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The Boys of Winter

Super Bowl, Stupor Bowl.
I'm thinking ballpark. I'm thinking ballpark food. Baseball-park food. I'm thinking cornmeal-crusted red snapper on a pink plastic plate with the bulging eyes staring at you, and a huge heap of something unnamable piled next to him as a bonus. What are these things? Look like severed thumbs.

I'm thinking roast-tongue tacos drenched in high-octane green stuff. And plantain chips. I'm thinking about a foot-long carne asada burrito sticking out of a waxed-paper wrapper decorated with little red sombreros. And the salsa. Don't forget the salsa. Brewed up by a cult of sadists living under the bleachers, it squirts off the tortilla every time you take a bite and drips down the length of your beach-burned forearm like a jolt of sulfuric acid.

Ballpark food. Hell. Why not. I'm thinking pig's knuckles in gelatin, the crown jewel of concession fare. You and yours haven't lived the game in its richer nuances until you've knocked down a cardboard scoopful of jellied pig's knuckles while lolling in the sun-scorched third-base boxes with the score tied four-all in the seventh. And two little plastic tumblers of tequila balanced on your leg. And a six-piece mariachi band blaring away nine rows behind you.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the crucial days of the baseball season. Better make that el beisbol season. When most people are plowing their driveways in darkest Minneapolis, or huddling together in the unheated cellars of Cleveland, or paying the ski areas 75 bucks a day for the privilege of smacking fatally into a tree. Forget about planting that butt on the couch and waiting for the Super Bowl to start. These are the crucial days of beisbol.

Fact is, the Series gets under way February 4. So grab your pig's knuckles and your plantains and your 30 SPF sunscreen and your tequila and take a seat.

We are talking about the Caribbean Series, of course. The winter series. In which league championship teams from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela--every player with blood in his eye, tens of thousands of beisbol-loco, homer-happy fanaticos stoked up to mad fever pitch--play a six-game round-robin tournament for the Latin American crown. Tickets? Jerry McMorris would have a conniption: Tickets are seven bucks, tops. During the regular season, general-admission seats in these four countries average $3.

The site of this year's Caribbean Series, February 4 through 9, will be the cozy two-deck stadium in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela--a ballfield near and dear to a ballplayer near and dear to all of us, former Colorado Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga. Believe it: He and Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel are the two most beloved ballplayers--maybe the two most beloved humans--in their native Venezuela.

Have you seen Latin American baseball? Felt it?
Here in the United States, we behold that particular game in pieces, in the feats of individual players, in dilution--a fact that came vividly to mind last week when the baseball writers again passed over Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez (born in CamagYey, Cuba, in 1942) for election to the Hall of Fame, and all of us passed the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of the great Roberto Clemente (born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1934). Now the major leagues are inhabited by ever-greater numbers of brilliant Spanish-surnamed players, so the pieces of Latin American baseball are more noticeable than ever, the picture brighter.

There's Galarraga, the Big Cat. Juan "Going Going" Gonzalez. The game's next likely superstar, Alex Rodriguez. Edgar Renteria, shortstop of the World Champion Florida Marlins. Carlos Baerga. Manny Ramirez. The flashy Cuban shortstop Rey Ordonez of the Mets. Pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Alex Fernandez and a lot of other guys who will lay the dreaded poncho on you. The K. The strikeout. Don't forget the Alomars--Sandy and Roberto--opponents in last October's Cleveland-Baltimore series for the American League pennant. Or the burgeoning corps of Cuban defectors, fleeing the old left-hander Fidel Castro faster than a lead-off man stealing second on a high leg kick.

Here we see the Latin game in pieces. And still burdened by old-boy cliches. Touchy, temperamental players, one cliche insists. Remember Joaquin Andujar's fit in the World Series? How about Robby spitting at the ump? They are guys who swing at anything, says another cliche: You don't get off the island waiting for a base on balls, that's what they all think. Uncoachable, says another. Language problem. Attitude problem. The cliches persist even as superb Latin players come to dominate the big-league game at almost every position. Catcher? Would you try to run on Benito Santiago? That rifle shot hits you in the chest; it goes right through and comes out the back between your numbers.

The real, pure thing--Dominican or Mexican or Puerto Rican beisbol contested in its native habitat--is another thing altogether, exotic as the food in the bleachers, busy as a Brueghel painting, atmospheric as a feast day in full song. I can personally vouch for the Mexican version of beisbol played in Hermosillo and Mazatlan, in the winter, in the Pacific League. From the spice of a tongue taco to the adrenal rush of a lanzamiento descontrolado (has "wild pitch" ever yielded more music?) to the heartfelt emotion rippling through the crowd to kill the arbitro, it's the American Pastime gone on the great and necessary road trip to...the Americas.

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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