While we heat up our efforts to beat the holiday shopping rush, there are a handful of American-born players who know that to get the gift of opportunity, they have to play baseball this winter. These players have filled international rosters in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico to gain experience, taking on a new culture and country in the process.
Of course, most players who are natives of these countries know about the challenge of learning a new culture, far away from home, while carrying the expectation that they have to produce. Minor league and major league baseball teams are housed primarily in the United States in exclusively English speaking areas. If you come from somewhere else, you have a lot more to learn than just hitting a slider.
Players arrive at the winter ball crossroads in a variety of ways. It may be the simple situation of being a highly-touted prospect who just needs to keep playing to secure his spot, but often there is another story to tell. Many players are trying to recapture the magic. They may have already been that rising minor league star, struggled for a time, and now they need to play their way back into their organization's good graces or even find a new organization altogether. They could be working on a new position, a curveball, or an attitude, but there is no doubt they are working on something. But because these leagues are the prime time for these countries, make no mistake about it, you have to produce while you are trying that new stance because if you don't, you will find yourself back home.
In my case, I played two seasons in Puerto Rico. At that point my minor league career, from an offensive standpoint, wasn't knocking scouts out of their chairs. But I was still on the prospect radar once I arrived at Triple-A the season before. Being a first-round draft pick helped keep the attention on me, long enough that I could change a few minds or learn how to deliver when my evaluators were watching.
After a brutal year in Triple-A with constant calls into the principal's office by my manager, I knew I was getting to the fork in the road that no player wants to accept. I had to show solid numbers or I was looking at a downward path, not a rising one. I hit .270 that year, with only a handful of stolen bases, and not much productivity.
My mediocre year earned me a ticket to the Instructional League, a fall program usually reserved for players much younger than me (I was 25 years old at the time). It was there where I met Tom Gamboa, the Cubs' director of instruction and also the man running the camp. He knew of my capabilities, but he also knew of my caution after being beat down in a bad relationship with my manager at Triple-A Iowa.
After a tough exchange over base stealing technique, Gamboa came to understand how my hands were tied in Triple-A (or more fittingly, my feet). And he gave me a shot to show what I could do when set free.
I ran with it.
Each day, I asked him: "Did you find me a winter ball job yet?" The fact that I had to ask told the story that I wasn't quite the level of prospect anymore where the organization would fight and claw their way to make sure their "future" had a winter ball job. It was up to me and maybe that was just what I needed.
So I kept on asking. I had heard some nightmare stories about every country other than Puerto Rico. One recurring story was about how players got sick from food or water, or how one teammate was afraid to put money in the bank so he had $10,000 cash under his bed in Mexico. I didn't think I had room to be picky, so I stayed in his face willing to take any opportunity. At first, he was looking into some teams in Mexico, but then something shifted. I didn't even know that he managed a team in Puerto Rico for many years and that he was returning for another year to lead the Mayaguez Indios. He was just waiting until he was satisfied that I could help him to ask me if I would like to play for him in Puerto Rico. But it was not without warning. "We play to win," Gamboa told me, "You can't just go and work on something, you have to produce."
Produce. There is that word again.
Sure, there is an advantage by just showing up to a winter league assignment. Your competition within the organization may only be working out at home or hanging out during their offseason. You may gain a leg up by just exposing yourself to more baseball, by shunning the idea of even having an offseason. Especially when you do it game after game.
So I enthusiastically accepted the offer, packed my bags and headed to Puerto Rico. Gamboa warned me that I wouldn't have the same comforts as my Triple-A experience, but that was the least of my concerns.
In my equipment bag, I carried the usual tools of my trade. Blue spikes, a couple of bats, my favorite glove, but my greatest tool may have been the many years of Spanish I had under my belt. I was very comfortable communicating in Spanish, which went a long ways to bypassing what can be a tricky cultural adjustment. And Puerto Rico was not to the level of cultural adjustments required as Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, where Spanish was much more readily spoken.
I relied on my manager to help me get the best financial deal possible. To my surprise, I was paid very well. Very comparable to what I made as a minor league player who has been on a major league roster for a couple of years.
Then it was all about getting settled in, finding an apartment and getting a rental car to get around the island. In time, players learn all of the short cuts around the island. I even knew the best places to go after a long away game. The city of Isabela had a great spot to get ribs, while the city of Ponce had a few good places to hang out.
Most of the teams in Puerto Rico have systems already in place, so there were some go-to vendors for housing and other needs. If you played for Mayaguez, which hugged the west coast of the island, many American players would stay in Rincon, a resort town north of the city.
I chose to stay close to our home field, which was also where the team would house players until they found a more permanent residence. Since I was comfortable using my Spanish and traveling alone if necessary, it was fine that few of my American teammates made the same choice. This allowed me to work on my Spanish all of the time, which turned out to be a great asset.
I learned quickly about one of the challenges of playing in Mayaguez. It is the only city on the west coast in a league where the other teams are primarily in San Juan. This makes for a near two-hour drive for any one game and it is rare that you play more than two home games in a row. For the most part, every other day you have to get ready to make a two-hour drive, play the same night and turn around and do it all over again. So by the end of a season, I knew all of the hot music, and when Mark Loretta was my teammate, I knew the entire soundtrack of his favorite musical, "Les Miserables."
