Former Major Leaguers keep playing in Caribbean ball
Tatis still active in Dominican Republic; Garcia plugging away in Mexico
HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- It's an interesting spectacle, this Caribbean Series, where local beer flows, salsa music blares, wrestling masks abound, stadium seats vibrate and reliable stats elude. Every year -- as this decorated tournament rotates through the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and, this time, North Mexico -- it serves as the Super Bowl equivalent for its host nation, rightfully being called the "Fiesta del Caribe."
But it's also the stage where ex-Major Leaguers, holding onto baseball dreams by the skin of their teeth, remind us that there are other ways to make a living playing this game.
And this year, Fernando Tatis and Karim Garcia help personify that.
You remember them, right -- Tatis for hitting two grand slams in one inning in 1999, Garcia for calling out Pedro Martinez in 2003? In this alternate universe, they're still hounded for autographs, overwhelmed by reporters and making key plays for sold-out crowds in important games.
The conditions may be worse, the stadiums may be smaller and the resources may be limited, but it's baseball, for money, and it's all they know.
What they can't figure out is why Major League teams have stopped calling.
"That I don't know," Tatis says, solemnly. "I just don't know. Baseball has changed a lot. There's a lot of people with a lot of talent in Mexico, in Venezuela, in the Dominican, but they just don't find work. The question is: Why? Because if you look at the talent of a player who's out of organized baseball and you look at players who are inside organized baseball, the difference sometimes is big. You can have a player who has five tools outside of baseball, and then you have a player who has three tools inside of baseball. It's just not right."
"When you've been out of the states for so long," Garcia added, "they just kind of forget about you."
Hanley Ramirez and Fernando Rodney headline this year's Caribbean Series, but in no way do they epitomize it.
This is an event made up of former stars in the final stages of their Major League careers (Miguel Tejada), veterans trying desperately to extend it (Ramon Castro and Dennys Reyes), fringe players recently signed to Minor League deals (Marlon Byrd and Alfredo Amezaga), prospects seeking reps (Luis Jimenez and Jordany Valdespin), and those who have carved reputations playing for the professional leagues of their native countries (Mario Lisson and Ricardo Nanita).
Then there's Garcia and Tatis, two guys the majority of Americans probably didn't know still played.
"It's a little bit of everything," Garcia said, "and they have a chance to show their abilities -- that they can still play in the big leagues."
Tatis, now a 38-year-old third baseman on Leones del Escogido, spent 11 years in the Majors, most recently with the Mets in 2010. From 1998-99, he batted .287 with 45 homers and 165 RBIs. As recently as '09, he was good enough to appear in 125 games for the Mets, batting a respectable .282 with a .339 on-base percentage.
Over the last three years, though, his baseball career has been made up of winter stints in the Dominican Professional Baseball League.
Garcia, a 37-year-old outfielder for the Yaquis de Obregon, famously helped the Yankees reach the World Series as their starting right fielder in '03, batting .305 with six homers in 52 games. He played 10 years in the big leagues, batting .241 with 66 homers in 488 games, but his last season came in 2004. And since then, he's been a baseball nomad.
The next two years, he played in Japan. In '07, he returned to Mexico. The following three years, he made a living in Korea. And since 2011, Garcia has mostly plugged away in Mexico's winter and summer leagues.
"It's been unbelievable for me," Garcia said. "I love different cultures and I've just been trying to adjust to different styles of baseball."
Asked about the biggest difference between Latin professional baseball and Major League Baseball, Tatis doesn't point to the conditions or the acclaim or even the money.
He raves about the passion.
Tatis lives that through his kids, who go to school in San Pedro and have to hear it every day from their classmates because their dad instead chooses to play in Santo Domingo. And he experiences it from the locals, who will go out of their way to criticize him if he messed up in a game the night before.
For three years, Tatis played in St. Louis, home to what many say are the best baseball fans in the United States.
But they're a lot nicer in the Midwest.
"In the Dominican, everybody knows you," Tatis said. "Everybody's there, every day. They live for this stuff, man. We're crazy about baseball. Everyone knows about baseball in the Dominican, and everywhere you go, people talk to you about the same thing -- over and over again. And if you screwed up, watch out.
"They love you, but they'll criticize you, because they want you to win. No matter what, they want you to win. At all costs."