Commentary

Welcome to Panama

Updated: March 4, 2009, 2:56 PM ET
By Joe Connor | Special to ESPN.com

Quick Panama Facts

Most known (outside baseball) for its & Panama Canal; and for the 1989 U.S. invasion that sent dictator Manuel Noriega to prison.

Panama location: Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica

Panama size: 30,193 square miles, or slightly smaller than South Carolina.

Panama population: About 3 million

Panama people:Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%

Panama language: Spanish.

Government: Constitutional Democracy.

Panama capital: Panama City (population: about 766,000), situated on the Pacific side of the country.

National anthem famous verse: "You see, roaring at your feet, two oceans, which give direction to your noble mission."

Quick Panama Historical Baseball Facts

Most known in baseball for: Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew, the colorful Manny Sanguillien and Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera

Panama's baseball debut: In the early 1900s by Americans helping build the Panama Canal.

First Panamanian-born player to play professional baseball: Humberto Robinson, 1955, with Milwaukee Braves, born in Colon.

Only Hall-of-Famer: Carew, the only Panamanian to collect more than 3,000 hits, was the first Panamanian to be elected to an MLB All-Star Game and win Rookie of the Year honors. In 1977, Carew's .388 batting average was the highest since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.

Notable MLB record-breakers and World Series winners:Before Panamanians Ramiro Mendoza and Mariano Rivera helped the Yankees to World Series crowns in the late 1990s, Hector Lopez became the first Panamanian to win a World Series ring, suiting up for the 1961 and 1962 champion Bronx Bombers & Colon's Chico Salmon played on the 1970 world champion Orioles & Panamanians Sanguillen, Rennie Stennett and Omar Moreno were members of the 1979 "We Are Family" Pirates world championship team & Panama's Juan Berenguer helped the Twins to the 1987 World Series crown.

Panama's best baseball town: Chitre, Herrera province. Fans jam the ballpark hours before first pitch just to find a seat, and it feels like the whole town is at the ballpark on game night as city streets are deserted.

Panama's other baseball hotbeds: Baseball is also popular in Panama City, and David, Panama's second largest city. It is also very popular in La Chorrera, outside Panama City, as well as in the provinces of Los Santos, Coclé and Veraguas. Baseball used to be more popular in Colon, but it's fallen on hard times there.

Biggest sports competitors: Soccer, boxing, basketball.

Distinctly Panamanaian: Sanguillen was the first Latin-born catcher to play in an MLB All-Star Game and one of the first players traded for a manager. Following the 1976 season, Sanguillen was dealt to the Oakland Athletics for manager Chuck Tanner. & Panama's largest ballpark is Rod Carew Stadium, named after the Hall-of-Famer. Sadly, the ballpark is located in the middle of nowhere (about 25 minutes from downtown by cab) and is a charmless, concrete structure.

Quick Team Panama And Player Facts

Biggest international rival: United States

Biggest international successes: Panama has achieved limited success for a variety of reasons -- a lack of resources as a result of a historically unsteady national economy and the elimination of legislators' circuit funds that help keep amateur sports programs going. A team from David was runner-up in the 1994 Little League World Series (ages 11-13). In 2000, a team from the Curundu section of Panama City won the Senior League World Series (ages 16-18), while in 2005, Panama City captured the Junior League World Series (ages 14-16).

2006 WBC showing: Panama went a very disappointing 0-3.

Back from the 2006 WBC team: Manny Corpas, Carlos Lee, Manny Acosta, Carlos Ruiz

Gone from 2006 WBC team: Olmedo Saenz.

Now on WBC team: Luis Durango (Padres prospect); Arqimedes Nieto (Cardinals prospect)

Missing in action from the 2009 WBC team: Mariano Rivera.

Play Ball! -- Panama

Panama Major League overview: Panama hasn't had professional baseball on a consistent basis since the early 1970s (a league did exist in 2001-2002, but folded after one season). In 2008, the amateur Panama Major League began experimenting with importing foreign-born players, with each team represented with at least one player, all from other Latin countries. Panama's baseball federation designates 10 "provinces" for the league, even though there are actually only eight. A team called "Chiriqui West" and another team called "Panama West," represent the western-most areas of those two provinces. Panama Metro has won the most Panama Major League titles, with Herrera and Chiriqui, the second and third most, respectively.

Panama Junior Tournament overview: The No. 1 baseball spectacle in Panama isn't the Panama Major League, but rather its national amateur junior tournament. Starting annually just after the New Year, it features Panama's best baseball players of age 16 and under. Hence, scouts from MLB teams in attendance.

Most successful province: From its onset in 1944 to the early 1960s, most tournaments were dominated by teams from in and around Panama City, the capital, and nearby Colon, where the Panama Canal was being built. But by the mid-1960s, Colon lost its footing to Herrera, a province in the interior of the country. By the late 1970s, Chiriqui province in western Panama began to take home titles, and today it is one of the most successful provinces, along with long-standing power Panama (since renamed Panama Metro) and Herrera. Other smaller provinces like Los Santos, Coclé, Veraguas and Panama West have occasionally won titles.

Teacher, teacher: In recent years, Panama's baseball federation has taken to hiring Cuban-born coaches to help provincial teams. For example, in the 2008 Panama junior tournament, the runner-up, Panama West, was managed by a Cuban, as was the Herrera provincial team in Panama Major League.

Ballpark atmosphere: Panama baseball fans are loud, louder and loudest. Herrera has a separate section for its band, and you will see no shortage of hand-made signs. Many fans without a ticket climb walls to sneak a peak inside the ballpark. Tickets are cheap by U.S. standards, starting at a couple of dollars. Beer is even cheaper.

Uniquely Panamanain: In addition to the junior tournament and Panama Major League, other national tournaments are 10 years and younger; Children AA (ages 11-12); and Junior A (ages 13-14). Some MLB scouts attend the Junior A tournament & Aluminum bats are used for juniors, ages 9-16; thereafter, wood.

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.