No need to wait till spring for baseball

In seven Caribbean nations, warm weather and high-quality baseball welcome visitors who can't wait for professional play to resume in the US.

Baseball season isn't over; in fact, it's just begun – in Latin America, that is. There, baseball is a winter sport, and the months of December and January are the perfect time for planning a trip to follow the local action in the Caribbean.

Just as jazz, the original American musical art form, has been exported throughout the world, so has baseball. Within Latin America, baseball leagues are found in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Major League Baseball scouts travel to each of these countries in search of prospects, hoping to find the next David Ortiz or Pedro Martinez. Teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers have established baseball academies in the Dominican Republic to develop the skills of young athletes so they are prepared to compete in the United States upon signing a major league contract.

Baseball in the Dominican Republic is actually a purer form of the sport than fans now see in the US. The professional game is played as it was in the early and mid-20th century, when it was considered America's national pastime.

Players are accessible at the baseball stadium. "You are closer to the field and the players, compared to a game in the US," says John Lenihan, an auto industry executive who has traveled from New Jersey to Santo Domingo to watch Dominican League baseball. "You can walk down to the dugout and talk to the players."

The Dominican Republic is the most successful country in the world outside the US at cultivating professional baseball talent, so the quality of play is high. Dominicans have regularly been stars on American baseball teams since Ozzie Virgil debuted with the New York Giants in 1956.

Today, many Dominicans are household names among American baseball fans. Albert Pujols was elected the National League Most Valuable Player in 2005. Manny Acta manages the Washington Nationals. This year, Dominicans made up 10 percent of all players in the American major leagues , more than all other Latin American countries combined. So, part of the fun of a visit is watching players who may become the next big stars in the US.

Located on the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic shares its western border with Haiti. Santo Domingo is the capital of this country of about 9 million people. The economy is poor, and poverty is widespread. For better or worse, baseball is considered the "Dominican dream" and a means out of poverty for many young men.

For tourists, baseball in the Dominican Republic is best experienced during the winter season of November to January, although a second season featuring rookie teams runs from June to August.

Games are played at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo, which is located off Avenida Tiradentes.

During the regular season, you can buy tickets from the ticket office at the stadium before most games. Seats are inexpensive, compared with the cost in the US. They range from $2 for seats in the outfield bleachers to $10 to $15 for infield seating. Tickets for championship games may be more difficult to come by, although scalpers usually have seats for events that are officially sold out.

Part of the reason for the excellent quality of baseball here is that some major leaguers from the Dominican Republic – often younger players – sharpen their skills by participating in the league during the off-season in the US.

These players are also a big reason that being at the ballpark feels like a family affair. Many of the fans grew up and went to school (or played childhood baseball) with the major-leaguers who are once again playing at home. Also, the players' family members often attend games. I sat with Mrs. David Ortiz at a game in 1999, when he was a rookie with the Minnesota Twins.

"The Dominican Winter League is considered the major leagues of the Caribbean and the best baseball league outside of the US and Japan," says Carlos Sanchez, a sportswriter for the El Caribe newspaper in Santo Domingo.

"In the Dominican Republic, prospects and some veterans play in November and December," he adds. "The best players, usually major league stars, play in January during the time of the championship tournaments."

Fun off the field as well as on

The activity off the field is sometimes as interesting as the game itself. Outside the stadium, vendors sell everything from team pennants and caps to baseballs used in prior games.

Inside Quisqueya Stadium, every seat is close to the field of play, a big improvement over what US fans often experience in major league ballparks.

Frequently there's even excitement between innings. "The Dominican baseball cheerleaders who dance on top of the dugouts to merengue music generate a lot of enthusiasm," points out Mr. Lenihan, the US tourist.

"The fans are always in a good mood at the games," notes Mr. Sanchez. "You can see the scouts at the game and you have an opportunity to meet the players."

How long should a Caribbean winter league baseball visit be? "Five days is the right amount of time for a vacation like this," estimates Lenihan. "You can [also] tour historic churches, Parque Colón, and shop on El Conde. Plan to stay longer if you want to visit the beaches."

Although hurricane Noel did cause damage to the Dominican Republic, all Santo Domingo hotels are again operating at full capacity. Tourist infrastructure is fully functional, and Dominican League Winter Baseball continues to play a full schedule.

Two more choices

Beyond the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela have winter baseball leagues that attract US visitors:

In Venezuela, the professional league includes eight teams from the cities of Caracas, La Guaira, Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Maracay, Puerto La Cruz, and Porlamar, in a season that runs from October to January. Games are played in the baseball stadium at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas.

The Mexican league is the largest professional baseball organization outside the US. It has a 16-team nationwide league that competes during the summer at the same time as the US leagues. But an eight-team Pacific league competes on the country's west coast between late October and January.

Mexican baseball stadiums are among the largest and best maintained in Latin America. During the winter season, look for games in Mexicali, Mazatlan, and Hermosillo, among other cities. Home schedules are available in English at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/winterleagues/?league=car.

All these winter baseball venues are worthy of a vacation and will provide an opportunity to create your own baseball memories under the warm tropical sun.

If you go

Travel to the Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo is about a four-hour flight from New York or two hours from Miami.

Thestadium: Estadio Quisqueya is located at Ave. Tiradentes at SanCristóbal. A taxi from downtown will be about $5 to $8, and regularseason game tickets cost $2 to $15. (January playoff games are moreexpensive.) Phone: (809) 540-5772.

Game times: Evening games begin at 7:30. Sunday afternoon games begin at 5.

Whereto sit: Major League Baseball scouts can usually be found behind homeplate in Section A-15. These are considered the best seats in thestadium. Seats between first and third base are generally in amplesupply and cost $10 to $15.

Weather: The country enjoys atropical climate – warm and sunny. Daily high temperatures are usuallyin the upper 80s and nightly lows are in the high 60s to low 70s.

Formore information, see the website of the Dominican Republic TouristBoard at www.godominicanrepublic.com or e-mailinfo@godominicanrepublic.com. Find Caribbean League schedules at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/winterleagues/?league=car.

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