The Boys of Winter

This may be the game--Yankee game, no?--whose outlines are attributed to Alexander Cartwright on the fields of Hoboken or, in romantic fiction, to Abner Doubleday up in leafy Cooperstown. But the locals are probably not listening in the dusty Dominican backwater of San Pedro de Macoris (pop. 80,000), which first provided the American big leagues with Rico Carty (lifetime batting average .299, 204 home runs, fifteen seasons) and an American League MVP, Jorge Bell, before blooming into baseball legend. In recent years, no fewer than ten major-league shortstops have sprouted from the same underprivileged Little League in San Pedro--among them Julio Franco, Rafael Santana, Jose Uribe, Tony Fernandez, Mariano Duncan, Alfredo Griffin and Rafael Ramirez.

Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez? Dominican. The Dodgers' Raul Mondesi? Dominican.

The aforementioned Tony Perez, who fell 34 votes shy of election this year, once said of the place that is the heartbeat of Dominican baseball: "San Pedro is like a prize apple tree. Every apple you pick is gonna be good." Some believe you could say the same thing about ballplayers everywhere in benighted Cuba. People don't have much to eat, but every apple is good.

What might the exemplary Clemente have to say about this year's Caribbean Series? That the major-league homeboys returning this January to power up their old teams for the stretch drive are as good as ever? To be sure, Robby Alomar and Gonzalez are back with the San Juan Senadores this month (think of it--three bucks a seat!); the Yanks' Bernie Williams and Ivan Rodriguez are with other Puerto Rican teams. Mondesi, Sammy Sosa, Henry Rodriguez and Cy Young winner Martinez have all rejoined the Dominican League (strongest of the four) for the winter offensive. Pedro made $3.6 million in Norte America last season. He's pitching for the Licey Tigres to stay sharp and because he loves them. A dozen major-leaguers of lesser note are sprinkled across the Caribbean this month, but that's not all--almost every team in the Series will boast authentic major-league prospects.

None, of course, gives off the magic of Clemente--still called El Inolvidable, the Unforgettable One, in Puerto Rico, still regarded as the greatest Latin ballplayer of all time: .317 lifetime, 3,000 hits, 1,305 RBI. On New Year's Eve, 1972, the great Pirates outfielder boarded a plane loaded with relief supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims. It crashed into the ocean off Puerto Rico, and suddenly he was gone.

But not the Boys of Winter. Not los beisboleros. They continue to play their beautiful game with passion and love, while salsa bands and mariachis serenade them from the bleachers. That's why I'm thinking ballpark food as the snows fly. Taco sauce dribbled on a scorecard. The crack of the bat and the blur of the pelota streaking toward the wall. I'm thinking one jellied pig's knuckle and three tequilas too many are, in fact, not nearly enough. I'm thinking they're the food of life. Let's go.

The Bus is in the shop for repairs, and the Buffalo is suddenly older and wiser--three key interceptions and one crucial fumble wiser.

For Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart, winter vacation started a little early Sunday afternoon. The Denver Broncos won a trip to sunny San Diego and, if a couple of things go exactly right, toasted cheese sandwiches for the team meal.

Will the, uh, fifth time be the charm?
It is right and just that the Green Bay Packers are on the board in Las Vegas as fourteen-point faves. They won the Super Bowl last year, knocked off the vaunted NFC powers this season and took just one Sunday-afternoon nap--against lowly Indianapolis. The Packers are the Big Cheeses of the league, all right, and they deserve to be the two-touchdown choice.

But, hey. All you lunatics who stood in the cold at the airport the other night, praying for a glimpse of some returning weary Bronco flesh, all you goofballs huddled together at Dove Valley, hoping to touch Tyrone Braxton's car--what if the Super Bowl were being played this week?

Momentum is a red-hot thing. Emotion is immediate. Soldiers stay sharp by fighting. Don't you wish The Game was this Sunday, before any killer doubts can get inside the heads of Terrell Davis or Ray Crockett, before John Elway has a chance to consider the past? Better yet, don't you wish the Broncos and Packers could have played last Sunday--game two of a doubleheader--right there in the darkened parking lot at Three Rivers Stadium?

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