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Play stopped in the bottom of the third inning while the team from the Dominican Republic changed pitchers. The Mexican club, Las Aguilas (the Eagles) de Mexicali, had just taken a 3-0 lead, and the stadium, Estadio de Teodoro Mariscal, in Mazatlán, Mexico, was in a fandango of excitement.
A young man left the stands and took a victory lap around the outfield while carrying a banner that read VIVA MEXICO. Just as the new Dominican pitcher began to release a warm-up pitch, a child ran in front of home plate waving a Mexican flag. Groups of children surrounded each of the three outfielders to get autographs, and a television camera crew and a half dozen writers scoured the Mexican dugout for interviews. While the mariachi band blared in the stands, fans chanted, "MAY-hee-co, cha-cha-cha...MAY-hee-co, cha-cha-cha," and a vendor, balancing his tray of macaroons on his head as he swayed to the beat, joined a crowd of dancers atop the home team's dugout.
So it goes during a break in the action at the Caribbean Series, an annual seven-day, four-country, double round-robin competition to determine the champion of Latin America's four major winter leagues. Even the next night, after Mexicali had collapsed like the peso against Las Aguilas de Zulia from Venezuela, the good people of Mazatlán chugged their Pacífico beer, sang their songs ("aye, yi-yi-yi") and danced the night away. They didn't care about salary arbitration. They didn't care about Collusion I, II or LVIII. They didn't care about George 'n' Winny, Wade 'n' Margo or lockout language. This, amigo, was beisbol.
La Serie del Caribe, which this year ran from Feb. 3 through 9, is supposed to alternate among Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the four nations represented in it, but the event ends up in Mexico almost every other year because Mexico is the only country that can guarantee sellouts and a profit for the four leagues. One reason that Mazatlán, a city on Mexico's western coast some 1,800 miles from the Caribbean, has hosted the event twice in the last five years is that the series falls during Mardi Gras week—and Mazatlán's Carnaval is billed as the third largest such celebration in the world, after those in Rio and New Orleans.
When the series comes to town, many of the players head for Seõor Frog's, Mazatlán's most famous night spot, where they can go straight to the front of the long line of those waiting for a table. But the primary party is at the stadium. Fans aren't allowed to bring bottles, but that restriction is no problema: Folks simply fill up plastic supermarket bags with tequila or brandy and guzzle right from the bag. Yet even when Zulia scored seven first-inning runs against Mexicali, the fans never got Yankee Stadium ugly. True, instead of tossing around beach balls from section to section they were throwing brassieres and other women's undergarments—items brought to the stadium along with the bags of booze. Still, the chaos was orderly.
The children who ran onto the field to collect autographs between innings were always back over the fences before the next pitch was delivered. The public address announcer got a tad excited during one game in which Puerto Rico's right-fielder Keith Hughes, who also plays for the Baltimore Orioles, made an error in Mexicali's four-run lOth-inning rally, and blurted out, "Gracias, Senõr Hughes." But such remarks are in keeping with the series' participatory spirit. "Mexican fans are so into the game that they jump into the dugout to tell me they've figured out the other team's signs," says Mexicali manager Dave Machemer. Sure enough, a fan read Zulia's signs and told Machemer, who called for a pitchout when a Zulia runner was stealing on a 2-and-1 count. No matter that he was safe anyway.
While the fans are filching signs, major league officials and scouts are looking for future Clementes and Valenzuelas. The pickings last week were rather slim, but given the ever-pressing need for pitching in the States, several scouts expressed an interest in Mexicali lefthander Mercedes Esquer, who Machemer says is "the best pitcher in Mexico." Esquer blew away the Dominican Republic in his only start, but there seems to be some question about his age. "He's told me everything from 27 to 33," says Machemer, who is trying to get Esquer to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers. Machemer happens also to manage the Brewers' Triple A Denver Zephyrs.
There was no doubt about the age of Zulia's righthander Julio Strauss—who's 22—but there was plenty of uncertainty about what major league organization he'll play for. The Montreal Expos made a deal with Zulia for the rights to Strauss in January. Trouble was, Chicago Cubs scout Luis Rosa had already signed Strauss and paid him a bonus without going through Zulia. So after spending four summers pitching in the anonymity of the Venezuelan summer league, Strauss is now the property of two teams in the National League East. No problema: The major league commissioner's office will adjudicate the matter. Then again, scouts at the series quickly learned that Peter Ueberroth's Latin American representative, Miguel Rodriguez, is also a players' agent on the side.
After years of observation, the U.S. scouts have deduced that the Caribbean Series is governed by five unofficial rules:
•Uno. All pitchers must throw at least 75% breaking balls. The best Dominicans—Jose DeLeon of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jose Rijo of the Cincinnati Reds and Juan Guzman, a Toronto Blue Jay prospect—were the only conspicuous violators. Their club lost its first five games.