The Importance of the Caribbean Winter Leagues

Scores of elite major leaguers have played in the Caribbean Winter Leagues. (via Tom Hagerty, Keith Allison, Keith Allison, SD Dirk, Keith Allison & Michelle Jay)

April is the cruelest month.

— T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot was many things: a Nobel Prize winner, a British subject who renounced his American citizenship, and a pen pal with Groucho Marx, among others. Eliot was not a baseball fan.

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For those of us who languish within that distinction, April is perhaps the most joyful month, when our game is promising and new and not yet heartbreaking. If baseball lovers were to create their own version of this iconic line, it likely would read, “November is the cruelest month.” Typically by that point the World Series has ended, but the offseason “hot stove” is not yet cranked up to full blast, and we’re just beginning to pine for baseball again.

Enter, the Caribbean winter leagues.

While most North American baseball fans are hibernating until pitchers and catchers report, the baseball season down south is already in full swing. There are leagues spread throughout South and Central America, never mind all the action in the Australian Baseball League. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to stick with the Big Five:

  1. The Dominican Winter League (Liga de Beisbol Dominicano, often referred to as LIDOM)
  2. The Puerto Rican League (Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente)
  3. The Mexican Pacific League (Liga Mexicana del Pacifico)
  4. The Cuban National League (the Serie Nacional)
  5. The Venezuelan Winter League (Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional)

These leagues represent the most high-profile baseball outside major league baseball in the United States. Prominent major leaguers have played for teams within these leagues, and it is all but guaranteed there will be at least one representative from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic on each of the 30 major league rosters this season. Some teams will have players from all five.

Leagues typically contain four to eight teams, and each league champion goes on to compete in the Caribbean Series (Serie del Caribe). Those five teams compete in a round-robin style tournament that lasts eight days. The winner brings home the Caribbean championship trophy and bragging rights for its country. The series almost always takes place in February, after the leagues’ regular seasons are done, and the location rotates annually. Last year, when the Criollos de Caguas of the Puerto Rican League won the championship, Mexico played host.

These leagues generally are considered to operate at a Triple-A level of play. There are usually other winter leagues within the countries, not to mention summer and fall leagues, as well, but these five are recognized as the “kings of winter ball.”

Cuba has a rich baseball history, so it makes sense that its Serie Nacional is the oldest league of this group. Cuba also has an interesting history competing in the Caribbean Series.

The Series originally was devised by two Venezuelan business partners, Pablo Morales and Oscar Prieto, inspired by the success of the now-defunct Serie Interamericana. Joined by Cuba, Panama and Puerto Rico, the inaugural Serie del Caribe kicked off in Cuba in February of 1949. Unfortunately, 11 years later Cuba became the reason for the event’s cancellation. Although the country had won the Caribbean championship seven times during that stretch, most notably winning the title every year from 1956 through 1960, Fidel Castro dissolved all of Cuba’s professional baseball in 1961.

The Caribbean Series emerged again in 1970 and has been played, with variations in country representation, every year since then. Most notably, in 2008 there was no Puerto Rican team because the Puerto Rican league had been shut down for financial challenges. In 2003, Venezuelans refused to participate–in solidarity with a general strike against Hugo Chávez, and in 1981 a players strike halted the Caribbean Series altogether.

Due to Cuba’s strict border and defection laws, no current or former major league players from Cuba can return to their country, especially not to join one of the country’s winter-league teams. As a result, the Cuban representative for the Caribbean Series is constructed differently than other countries’ teams. Cuba typically still sends its regular-season champion, but the nation often loads the roster with reinforcements from other clubs in the Serie Nacional.

For example, following a dismal last-place showing in 2014, Cuba’s 2015 roster included 28 names, only 11 of whom were members of the championship-winning Pinar Del Rio. The Caribbean Series is one of the few times when major league scouts and baseball fans are exposed to Cuban talent, and it allows those players to perform and compete on an international stage.

The Puerto Rican league, now officially titled the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball L1eague after the Puerto Rican great and former member of the Santurce Cangrejeros, has a similarly extensive history. The league was established in 1938 as a semi-professional league, but it became fully professional by 1941. For a long time, Puerto Rico was the standard bearer for the Series. Through 1990, Puerto Rico had won 10 championships, while Cuba and the Dominican had won seven, and the other countries had won eight combined. Since then though, they’ve slipped behind the Dominican. The current championship tally now stands so:

Caribbean Series Championships, by Country
Country Wins Years
 Dominican Republic    19 1971, 1973, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012
 Puerto Rico    15 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1978, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2017
 Mexico     9 1976, 1986, 1996, 2002, 2005, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016
 Cuba     8 1949, 1952, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 2015
 Venezuela     7 1970, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1989, 2006, 2009
 Panama     1 1950

While Puerto Rico has fallen behind in terms of overall championships, they are often regarded as having fielded the greatest winter league team of all time: the 1954-55 Cangrejeros de Santurce. That team, led by future hall of famers Clemente and Willie Mays, swept both the Puerto Rican League Championship series and the Caribbean Series Championship. It was a team that clearly left an impact on Clemente. After Pittsburgh beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, a reporter asked him if he had ever played for a better team than the Pirates. “Sí,” he supposedly replied, “los Cangrejeros de Santurce.”

