With the attention of most sports fans in the U.S. focused this weekend on Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, baseball fanatics will be looking south to a tiny island off the coast of Venezuela and the start of the 2014 Caribbean Series.
Thanks to a slew of Major League Baseball talent on team rosters and the return of a Cuban club after a 53 year absence to the most vaunted baseball tournament in Latin America, this year's tournament – which is competed between pro teams from leagues in the region and is often colloquially referred to as the Caribbean World Series – on Margarita Island has drawn more attention than any in recent history.
“One of the world's most recognizable catchers, the demonstrative [Ariel] Pestano will lead Cuba back to the Caribbean Series this weekend, adding flavor to a colorful event notable for its enthusiastic nationalism,” wrote MLB.com columnist Phil Rogers.
Clubs from Cuba, which hosted the first series, won the event 7 out of 12 times between its inception in 1949 and 1961, when former Cuban leader Fidel Castro dissolved all professional baseball in Cuba and the tournament took a hiatus until 1970. Since then championship-winning teams from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela have played each winter, with Dominican squads taking home the most titles.
This year, however, will be the first time, outside the World Baseball Classic, that many MLB players will come face-to-face with some of Cuba’s best ballplayers, a fact that has ruffled some feathers in the MLB.
Last summer one MLB executive said that the U.S. league would not cooperate with the 2014 tournament if a Cuban club team was included. (MLB’s consent is crucial as many of the players in the winter tournament play in the U.S. during the regular season. On occasion, major league teams have denied players permission from participating in the Latin American winter leagues and the Caribbean Series.)
“We don’t have approval from Major League Baseball for Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Series,” Confederation President Juan Francisco Puello Herrera said last year. “But if Cuba can participate in the World Baseball Classic, we don’t see why they can’t be in the Caribbean Series,” Puello added, referring to the national-team tournament sponsored by MLB that included Cuba participates in.
The MLB ceded to the presence of a Cuban squad at the Caribbean Series in December, and the Baseball Confederation of the Caribbean confirmed that the Cuban champion, the Azucareros of Villa Clara, would participate as a “guest.”
Cuba’s return to the Caribbean Series comes on the heels of last year’s announcement that Cuban ballplayers would be allowed to sign contracts to compete in foreign leagues.
The measure promises to greatly increase the amount of money players are able to earn and seemed geared to trying to stem a continuing wave of defections by athletes who had been lured abroad by the possibility of lucrative contracts.
It was not immediately clear if the ruling would let Cuban baseball players jump to the U.S. major leagues without restrictions at home or under U.S. laws that restrict money transfers to the communist-ruled island.
Athletes will be eligible to play abroad as long as they fulfill their commitments at home, the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported.
“For Cuba's baseball federation, the hope is that the easing of restrictions will slow the stream of defections that has cut into the talent pool for the Serie Nacional, Cuba's top league, which operates in the winter,” MLB.com's Rogers wrote. “Rather than bolting for potential riches in North America, players could essentially play year round, earning money out of the country during the summer and then returning to play for Cuban teams in the winter, the way that many young players do in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.”
The Latin American winter leagues offer an opportunity for players to return to their home countries and stay in shape during the off-season. The rosters of this year’s squads are packed with MLB talent, including the Seattle Mariners' Endy Chávez playing for Venezuela’s Navegantes del Magallanes, Emilio Bonifacio of the Kansas City Royals playing second base on the Domincan Republic’s Tigres del Licey and New York Mets' reliever Pedro Feliciano, who takes the mound for the Puerto Rican squad, Los Indios de Mayagüez.
Mexico is represented by Los Naranjeros de Hermosillo, who will try to win another Mexican championship after league rival, Los Yaquis de Obregón, won the Series last year.
The tournament opens on Friday, Jan. 31, with games between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic, and between Cuba and Mexico. It ends on February 6.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.