The period from December to mid-February is my favorite time of the year for baseball. That may seem odd to some seeing as how it is well past the time when the last Major League Baseball season has ended and the new season will begin. For others, it’s not an odd statement at all because they know this is the time of year when some of the most exciting, action-packed, dramatic, and fun baseball on the planet is being played. Winter league playoffs are in full swing and it is glorious.
Now, the term winter leagues is in and of itself a misnomer. There’s nothing winter about these leagues as every single of one of them is taking place in a warm climate. However, we all know that the baseball calendar is centered around MLB’s operation. For that reason, these leagues are winter leagues because they take place in the winter months when MLB is inactive. When I use the term winter leagues it’s not meant as any sort of putdown or form of disrespect. We use a specific baseball calendar and that’s why the term winter league fits these leagues.
The main point I hope to get across is that what affiliated ball is lacking is the atmosphere, culture, and play of winter ball. As I type game three of a Serie Nacional de Béisbol (CNS) semifinal matchup between Leñadores de Las Tunas and Cocodrilos de Matanzas is taking place. This is during the day on a Tuesday and Estadio Victoria de Girón is popping, to say the least. The usual assortment of noisemakers, chants, nonstop clapping, and endless chatter is filling the stadium like this was a prime time game. It’s hard to put into words the atmosphere of a CNS playoff game, but it is something every baseball fan should experience.
It’s also something every baseball player should experience. It doesn’t need to be in the CNS, because honestly unless you’re Cuban there’s very little chance of one playing in the CNS. Take your pick from Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana in the Dominican Republic, Liga Mexicana del Pacífico in Mexico, Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional in Venezuela, or any of the other winter leagues and a player would be presented with both a style of play and an environment that they would benefit from. I’m not just talking prospects, but established big leaguers would benefit greatly from spending a few months playing in one of these leagues. If their team ends up playing in either Serie Latinoamericana or Serie del Caribe then that’s an atmosphere on another level.
Why would they benefit? First and foremost, unlike some writers, or at least one, in particular, I don’t believe baseball players can be grown in a lab. Players can run through as many simulations as is possible but at the end of the day, they need real game experience to become a complete baseball player. Spending time in the winter leagues helps to sharpen the on the field skills of players. This presents them with varying styles of play that they should be able to incorporate into their existing approaches to enact positive changes.
There’s also the cultural factor to consider. Life is full of experiences and that may sound like sappy bullshit, but it’s true. Baseball is a global game and big-league players are going to end up playing with teammates from Latin America, Australia, Asia, Europe, etc. It would behoove prospective and present big leaguers to spend some time in Mexico, Colombia, Panama, etc. and learn the culture and customs of the world. Regardless of what county the player is from this would help to make their life better and to improve interactions with their MLB teammates from elsewhere on the globe.
Perhaps most of all, you can’t replicate the raucous atmosphere. There’s something to be said for the adrenaline rush of playing in front of rabid fans. This isn’t always present in affiliated action because of the longer length of an affiliated schedule. Heck, even for players in summer unaffiliated leagues this isn’t always present. Players should take the initiative and play throughout Latin America during the winter. Soak up the atmosphere, pitch when the entire stadium is rooting loudly against you, or get a game-winning hit that results in a throng of fans wanting to hug you to death. Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, players should be doing everything they can to imbibe some winter league playoff atmosphere.
I realize that there are restrictions in place for lots of players. The Washington Nationals aren’t about to let Juan Soto play in his native Dominican Republic. I understand their reasoning, but at the same time, I think such an approach works against the development of Soto as a player and a human being. Heck, someone like Albert Almora Jr. with the Chicago Cubs should be playing as much winter league ball as he can to work on the glaring holes in his game. It’s not just the youngsters, whether we’re talking about Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, or Nolan Arenado, every single one of them would benefit from playing in winter ball right now (they don’t need to play all the time, rest up one year, play the next, rest up a few more years, then play another winter, etc.) The people who would benefit most are the fans, and any situation in which players and fans are benefitting is great for the game of baseball.
Lead photo courtesy of Roberto Muñoz – The New York Times