CAROLINA, Puerto Rico - While you're pondering whether the thermometer will register below-zero readings in the coming days, I'm doing a little former Bird watching in an island paradise, where the local baseball league has reached in its round-robin playoffs. Four teams are vying for the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series, and while catching my first Puerto Rican Winter League game - officially La Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente - between the Indios de Mayaguez and los Gigantes de Carolina, I was surprised to enter a bizarro baseball world where former Orioles were perched on opposite sides.
The home stadium for los Gigantes - or, if you prefer, the Carolina Giants - is Estadio Municipal de Roberto Clemente Walker, named for the Hall of Famer whose life and death is indelibly linked to this tropical dot in the middle of the ocean. But on a balmy Sunday night, just after a passing storm drenched the ballpark's artificial turf, only a few hundred hearty fans are in the stands. Seven bucks buys you a general admission ticket and there are everything from families with children, women sporting their best sparkly duds, men dressed like they've just come from worship services. But they're all die-hards, lovers of the game.
I know I'm in the right place, because as I walk up the ramps behind a life-sized statue of Clemente, a man and his son walk ahead of me. Dad is trying to make first pitch, balancing that desire with the fact that his son - who might be all of 3 or 4 - is toting a way-too-large baseball mitt and a head that is swiveling every time he hears a sound. Finally, the father slows down to his son's pace, the youngster's eyes widen and the pair sets out to find the perfect seats. There are many to choose from, from the empty ones in the outfield to the few filled behind home plate. They settle on a pair along the third base line, father smiling at his son's wonderment.
Ray, the cab driver who toted me from Isla Verde to Clemente Stadium, tells me the ballpark here, along with Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, used to be full for winter league games. Those were the days when rosters were packed with Puerto Rican and American stars alike. But a generation or two, along with the availability of televised baseball games on an island where live action used to be the only game in town, have taken their toll. Some contests, like the World Baseball Classic tilt pitting Puerto Rico against the Dominican Republic, still pack 'em in. But even the winter league postseason, following a regular season in which three games separated the five teams in the final standings, can't draw a crowd.
Regardless, salsa music pumps through the stands before the reverent playing of both the Puerto Rican and U.S. national anthems (sadly, no "O" cheer). Once the formalities are over, a fan toots an air horn to the introduction of the home team by fielding position. That's when I hear a familiar name: Luis Matos, who is stationed in center field for Carolina. He hasn't played in the majors since 2006, yet the now 35-year-old native of Bayamon still returns to his homeland each winter. It's partially a pilgrimage and partially a way to stay connected to the game which has been his employer since he was a 17-year-old taken by the Orioles in the 10th round of the 1996 First-Year Player Draft.
Matos is still kicking around the Mexican League, where has played since 2008, a year after last playing in Triple-A ball in the Mets and Pirates organizations. Matos can still go get it in the outfield, gliding to the alleys to haul in a line drive. He still struggles to hit sliders and curves. But on this night, he's asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and second and Carolina holding a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning. He fails once, then pushes a perfectly placed dribbler down the third base line that is overrun by the pitcher. The ball comes to rest next to the third base line, the opposing pitcher rolling his eyes at his misfortune. A couple of minutes later, a ground ball to third base begins a 5-2-3 double play that blunts the rally and Matos is soon trotting back out to center.
In the Mayaguez outfield is Lou Montanez, the one-time favorite at MASNsports.com's "School of Roch" who is now 32 and has yet to give up on getting back to the majors. Last season, Montanez started in independent ball with Somerset of the Atlantic League and eventually hooked up with the Angels' Double-A Arkansas club in the Texas League, where he hit 284 in 22 games. Montanez, an Oriole for 93 games from 2008-10, last played in the bigs with the Cubs in 2011. He looks the same as ever, sprinting around the outfield and looking just pesky enough at bat to drive a pitcher nuts. Maybe it'll earn him an invite to someone's spring training camp. Or maybe not. Maybe he just loves the game and can't fathom not playing it for pay.
In the right field stands sits a 20-something guy repping a black Orioles jersey and a cartoon bird cap. When he finds out I'm from Baltimore, he smiles. "Camden Yards? I'd like to go there one day," he tells me. "You're very lucky," he says upon learning I work at the warehouse he's only seen on televised games. He can't explain his rooting interest in the Orioles, just that he likes them. We may speak two different languages, but the game brings us together, like the father and glove-toting son, like Montanez and Matos, like a few hundred baseball fanatics who live and die with their respective teams.
The vibe at Roberto Clemente Stadium is a cross between a minor league contest and a the late innings of a spring training. The person doing the sound effects moves effortlessly between "The Chicken Dance" and cuts from "The Simpsons" featuring Homer's bellowing cheers and Krusty's throaty jeers. The audio accompaniments don't wait for the break between innings; they're heard between pitches. But on the field, it's all business: a pitcher bearing down as a reliever warms in the bullpen; a manager slowly walking to the mound for a pitching change; a burly slugger fouling off pitches, hoping against hope that he can connect and drive one into the warm winter night.
The setting may be different, but the sounds that frame the game are as familiar as those replayed at larger, more filled ballparks hundreds of miles away across the ocean. The unmistakable pop of a fastball in the catcher's mitt, the bat-rattling thwack of a ball being lined to the outfield, the applause that follows a successfully executed rundown. Maybe it doesn't matter that there are few people in the stands; for those there, the game is the draw, just like it's always been.