Santurce also has been the winter league destination of choice for a number of other illustrious major league players, including Don Zimmer, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson and Roy Campanella. Other notable major leaguers who have played for teams in the league are Satchel Paige, Edgar Martínez, Rickey Henderson and Sandy Koufax, among many others. Last year, Santurce faced off against the Criollos de Caguas, which narrowly won, five games to three. Caguas later would go on to defeat the Águilas de Mexicali in a tight 1-0 game last February to claim the crown.

Despite the rich histories of these leagues, specific information about them remains somewhat scarce, at least online. Baseball-Reference’s Bullpen section has a page for each league, but those are primarily used as a means of tracking the records of the teams and the respective champions and MVPs of each season. The teams usually have individual pages, but the information there is somehow even more scarce.

With these research difficulties in mind, I reached out to Arving Gonzalez, a sports commentator on Voz del Fanatico, a radio show in the Dominican Republic, who is extremely knowledgeable about the league and the follies and misfortunes of the teams. Gonzalez writes:

LIDOM is a 50 regular-season games tournament, where the best four records advance to a 18-game round robin. Teams are located in the north (Águilas and Gigantes) and east (Estrellas and Toros) regions. Tigres and Leones are based in the capital, Santo Domingo, in the southeast. Around 70 percent of the fans belong to Tigres del Licey (founded on Nov. 7, 1907) and Águilas Cibaeñas (1933), the winningest teams, with 22 and 20 championships, respectively. Leones del Escogido ranks third, winning 16 titles, four of them in the last eight tournaments.

Estrellas Orientales (1910) is the unluckiest club, winning [its] last trophy in 1968. It’s located in San Pedro de Macorís, hometown of famous players like Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Canó. Every year, prior to the beginning of the season, their fans say ‘Este es al año verde’ (roughly translated: This is our year). Toros del Este (1983) and Gigantes del Cibao (1996) are expansion teams. They are making their way in the league, getting support from the fans in their province. Gigantes won their only championship in 2015 and is known for having great regular seasons and round robins, but [they] crash down in [the] finals. Toros have won two championships, first in 1994-95, with a great performance by Todd Hollandsworth, and 2010-11, sweeping las Estrellas in five games.”

In 2017, every major league team had at least three represented nationalities. In addition to the usual suspects—the United States and the Dominican Republic—every major league team had a player from Venezuela. Despite the country’s political turmoil, baseball has maintained popularity, and many Venezuelans take pride in their players.

The Venezuelan league is another big one, featuring eight teams: the Águilas del Zulia (Maracaibo), Bravos de Margarita (Porlamar), Cardenales de Lara (Barquisimeto), Caribes de Anzoátegui (Puerto La Cruz), Leones del Caracas (Caracas), Navegentes del Magallenes (Valencia), Tiburones de La Guaira (La Guaira), and Tigres de Aragua (Maracay).

The league is split into two divisions, Occidental (west) and Oriental (east). It was founded in 1945 but didn’t play its inaugural season until 1946, and since then Venezuela has won the Caribbean Series seven times: 1970, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1989, 2006 and 2009. Within the Venezuelan league itself, the Leones del Caracas have had the most prolific franchise, though sources differ on whether they have won 17 or 20 championships.

The list of alumni for the league is long and almost comically diverse. Venezuelan greats such as Luís Aparicio, Ozzie Guillén, Pablo Sandoval, Félix Hernández and Miguel Cabrera have all played in the league, as have American stars like Barry Bonds and Pete Rose, Panamanians like Rod Carew, Dominicans like Felipe Alou and Cuban players like Luis Tiant and Diego Seguí.

The Mexican Pacific League, sometimes referred to as the MexPac, is made up of eight teams: the Águilas de Mexicali (Mexicali), Cañeros de Los Mochis (Los Mochis), Charros de Jalisco (Guadalajara), Mayos de Navojoa (Navojoa), Naranjeros de Hermosillo (Hermosillo), Tomateros de Culiacán (Culiacán), Venados de Mazatlán (Mazatlán) and Yaquis de Obregón (Cidudad Obregón).

The MexPac was founded in 1949 and underwent a number of name changes, but did not join the Caribbean Series until 1971. The Naranjeros de Hermosillo have been the most prolific championship team with 16 victories, six more than the next-best team. Meanwhile, the poor Algodoneros de Guasave won only one championship, in 1972, before they moved and became the Charros de Jalisco. A team from the Mexican Pacific League has won the Caribbean Series nine times since the league first joined the competition, most recently in 2016 by the Venados de Mazatlán.

Notable MexPac alumni include Fernando Valenzuela, Adrián González, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Sergio Romo, who notably used a successful stint with the Aguilar de Mexicali in 2017 to reinvigorate his career and earn a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A fan blog about baseball in Mexico notes that, “the stream of minor leaguers from the north has slowed in recent years, but fans have responded with the largest attendance of any non-MLB in the northern hemisphere.” For years there has been talk of adding a major league expansion team in Mexico City, in part because of the enthusiasm of the fans and the untapped market potential. When that will happen, and how it might influence the MexPac, remains to be seen.

