CARACAS, Venezuela -- Eddie Perez received an unexpected phone call last Friday. He'd just woken up when he saw a familiar number pop up on his phone screen. It was Bobby Cox.
The legendary Atlanta Braves manager reached out to his former pupil to join the celebration that had begun the previous night after Perez’s team, Tigres de Aragua, had been crowned champions of the Venezuelan Winter League and would represent Venezuela in the Caribbean Series.
Cox managed Pérez in the majors, when the latter was Hall of Famer Greg Maddux's personal catcher. Now the disciple is trying to put into practice what he learned from the master.
“Bobby is one of the greatest," said Pérez, who has served on the Braves’ coaching staff since 2007. “He had an extraordinary way of managing the group and keeping us motivated.”
Pérez makes no secret of the fact that he wants to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and manage in the majors. This winter, he returned to his native country to manage Tigres de Aragua. Last Thursday, Perez won his first league title when the Tigres defeated the favorites, Navegantes del Magallanes, in the final. The win earned them the right to participate in the Caribbean Series, the annual tournament that also includes the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba and begins Monday at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo.
Pérez hopes to continue his good run on Dominican turf.
Tigres lost some key players after winning the title against Magallanes. The Caribbean Confederation ruled that the last-minute reinforcements from Mexico and the Dominican Republic could only represent their home countries and are therefore no longer on Venezuela's roster. Also missing are major leaguers Eduardo Escobar, Edgar Ibarra, Jorge Rondon and Alberto Callaspo, who helped defeat Navegantes in six games.
Callaspo has not been ruled out. The third baseman misplaced his passport and other personal documents during the final. But if he is able to resolve this issue in time, he will join Venezuela in Santo Domingo.
“We have a great team,” said Pérez. “And we have chosen very strong reinforcements.”
The Tigres have brought in some high-level reinforcements, including Félix Pérez and Adonis García, who will add power and contact hitting. Garcia, the Braves' third baseman, let Pérez know last week that he wished to make the trip.
"He wants to play against his brother [José Adolis García], who is part of the team from Cuba," Perez said. José Adolis García will be one of the outfielders for Ciego de Ávila, which will represent the largest island in the Antilles.
Veteran Oscar Salazar, José Alberto Martínez, last year's Triple-A International League batting champion, and Alex Romero, the batting champion in the recently concluded Venezuelan season, complete an overhauled lineup that appears to have the strength, discipline and contact to contend for another title.
“We'll continue working, this time for the whole of Venezuela," said Romero, shortly after news broke of his inclusion on the roster.
Pérez has five starters, although only three can be sure of their place in the rotation: Freddy García, Austin Bibens-Dirkx and Marcus Walden. Whoever misses out, between the Dominican Alexis Candelario and Omar Bencomo Jr., will be used as a long reliever.
They form a consistent quintet. Bibens-Dirkx and Walden were Aragua's best starters during the postseason. Candelario and Bencomo were among the ERA leaders during the regular season. And García is a baseball legend in this country.
He is also on his farewell tour of professional baseball. At 39, García has pitched more innings and won more games in the major leagues than any of his countrymen.
The right-hander, who already has announced his retirement, is the only Venezuelan to win a decisive World Series game and is now about to make his debut in the Caribbean classic.
Pérez has called on Garcia for the Tigres' first game, against Puerto Rico, on Monday at 2 p.m. ET.
The majority of the dominant relievers who led Tigres to the title will not be involved. But management has moved to bring in seven reinforcements, and Pérez now has four experienced lefties in the bullpen, and can still count on the major leaguer Ronald Belisario as closer.
On paper the squad that Aragua brings to the Dominican Republic appears to be a competitive one, but it still needs to prove it on the field and hope for that stroke of luck that was missing in the previous two editions, where the Venezuelan representative ran the table in the qualifying stage, only to be knocked out in the semifinals.
"We are now representing Venezuela, and our goal is to win the series," Pérez said. He wants to have more stories to tell the next time he receives a call from his mentor.
Tigres de Aragua
Manager: Eddie Pérez.
Starters: RHP Freddy García, RHP Austin Bibens, RHP Alexis Candelario, RHP Marcus Walden, RHP Omar Bencomo Jr.
Relievers: RHP Ronald Belisario, LHP Wilfredo Ledezma, LHP Pedro Hernández, RHP Renee Cortez, LHP Gumercindo Gonzalez, LHP José Mijares, RHP Arcenio León, RHP Jesús Sánchez, RHP José Flores, RHP Gregory Infante, RHP Osmer Morales.
Catchers: Sandy León, Guillermo Quiroz, Jairo Rodríguez.
Infielders: 3B Adonis García, SS Hernán Pérez, SS Juniel Querecuto, IF Luis Ugueto, 1B Oscar Salazar, IF Alex Núñez.
Outfielders: Félix Pérez, Dariel Álvarez, Alex Romero, José Alberto Martínez, Teodoro Martínez.