games a day on ESPN Deportes -- channel 609 on my set, I don't know about yours -- with a championship game on Sunday). It will be intriguing to see how teams from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico (this year’s tournament host) do against the Mexico and Cuba squads.

CONSIDERING THAT FUTURE Cuba participation in this tourney will be impacted by the chance of U.S./Cuba relations restoration, this isn’t just fluff and games. There could be some cultural overtones to all of this.

And at the very least, it will help me cope better from the fact that my feet (as I write this commentary) are still damp from the walk I had to take Monday afternoon out in the slop of winter snowfall!

Just another two months before we can have Opening Day in Chicago proper.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's tourney is being played at the Estadio Hiram Bithorn, the largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico. It was named for the ball player who was the first Puerto Rican ever to play in the U.S. major leagues -- Bithorn pitched in 1942, 1943 and 1946 for the Chicago Cubs (interrupted by a 1944-45 stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II). In 1943, he pitched seven shut-out games, which remains a record of sorts for Puerto Rican pitchers.

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