As is typical in baseball, the makeup of these teams is determined by how the general manager and the ownership (if need be) has decide to stock their teams. Teams are typically made up of professional players from that country, though the Caribbean winter leagues also have become a popular destination for major and minor league players to continue playing and further develop their “in-game experience.” For some MLB teams, this is a nerve-wracking proposition. While playing winter ball increases in-game exposure, it also heightens the risk of injury. For instance, Jesus Sucre, the Tampa Bay Rays’ current backup catcher, looked to have a spot on the Seattle Mariners Opening Day roster, but broke his leg while playing in the Venezuelan League and was out for months.

Beyond the physical risks, other factors might give managers, coaches and fans pause. None of the five economies is thriving, and the highways in these countries — which teams all travel throughout the season — are notoriously risky. Puerto Rico, in particular, is in dire straits currently, thanks to the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria. Wilson Ramos’ story is also often brought up as an example of the dangers major league players face when playing in the winter leagues. In 2011, Ramos — then with the Washington Nationals — was abducted at gunpoint in Venezuela and held captive for two days.

Two years later, allowing major league players to play for the winter league teams was a hotly contested debate between MLB and the players association. For a stretch of time, there was a fear that players on 40-man rosters would not be permitted to play in the Caribbean Winter Leagues. Fortunately, the two sides came to a series of agreements that would lessen the limitations placed on position players but also limit pitchers’ participation to keep them from taxing their arms unnecessarily. As Jeff Passan reported, it was a five-year agreement, reached on a Friday and ratified by the Caribbean Confederation the following day.

Despite this agreement, some still maintain that major league players should not play in the winter leagues. One such dissenter is Ozzie Guillen, the former star shortstop, World Series-winning manager, and yes, manager of the Tiburones de La Guaira in his native Venezuela. Last year, Guillen made headlines for his strong stance against major league participation in the winter leagues, saying, “If one of these players gets injured, no fan, or no team owner, is going to come and give them the thousands or millions of dollars they’re worth. Sincerely, I thank them all for being part of the league. But personally I don’t think any major leaguer should play here.”

Guillen himself had no problem playing in the winter in Venezuela. Throughout his career, even at its height, he spent weeks in La Guaira playing for the Tiburones.

The Caribbean Winter Leagues offer baseball players in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela the Dominican Republic, Cuba and throughout the rest of the world an opportunity to play baseball during the traditional offseason at a reasonably competitive level. Though most current major leaguers who play there use the winter leagues as an opportunity to stay competitive and gain game experience, the leagues are valuable as an entity in and of themselves.

Perhaps the greatest impact these winter leagues have had on baseball occurred prior to 1947. That year, as we all know, was the season Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues, but what is often forgotten is that the Caribbean Winter Leagues were integrated long before then.

In fact, Adrian Burgos Jr., a Latino baseball scholar and professor of history at the University of Illinois, explains that “professional baseball in Latin America was always integrated. They did not have a color line. And so you had the dimension where Latinos who were teammates on the Cuban league or the Dominican league, in the Mexican league, played in different leagues when they came to the United States.” In an interview with NPR’s Latino USA, Burgos went on to explain that “about 10 to 15 percent of the Negro Leagues were Latino players who actually were willing to venture out of the Latin American circuits.”

However, the Negro League season followed the schedule of the majors, so when October came around, Latino players would return to their home countries to play for the winter league teams and, more often than not, black American baseball players would participate with them. As the Center for Negro League Baseball Research writes, many Negro Leaguers saw baseball as a “twelve-month-a-year job.” Once the regular season in the United States finished up, they needed to find another source of income.

The Cuban and Puerto Rican Winter Leagues were the two most popular destinations, perhaps because of their geographic proximity to the U.S., or because of the rich baseball histories. These winter leagues garnered attention because they made it possible for Negro League stars to face off against white major leaguers, and they hold an important role in baseball’s history as the first place where black ballplayers were allowed to compete as equals.

Winter leagues overall have been a part of baseball since the dawn of professional leagues. Early on, due to the low salaries professional baseball players earned, it was necessary for them to play beyond the regular season. Those who didn’t take up civilian jobs often turned to barnstorming, and those who didn’t barnstorm soon discovered a third option: baseball in the winter, and in a warmer climate, to boot.

The winter leagues have evolved as salaries increased and as the major leagues have become progressively more integrated. They now serve primarily as an opportunity for prospects and international players to develop and strengthen their skills. Despite a few years in the 1950s and 1960s when a number of leagues folded, the Caribbean Winter Leagues remain a strong part of modern baseball and serve as a reminder of the international mix of the game.

References & Resources

Isabelle Minasian recently completed her thesis on Roberto Clemente and the American media, and is a staff writer for Lookout Landing. She loves the Seattle Mariners, despite all the pain that they bring. Follow her on Twitter @95coffeespoons.