Caribbean Series — Eduardo Perez
Eduardo Perez’s voicemail is full. His inbox is so loaded it sometimes kicks back e-mails, and his cell phone battery is barely hanging on.
When the former Major League player says he is keeping busy in the days since his playing days ended in 2006, he is being humble.
Because sandwiched between his daughter’s morning bake sales, lunches with his lawyer wife, designing his winter baseball program, television appearances and preparing for an upcoming coaching gig, Perez not only found time to manage the Leones de Ponce, he led them to a Puerto Rican Winter League title.
“Here in Puerto Rico, my motivation is simple, and that is to raise the quality of baseball,” Perez, 39, said. “There is so much talent here, and it has not even been tapped. If I’m here and I can help, I will. That is my drive.”
Perez and Ponce will join Mexico’s Mazatlan Venados, the Dominican Republic’s Tigres de Licey and Venezuela’s Tigres de Aragua in the 2009 Caribbean Series starting Monday in Mexicali, Mexico. Using a round-robin format, every team will play each other twice, and the team at the top of the standings after six games will be the champion.
The Caribbean Series dates back to 1949.
“If you are a baseball aficionado, there is nothing like seeing the first week of February and watching guys that have been playing since October,” said Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball’s vice president of international baseball operations. “These guys are in good, competitive shape, and that makes for exciting games. You add the international element, and the appeal is there. It’s a feeling you only get by being there, but since it will be televised by the MLB Network this year, people watching will get a feel for what it is all about.”
The Dominican Republic is the reigning champion and has won 11 Caribbean Series titles since 1990 and 17 championships overall. Venezuela, winner of six Caribbean Series titles, last won the tournament in 2006, while Mexico, a five-time winner, earned the trophy in ’05. A team from Puerto Rico has won the Caribbean Series 14 times, most recently in 2000, when Perez was a member of the squad.
“For me, growing up in Puerto Rico and sweeping all six games in the Caribbean Series, there was a lot of pride,” he said. “It’s about competing and going in there and having that sense of pride. When you play winter ball and win here, people don’t forget championship teams.”
You don’t forget your first managerial job in Puerto Rico, either. Perez was named the manager of Ponce one day before the club’s first game, not long after longtime manager Jose Cruz Sr. backed out for personal reasons. Perez ended the season as the league’s manager of the year.
Under Perez’s guidance, Ponce finished 27-15 and topped Arecibo, four games to one, in the Puerto Rican Winter League series final. Crowing a champion, any champion, is an accomplishment in itself for the league. Last season, Puerto Rico did not have a winter league because of financial problems and did not participate in the Caribbean Series. As a result, the field at the 2008 Caribbean Series was made up of Mexico, Venezuela and two teams from the Dominican Republic.
“Early on, the league had its bumps and bruises. It started off a little sluggish,” Perez said. “It was November and nobody knew what kind of league we would have here. But the players showed up and the big league players came, too. There was a sense of unity in getting this league back to where it was.”
Ponce’s team featured Ivan Rodriguez, Javier Vazquez, Luis Matos and Pedro Feliciano. Mike Aviles, Ruben Gotay, Jose Valentin and Ramon Vazquez also participated in the league alongside young players from the island and Minor League players imported from the United States.
“In the Minor Leagues, each player has one goal, and that’s to make the big leagues,” Perez said. “In winter ball, players have different priorities. Some are coming back from injury. Some are trying to find jobs and show scouts they still have ability to play at a Major League level. Some play because they love to play. Some play because they owe it to the fans. That’s why our leagues and the Caribbean Series are important.”
Perez, the son of Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez, has two young daughters and is quickly developing into a paternal figure to players on the island. He created the annual Winter Training Program (WTP) in 2007 to bring professional players into the community with clinics and provide a central workout facility and program for the island’s players. He also will be a coach for team Puerto Rico in this year’s World Baseball Classic. Perez’s other job is as a baseball analyst on ESPN.
“I really think we can surprise a lot of people,” the Ponce manager said. “If we keep playing the game we have been playing all year, I don’t see why we can’t compete in every game.”