At one point, a teammate of mine had a man named Juan help us. Juan drove from time to time, which took some pressure off us. I would tip him or pick up his tab for dinner and he would enjoy a summer of baseball. His family was wonderful to me and would sometimes share a nice meal or help me improve my Spanish.
On one trip, my teammate's car broke down almost two hours from where we stayed just on the other side of a tool booth in San Juan. We pulled over and had to wait until his father drove all the way to pick us up and then took us back. By the time I pulled into my apartment, the sun was peeking over the mountains.
My apartment was not much to write home about. In fact, that helped me find things to do. The apartment had no air conditioning, no phone, no TV and no quiet time in the morning since the roosters loved to yell at 5 a.m. Oh, and hot water worked only when it wanted to work. I found myself at the mall most of the day and it was easy to focus being that at 25 years old and single, there were plenty of beautiful women to see.
At one point, after chatting with a woman who worked at the mall, she surprised me by showing up at a game with a group of friends and directly asked me, "Are you the one who says hi every day?" We ended up dating for part of the season and when I brought her to the team Christmas Party, everyone kept trying to talk to her in English, only to find that she only knew Spanish. This prompted my manager, Gamboa, to ask me, "What have you been doing during your down time?" I answered, "Living the life."
I also learned of a brutal rivalry between Mayaguez and San Juan. It is sort of the country boys versus the city slickers. It was magic when we knocked them out of the playoffs in my first year. San Juan had a lineup that included Juan Gonzalez, Edgar Martinez, Roberto Alomar, Candy Maldonado, Hector Villanueva and Carlos Delgado. That was big-time competition.
By the end of my first season in Puerto Rico, I had learned the ropes. I knew the roads, I had experienced the dating scene, I played the best baseball I had played since turning pro and to cap it off, I was voted MVP of the league, edging out Alomar. Upon being runner-up in the MVP voting, Alomar commented "I was surprised they gave it to him." That wasn't a slight to me because he thought he had an advantage as a native of Puerto Rico. My Mayaguez team made it to the finals and lost the best-of-nine series in eight games. I also led the league in hits that year.
When I returned to the United States, I was confident that I had erased the negative experience in Triple-A and rebounded to get back near the top of the prospects list. But the Cubs' GM at the time, Ed Lynch, was skeptical. He told me, "That's nice. Do it again here."
Fair enough. The confidence kept going maybe, in part, because I didn't get home until early February, weeks before I had to report to spring training anyway. Having a rare Thanksgiving away from my family was what it took to grow in baseball. (I almost chose to miss Christmas too, but a last-minute change of heart brought me home.)
Soon after my winter ball development, I was able to shift my momentum from Puerto Rico right into the Triple-A season (I had a great spring training but got cut from the big league during the last week of the spring), finishing with a .308 batting average, a call up to the Cubs' big league roster and an exciting return to Puerto Rico as the reigning MVP. After my substantial pay raise, I helped Mayaguez win the championship against San Juan along with leading the league in hits for the second year in a row. I was now a champion and I was ready to be a regular major leaguer. Now I just needed the chance and when that chance finally came, I knew I had to thank my experience in Puerto Rico and everyone who made it possible.
After seeing the players in Puerto Rico, I concluded that there are a few types of players in the league. You can break it into two categories. Natives and non-natives:
1) Play for the love: I have played with legends of Puerto Rico like Luis "Mambo" DeLeon, who pitched well into his 40s. They are icons, they know the game and just play because they love it. Ivan Rodriguez is one of these players.
2) Big-Timer: For a time, it was important for the league's success to engage the native players that have become stars in the major leagues. Their great work has carried the torch of the country to bring recognition and acclaim. They may play only part of the winter ball season, but their presence is worth a lot to the league Carlos Beltran is one of these players.
3) Been around the block: There are some players who can still perform and produce, but have lost some ground in the United States, so they keep playing and hope another door opens for them to show they may be experienced, but they are not old. Edwards Guzman is one of these players.
1) Up-and-coming young prospect trying to break in. Kyle Bellamy is one of these players.
These players are just trying to solidify a spot and make a name for themselves. They may have had a lot of hype from being a high-round draft pick or are coming off a good year in the minor leagues.
2) Trying to find a job: There are many players who have had experience in the league from the earlier stages of their careers. They have had more than that "cup of coffee" in the big leagues. Should they be on the downward swing, a stellar performance in winter ball may open a few doors. Doug Waechter is one of these players.
3) I am healthy, now let me prove it: Some players had shortened regular seasons (or missed the season entirely) in the United States due to a health issue, so they need to get on the field, show they are healthy and quiet the peanut gallery. Bill Pulsipher is one of these players.
4) Trying to keep a job: There are times when you are coming off a mediocre season and just need to show the brass that you are still working. Winter ball can be the difference.
All of these players know they can capitalize on the many coaches and staff who also work in winter ball that have jobs in a minor or major league system and can put in a word. On top of that, the experience is priceless. If you take it seriously, you will come home a better baseball player.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.