- Enrique Rojas, ESPNdeportes
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For various reasons, this year's Caribbean Series will be quite special.
In addition to the tournament's producing the winner of the winter season, the 2006 Caribbean Series in Venezuela also will serve as a prelude to one of the most ambitious projects in the history of professional baseball -- the World Baseball Classic.
"The Caribbean World Series," a six-day tournament that begins Thursday, will include the champions of the Dominican Republic (Tigres del Licey), Mexico (Venados de Mazatlán), Puerto Rico (Gigantes de Carolina) and Venezuela (Leones de Caracas).
The World Baseball Classic, with countless major-league stars involved, will host 16 countries and will be held March 3-20 in Japan, the United States and Puerto Rico. While the Caribbean Series is an annual tournament, the second edition of the WBC is expected to take place in 2009, and then every four years after that.
Latin American fans are anxious to see the first-ever international tournament with professional players. That's why they are looking forward to the action that will soon take place in the Venezuelan cities of Marcay and Valencia.
"We do not think that [the WBC] will affect the importance of the Caribbean Series," said Juan Francisco Puello Herrera, president of the Caribbean Baseball Confederation, the entity that supervises the Caribbean Series.
"What's more, members of the confederation think that the World Classic will help to expand the frontiers of baseball to the whole world, and that it will raise the importance of the winter tournaments and the Caribbean Series."
Independent of the optimism of the Caribbean leaders, the World Baseball Classic will bring its advantages and disadvantages to the Caribbean Series when they are played in the same year. On one front, many stellar players who do not play regularly in the winter tournaments will join their winter-league teams to get ready for the Classic. A clear example this year was the presence of sluggers Miguel Tejada (Baltimore Orioles) and David Ortiz (Boston Red Sox) in the Dominican league. Miguel Cabrera (Florida Marlins) played in the Venezuelan league.
Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez also was planning to play in the Dominican league, but a foot injury deprived him of the possibility. Martinez is scheduled to be the Dominican Republic's starter in the first game of the World Classic against Venezuela, but he will be present only if he is fully recovered from the injury that kept him out of the Caribbean Series.
It is probable, however, that the same major-league teams that unwillingly permitted their stars to participate in the Classic will not allow their players to take part in both tournaments -- the Caribbean Series and the WBC -- in the near future.
In Cabrera's case, the Marlins allowed him to play in the Venezuelan league and the Classic only if he did not play in Caribbean Series.
"We made a deal with the Marlins in order for Cabrera to be able to play for Tigres of Aragua and in the World Classic for Venezuela. But in order to do so, he will not be able to play in the Caribbean Series," said Andy Mota, Cabrera's agent.
Mazatlan, the Mexican representative, got most of its offensive production from Vinny Castilla (San Diego Padres) and Erubiel Durazo (Oakland Athletics) in the Mexican winter league, but this year the team has had problems incorporating other name players.
Diamondbacks pitcher Oscar Villarreal (Atlanta Braves) declined the invitation from Venados to play in the Caribbean Series, while players such as Oscar Robles (Chicago White Sox) and Juan Castro (Minnesota Twins) have not yet confirmed their participation, which will depend on their respective teams' permission.
Tejada's case is an extraordinary one. Although he signed a $72 million contract with the Orioles in 2003, the slugger has already said he will represent Licey for his seventh consecutive appearance in the Caribbean Series.
Tejada, of course, will also play for the Dominican Republic in the WBC.
"Tejada is a unique player. He is my idol," said Manny Acta, the Dominican Republic manager.
"Tejada plays every game [for] his team in the major leagues; he then joins the Aguilas Cibaenas in the local league in the Dominican Republic, and he always participates in the Caribbean Series with whichever team is representing his country. This year he will also be in the World Classic, and he does all that without reducing his intensity."
An indication that the Caribbean Series and the Classic support each other is the agreement signed between the Caribbean Baseball Confederation and Major League Baseball, the main promoter of the Classic. Last week, the confederation announced a three-year association with MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), so the two could jointly direct the interactive rights of the Confederation.
As part of the deal, the entities will offer the fans the possibility to interact with leagues and teams of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico, countries from the Latin Baseball Alliance.
The deal also includes the internal tournaments of each country and the Caribbean Series, another reason the Series will be viewed as a preparation tournament for the World Baseball Classic.
"This important association will grant video and audio live feeds [from MLBAM], and the experience the Alliance needs in Hispanic marketing to activate the audience," said George Kliavkoff, MLBAM's executive vice president of business.
The Caribbean Series will provide Latin American fans with a taste of what's ahead in the World Baseball Classic.