For major-leaguers, winter ball offers opportunity to sharpen game, play at home

October 20, 1991|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The dreams are gone now, and the baseball season ended Oct. 6 for most of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox. But for a few, it isn't over when it's over.

With barely a pause to replenish body and soul, many players will begin anew this week. It's called winter ball, and while some players may regard it as punishment for a season gone awry, for many it is an opportunity.

"It's an experience they need," says Cubs coach Jose Martinez, who will manage an expansion team in Venezuela this winter. "If you struggle up here, there's where you can straighten yourself out."

"There are three categories of player we try to place in the winter leagues," says Dick Balderson, the Cubs' vice president for player development.

"First are your Double-A prospects who need to play to advance to the next step. Second are the guys who've been hurt and need the at-bats. Third are guys who haven't played regularly or have not performed to the best of their abilities and need to get over some hurdles."

The Cubs will send at least a dozen players to winter leagues in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Some are well-known players like pitcher Shawn Boskie, catcher Rick Wilkins and third baseman Gary Scott.

Then there are players like Hector Villanueva and Luis Salazar, who, as always, go back to play in their native lands.

The White Sox plan to send about 10 players to Venezuela, most of them minor-leaguers, and a few Class AA players to Mexico.

Although each major-league club has its own agenda in picking players for winter ball, the winter leagues have ideas of their own.

"Most of them won't take the younger players," says Balderson. "They are very winning-oriented. They don't want to hear about potential. If you go down there and don't perform, they'll send you home in three weeks."

The winter season stretches from mid-October through December, with games generally played five nights a week for a 70-game schedule. Then the top four teams in each country square off in playoffs culminating in the Caribbean Series.

The caliber of ball is, on balance, the equivalent of Class AAA, but the fan support is at a much higher level.

"It's like a major-league atmosphere," says the Cuban-born Martinez, who has been playing and managing in the winter leagues since 1963. "In the minor leagues, you don't have that much attendance, and players sometimes find it hard to play with enthusiasm. Here, they play to big crowds. The ballparks are full most of the time. The people down there don't have all the entertainment options you have here in Chicago. They really look forward to the baseball season."

Baseball has long been popular in Latin America. Orlando Cepeda's father was a national hero in Puerto Rico, as were Cepeda and Roberto Clemente.

Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio were early Venezuelan heroes.

"Aparicio was my first manager," says White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who played every winter in Venezuela until the past two seasons. "I stopped playing because I needed time to see my kids. I don't get to see much of them during the regular season."

Some people are upset when players like Guillen or the Cubs' George Bell cease playing in their native lands over the winter.

"It's tough to back off from your hometown people," says Guillen. Oddly, the people who probably pressure him the most are his parents, he says. "They want to get to see me play a couple of times."

"To play in front of the people who used to watch you when you were little" can be a gratifying experience, Villanueva says.

Villanueva may not have made much of an impression on Chicago fans in his rookie year of 1990 when he got only 114 at-bats, but he was the toast of Puerto Rico last winter.

"I was the first guy from our homeland ever to win the Triple Crown," he says. "Cepeda came home to congratulate me."

When Cepeda was a player, he always felt compelled to play winter ball. The one year he refused, because he had a knee injury, he was severely criticized.

"In the last couple of years," says Villanueva, "since the money has gotten so big in the States, a couple of players don't play anymore."

"Since the major-league minimum went to $100,000, even a lot of the young native players don't want to play anymore," says Balderson. "If you want them to go down there, they'll give you an argument. They're too tired or too this or too that."

Former Cubs pitcher Mike Bielecki has gone three times and says: "Every time I went down there I had my best year the next year. I won 15, 19 and 18 games when I came back." The first two times, however, he did it in the minors. The year he won 18 was just before he helped the Cubs win the division title in 1989.

"The main reason to go," he says, "is to work on some things, get your innings in and have a head start.

"No. 2 is monetary. A couple of extra thousand dollars never hurt anybody."

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