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Caribbean Series set to begin today

MLB.com @JesseSanchezMLB

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The odds were stacked against Benji Gil and his Culiacan teammates entering the 1996 Caribbean Series, and everybody knew it.

Gil, then 22, was a former first-round pick who had just completed his first full season with the Texas Rangers. His Tomateros were a colorful cast of characters who showed up for the tournament in Santo Domingo with nothing to lose and only fun to be gained.

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The odds were stacked against Benji Gil and his Culiacan teammates entering the 1996 Caribbean Series, and everybody knew it.

Gil, then 22, was a former first-round pick who had just completed his first full season with the Texas Rangers. His Tomateros were a colorful cast of characters who showed up for the tournament in Santo Domingo with nothing to lose and only fun to be gained.

Their opponents included a loaded Dominican Republic squad made up of former big leaguers, including Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Julio Franco and Jose Vizcaino, and managed by current Indians manager Terry Francona. They were known as the Dominican Dream Team.

Full Caribbean Series coverage

Mexico still won it all. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Caribbean Series.

"That win made everyone around us believe that we had a chance, because we went into the Caribbean Series thinking that if we beat a dream team, we can win championships year in and year out," said Gil, who is managing the Culiacan team in this year's tournament. "It all began to change quite a bit when Mexico won that championship."

This year's Caribbean Series includes the Tomateros, the Winter League-champion Aguilas Cibaenas from the Dominican Republic, Criollos de Caguas from Puerto Rico and Venezuela's Caribes de Anzoategui. Alazanes de Granma, the Serie Nacional champion, will represent Cuba as a special guest for the second year in a row.

The tournament starts this afternoon at Estadio de Beisbol Charros de Jalisco. Teams from Mexico have won the title nine times, including six since the championship in 1996.

Tweet from @JesseSanchezMLB: Buenos dias from Guadalajara, Mexico. The Caribbean Series starts Friday. Follow our coverage on @MLB and @LasMayores. Come say hello!🇲 ��� @clubtomateros 🇵 ��� @CriollosCaguas🇨 ��� Alazanes de Granma🇻 ��� @caribesanz 🇩 ��� @aguilascibaenas pic.twitter.com/C3ZXcYLYlF

"There is no better feeling than being able to represent your country," said Gil, who played eight seasons in the big leagues and won a World Series with the Angels in 2002. "In this particular case, it is even more special that we are able to do it here in Mexico. Last time, [Culiacan] had to travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to represent our country, so having the opportunity to do this in Guadalajara makes it that much more special."

The history of the Caribbean Series can be traced back to the union of the leagues in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela and the formation of the Caribbean Federation in 1948. The first tournament was held a year later.

The initial design of the Caribbean Series was 12 games, with each team squaring off against each other twice. A new format extended the double round-robin format an extra day in 2013, with a championship game played between the teams with the two best records. The latest format pits each team against each other once, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

The tournament could eventually include Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua.

"Personally, for me and for everyone on our roster, the goal is to win another championship," Gil said. "It would be the fifth in the last nine years for Mexico, and it would be the third one for our organization. We are in a much different and better position now than we were back in the '90s."

Video: Gonzalez, Gutierrez on state of baseball in Mexico

The field

• A team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series championship in 2013 (Yaquis de Obregon), '14 (Naranjeros de Hermosillo) and '16 (Venados de Mazatlan). Obregon also won the title in '11. Culiacan has won two: 1996 and 2002. Overall, Mexico has won nine titles. Players to watch: Sebastian Valle, Sergio Mitre, Barry Enright, Alfredo Amezaga and Chris Roberson.

• Aguilas has won five Caribbean Series titles (1997, '98, 2001, '03 and '07). A team from the Dominican Republic has won the most championships at 19, with the most recent title coming in 2012 by the Leones del Escogido. Players to watch: Christian Bethancourt, Ronny Rodriguez and Edwin Espinal.

• A team from Puerto Rico has won the Caribbean Series 15 times, with last year's championship by Caguas being the island's first since 2000. Overall, Caguas has four Caribbean Series titles, with championships in 1954, '74, '87 and 2017. Players to watch: Jesmuel Valentin and Rusney Castillo.

• Venezuela has won seven Caribbean Series championships, with its most recent coming in 2009 by the Tigres de Aragua in Mexicali. The Caribes have never won a Caribbean Series title. Players to watch: Tomas Telis, Freddy Garcia, Felipe Paulino, Alexi Amarista, Luis Sardinas and Balbino Fuenmayor.

• In 2014, Villa Clara became the first team from Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Series since 1960, and it was eliminated in four games. In '15, the team from Pinar del Rio defeated Mexico for the title. Cuba's Ciego de Avila was eliminated in the semifinals in 2016, and Alazanes de Granma went 3-2 last year. Granma is the '18 representative. Cuba has won the title eight times. Players to watch: Roel Santos, Frederich Cepeda, Lazaro Blanco and Yoelqui Cespedes, younger brother of Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

• The schedule (all games available live on Gameday): Friday: Cuba vs. Venezuela, 2 p.m. ET; Puerto Rico vs. Mexico, 9 p.m. ET. Saturday: Venezuela vs. D.R., 3 p.m.; Mexico vs. Cuba, 9 p.m. Sunday: D.R. vs. Puerto Rico, 3 p.m.; Venezuela vs. Mexico, 9 p.m. Monday: Venezuela vs. Puerto Rico, 3 p.m.; Cuba vs. D.R., 9 p.m. Tuesday: Cuba vs. Puerto Rico, 3 p.m.; Mexico vs. D.R., 9 p.m. Wednesday: Semifinal game between second seed and third seed, 3 p.m.; semifinal game between top seed and fourth seed, 9 p.m. Thursday: Final, 9 p.m.

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.