The Boys of Winter How to spend a gorgeous 80-degree day watching big-leaguers--in January.
By Eric Edwards

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's a half-hour before the start of a pivotal playoff game, but Juan Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar are loose. Their team's batboy, as usual, is holding forth about his own baseball career, which is indeed a remarkable one--he's the Major League's all-time leader in home runs, stolen bases, and batting average--if only in the uneven playing fields of his mind. Before long, his apocryphal tale of hitting a ball off the roof of the Seattle Kingdome has Gonzalez roaring with laughter.

Yes, that's the Juan Gonzalez, the Texas Rangers' slugger, and the Roberto Alomar, the Baltimore Orioles' All-Star second baseman. And they really are about to start the critical seventh game of a championship series before a packed stadium. But make no mistake: This is happening nowhere near any Major League ballpark. The vendors in the grandstand are selling pina coladas and plantain chips, the music filling the stadium is live salsa (the bands are up in the top rows of the bleachers), and it's January and 80 degrees.

Welcome to baseball, Latin style. As you read this, the Winter Leagues of Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic are gearing up for high season, as the Major League stars start to show up to help their teams in the January playoff stretch.

In addition to Alomar and Gonzalez, who play for the San Juan Senadores, Puerto Rico will host both Bernie Williams and Ivan Rodriguez this year. Raul Mondosi, Sammy Sosa, Henry Rodriguez, and Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez are suiting up in the Dominican League. The local talent is nothing to scoff at either: Almost every team has one or two genuine big-league hopefuls.

The joys of winter ball were a startling discovery for me when I first arrived in Puerto Rico to cover that league eight years ago. I had left the East Coast under the threat of snow in November, and two days later was sitting in the stands in shorts and a T-shirt. Between the lines, the game was the one I recognized from the north, but just about everything else was different.

For starters, the four Caribbean Winter Leagues play in comparatively intimate venues, more like high-end minor-league parks than gleaming corporate megastadiums. Also the tickets are cheap, and it's a lot easier to get a seat close to the action. Plus there's a flavor to these games you just can't get back home. (Want tequila with your taco? Vendors at Mexican League games will gladly oblige for less than $3.) And finally, there's the backdrop: sun and sandy beaches at a time when earmuffs and ice scrapers are the rage up north.

The leagues are only spottily promoted to tourists and so remain more or less a local affair. This is good news if you're looking to get away from all the other vacationer types for a while, but a little annoying if you're trying to get even general information about the leagues from guidebooks and the like. Here, then, is a league-by-league crash course for anyone who wants to add nine innings or more to a Caribbean vacation.

Puerto Rico is a good place to start. The self-proclaimed Gateway to the Caribbean is easy to get to and get around--and since it's a U.S. commonwealth, you don't have to worry about exchange rates.

While twice as many Dominicans played in the Major Leagues this season, Puerto Rico has the biggest stars. San Juan's Senadores have more or less cornered the market on them, owning the winter rights to Gonzalez, Williams, and Alomar, as well as Seattle Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez and New York Mets second baseman Carlos Baerga. This helps make San Juan the city with the strongest tradition in the league--along with an intracity rivalry with the Santurce Cangrejeros. The two share the city's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which is easily reachable via special tourist taxis from the city's best hotels. (Here and in the other leagues, check with your concierge about the best way to reach a particular stadium.) League-wide, general admission is between $4 and $5, and box seats are only slightly more. (Puerto Rico Tourism: 787-721-2400.)

The six-team Dominican League offers by far the deepest talent pool, and many of the country's best players come home to play in the winter even if it hardly benefits them financially. Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, for example, made $3.6 million this season, but he's back playing for the Licey Tigres this winter. That team and the Escogido Leones share the Quisqueya Stadium in the coastal capital of Santo Domingo, where some of the island's best hotels are. If these teams are playing each other or the Cibao Aguilas, at least 8,000 fans usually turn out, since one of the three teams almost always wins the league championship. The Azucareros in La Romana, where the luxurious Casa de Campo resort is also located, have the nicest facility, but a once rabid fan base has turned apathetic after so many seasons of losing. In general, though, the Dominican League has the worst facilities of the four leagues, and attendance is uneven. General-admission seats at Quisqueya Stadium in the capital are about $1, and box seats are a little more than $9. (Dominican Tourism Office: 787-722-0881.)

In Mexico, soccer still reigns in the south, but baseball is king in the northwest, where the eight-league Pacific League plays. The quality of play is not as high as in the other Winter Leagues--but the atmosphere is the most electric. Fan interest is intense, and the combination of local beer, tequila, and mariachi bands on makeshift stages in the stands makes the games spectacles unto themselves.

The stadiums in Hermosillo, the capital of the state of Sonora, and Mazatlan, further south on the Pacific coast in the state of Sinaloa, offer exceptional ambiance. Fast-growing Hermosillo is a cowboy town of about 600,000 that heats up to 120[degrees] F. in the summer but settles into the mid-70s for the Winter League season. The steaks and hospitality here are among the best in the country. Mazatlan is a haven for American and Canadian tourists, with varied nightlife and an exquisite coastal view. General-admission tickets are generally about $4. (Sonora Tourism: 011-5267-17-00-44; Sinaloa Tourism Department: 011-5262-16-51-60 through 67.)

Of all the Winter League venues, Venezuela has the highest attendance--not surprising in a country that has produced such current stars as Colorado Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga, Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, and San Francisco pitcher Wilson Alvarez. Good venues abound, with the country's best stadiums resembling Major League parks in miniature.

The view of the sheer inland mountains from Caracas' Estadio Universitario, shared by the Caracas Leones and La Guaira Tiburones, is the best in the Caribbean. Further east on the coast, there's the two-tiered stadium in Puerto La Cruz, a popular tourist hub. The ballfield is intimate and well maintained, and offers an astounding inland view.

That stadium will be the site of this year's Caribbean Series, Feb. 4 to Feb. 9. The crown jewel of winter baseball, the Caribbean Series replaces regional rivalries with international ones, as the champions of each Winter League play in a six-game round-robin format. Each team is allowed to add ten new players from its league's other clubs to strengthen its roster, bringing together each league's biggest stars. Regular-season general admission in most stadiums is under $1, preferred seating is slightly over $3, and box seats are $6. (Venezuela Tourism: 415-331-0100.)

ERIC EDWARDS is a sportswriter for the San Juan Star.