About halfway through the Serie del Caribe - the Latin American equivalent of the World Series - pitchers Wally Ritchie and Robin Fuson decided they'd just cut the newfangled baseball open and see what was inside. The ``Comando'' made its debut as the Mexican baseball last summer. And inside, the two importados - North Americans who played for the Mazatl'an Deers this winter - found a smaller rubber ball at the core. When they threw it against the wall, they found out why the 22-year-old, single-season home run record of 46 set by Hector Espino, Mexico's Babe Ruth, was broken last summer by two players who each hit 50 in the 130-game season.
``It's like a superball,'' said Ritchie, who soon will head for spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies. ``You give up more home runs down here.''
But Fuson, a veteran AAA minor- leaguer now in the Seattle Mariners organization, said things have a way of evening up. Take, for example, the Mexican umpires' tolerance of the kind of cuts on a ball that pitchers love.
``Down here in Mexico, you can get away with anything,'' he said. ``To get a ball thrown out of a game down here, it has to be cut in half.''
Such is the spice that makes Latin American baseball a peppery version. When a perfect throw from the outfield takes a nearly vertical bounce in front of the plate, permitting a runner to score easily, nobody bothers to look for the pebble. That's just the beginning.
Instead of dogs on the field, there are coyotes. Bullpen pitchers gather wood beyond the outfield to build fires to keep warm. On occasion, the home team will forget to bring baseballs. And a player can play a whole season with his name misspelled on the back of his uniform.
League rules in Mexico favor countrymen, limiting the number of foreign players on each team. So one season, Fuson's team rewrote his family history to make him Mexican.
In this year's Caribbean Series, which concluded earlier this week, Puerto Rico prevailed, beating the Dominican Republic, 13-2, in an unprecedented tie-breaking 13th game.
Meanwhile, the Mexican fans struggled to forget their team's tumble to a third-place tie with Venezuela and the woes of the peso, which slid to 1,000 to the dollar the week before. They took occasion to sing choruses of ``Sacaremos este buey de la barranca!'' or ``We will pull this ox from the gully!,'' a jingle intended as much for their government as their team.
``La Ola'' - the Wave - reached Mexican baseball this season. And during La Serie, players came out of the dugouts to watch fans going wild at the double-jointed jigs of a newspaper vendor.
Between each day's two games, hundreds of fans roamed the field unchecked, talking to their heroes. And during pauses in games, fans jumped from their outfield seats and ran as far as the infield to get quick autographs. In the major leagues, the cooperative player would face a fine and the fan arrest. Here, the fans just climb back to their seats as action resumes.
Still, in the midst of the revelry, careers are at stake. Major league scouts converge on the series, hoping to find another Fernando Valenzuela to take north. Mike Brito, the Los Angeles Dodgers scout who discovered Valenzuela, sat in his familiar seat behind home plate, clocking pitchers with his radar gun.
He had seen six players, he said, who showed major league promise. But Brito wasn't about to give names. He was still burning over the loss of Ted Higuera to the Milwaukee Brewers, a situation he blamed on an unwise statement of his interest to a reporter.
When Higuera, a series spectator, was introduced to the crowd, he received a standing ovation. Reporters literally cornered him in a dugout. He told how he planned to seek a $600,000 contract for the coming season, a figure that belittles the $500-a-month salary of a well-paid, native Mexican player here.
Among the importados, some, like Ritchie, a southpaw reliever who jumped from AA to AAA in his first pro season, are rising fast. Others, like Fuson, a right-hander who says he's the only minor-league pitcher to win 110 games and not make it to the top, hope for a last chance.
But there are big names with major league credentials, too: Tony Pena and Alfredo Griffin for the Dominican Republic; Candy Maldonado, Carmelo Mart'inez, and Juan Nieves for Puerto Rico; Tony Armas, Ozzie Guill'en, and Vic Davalillo for Venezuela, the latter having just concluded his final season at age 47.
Still others, like Willie Aikens, are former major leaguers whose futures are big questions. Last summer, while playing for the Pueblo Black Angels in the Mexican summer league, Aikens finished third behind the two 50-home run hitters with 46 and batted .454. This winter for the Deers, he hit 24 more jonrones, three short of the record for the 60-game season, and batted .350.
But he had a dismal series, hitting only .125, and was exposed to the wrath of the Mexican fans, especially after he struck out with two on in the bottom of the ninth, concluding a 4-2 loss to Venezuela. When a firecracker exploded 20 feet over his head as he walked back to the dugout, Aikens didn't even look up. No one seemed to care who threw it. It was just another dash of spice.