By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
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By Alison Flowers
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The sky is brilliant, the mood festive, the catchers' mitts crackling. But Yankee Stadium on July 4 this is not. It's Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the day is January 6, known and celebrated here as Three Kings Day. There are a couple other differences to the picture as well. Instead of the mountainous Bronx County Courthouse over the centerfield fence, there are just mountains. Instead of suits in the front row, there are kids, most of them spilling onto the field to frolic with all their heroes (both the players and the guys dressed as the Three Kings).
The sheer weirdness a lifelong American fan feels while sipping a piña colada and taking in this scene at the home of the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) holds true for players as well. "Well, you gotta watch out for all these kids. That's different," laughs J.D. Arteaga, a starting pitcher for the visiting Caguas Criollos (Natives) of the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. Arteaga, a former Binghamton Met who was lost to the Astros in last November's Rule 5 Draft, has Cuban blood and is bilingual, an invaluable key to fitting in down here. "The guys on the team and the way things are here may be different than how things are in the States, but it's all so much fun," says the 26-year-old Miami product, who sports a 7-2 record this winter.
At the other end of the Caguas rotation, not to mention the language spectrum, is Courtney Duncan, the league's top closer with 16 saves heading into Saturday's game. A native of Alabama who is destined to be striking out National Leaguers as a Chicago Cub soon, Duncan speaks excitedly about what he's learned during his first-ever winter league experience. "Now I totally understand what it is like for Latin players in the Majors, being a minority with their language and all that," says Duncan, who is also 26. "A lot of times they just sit quietly, watching what's going on. Now that's me. When everyone starts laughing like crazy, someone who speaks English has to come explain what's going on before I can laugh too."
There's been a light mood in the Caguas dugout all season. The Criollosstarted the season strong on November 10, and have cruised through the 50-game regular season (in just 59 days) at a better than .600 pace. Their team, coached by local legend and Cub bullpen coach Sandy Alomar Sr., is the blueprint for success here. Good young imports, like rising Cub outfielders Corey Patterson and Gary Matthews Jr. and the pitchers Arteaga and Duncan, are mixed with solid Puerto Rican vets like Hector Villanueva and Roberto Alomar, who serves as a DH to avoid injury.
Caguas heads into next week's league semifinals as the top seed of the four teams, and should they advance and ultimately win Puerto Rican title, they'll play in the storied Caribbean World Series. The Caribbean Series is a round robin between the champions from Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. However, the cachet a championship carries with most Boricuas doesn't always hold true with Americanos, who typically make up about a quarter of the roster space down here.
"Of course winning is fun," says Duncan. "And if we keep going, great. But at the same time, I've been down here since the beginning of November. I went home to Alabama for a couple days for Christmas, but I missed my grandmother's cooking on Thanksgiving, I missed New Year's, and I'm scared my arm is going to get tired. It's a tough decision."
Arteaga first played winter ball with Caguas last season and left a couple days before the regular season ended, but he says he will not do the same thing this time around. "I was just talking to some of my old friends from the Mets last night, and they were packing up to drive to Port St. Lucie for spring training," says Arteaga, fighting to speak over the din created by the kids who have taken over the dugout. "I was like, 'That's crazy. I've been in spring training for two months, and I may not even get a break at all.' But that's OK. I still love it."