American players adjust to Caribbean leagues
Passionate fans, good competition a hallmark of teams in Latin America
HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- Austin Bibens-Dirkx, a 27-year-old from Oregon who's now in the Blue Jays' system, will never forget the moment it hit him.
It was three years ago, while playing in his first stint of winter ball, when he was on the mound with one out left in the inning, that security guards in Venezuela rushed the field, putting down cones to boycott the game because of a fight with police officers amid an intense political climate. Soon enough, the military showed up in full riot gear, bullying them off the field long after Bibens-Dirkx had sprinted off it in fear.
That's the moment Bibens-Dirkx realized playing baseball in Latin America is, well, quite different.
"Ha, it's way different," he said, now laughing.
"You can either take it or you can't," current teammate Ken Ray said. "That's why you see a lot of guys who aren't really successful in winter ball but they're successful in the States. It's just a completely different atmosphere. The fans are different. It's just one of those things that takes a little getting used to."
Bibens-Dirkx, who has pitched seven years in the Minors, Ray, a 38-year-old right-hander who spent 15 years pitching in pro ball, and Joe Thurston, a 33-year-old utility man who appeared in 184 Major League games from 2002-11, are three Americans who played for Venezuela's Navegantes de Magallanes team, now eliminated from the Caribbean Series.
And they're among a long list of American-born players who happily play winter ball in foreign, Spanish-speaking lands, putting up with the less than ideal conditions, struggling with the language barrier, navigating through the political mess and, mostly, embracing a culture where baseball is king and stadiums rock.
"Twenty-thousand people here seems like 80,000 in the States," Bibens-Dirkx said. "It's just that loud, that intense, nonstop."
Asked what sticks out most about winter ball, which he's been playing since 2006, Thurston said: "The competition is very good, and the fans are dedicated."
"I mean, we have good fans in the States, but you see the good fans come out during the playoffs," he added. "Regular season games, they don't show up. In winter ball, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if it's Monday or a Sunday day game. They show up. And they know the game. The small children, the old women, whoever it is, they know the game, they pay attention to the game, from the first pitch to the last pitch. It's not about texting or WhatsApp. They're in the game."
Sometimes, perhaps, too in the game.
"Oh, they'll be ready to fight you if you lose," Thurston said.
"They'll go from one game to the next," Bibens-Dirkx added. "One game you don't do so well, stay in your hotel room."
The three of them can write a book on what they've seen happen on the winter ball fields of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. This winter, Ray saw people throwing homemade bombs in the stands. Bibens-Dirkx has seen them fling batteries, ice, beer, fruits.
In the finals, one guy even threw a diaper -- and it almost hit him.
"It was dirty, it was wrapped up, and it was thrown at us," Bibens-Dirkx said. "That was a little different. I've never had a diaper thrown at me before."
It's all part of the experience for this American-bred trio, none of whom can put as much as two coherent Spanish sentences together.
In some ways, they believe, it's better.
"There's no such thing as prospects," said Ray, who's been playing winter ball for seven years. "It doesn't matter how much money you signed for, what round you're [drafted] in. It's all about whether you can come in and help a team win.
"Politics are gone. It's all about winning, which is what it should be."
Usually it's the American players, sometimes more so than the legends of Caribbean baseball, who are stopped most often on the streets.
"Especially me," Bibens-Dirkx said, "I have long, blond hair."
Bibens-Dirkx's hotel room this season was connected to a mall in Venezuela, and every time he went there to eat his chicken and rice, people bombarded him for autographs and pictures.
"If you are a baseball player, everybody knows who you are -- especially in the playoffs," Bibens-Dirkx said. "Everybody's so excited, the place is always packed, everybody's always wanting your autograph, a picture. I mean, that's nonstop every day.
"For us, the biggest thing is it's an honor for us to be representing Venezuela here in this kind of atmosphere, where this is their country going up against other countries in the Caribbean."