On Saturday I went to watch a baseball game that featured Randall Simon, Jolbert Cabrera, and Julian Tavarez. This was not a terrible and specifically early 2000s -situated, USA Today/Baseball Weekly-reading nightmare, either. It was a real baseball game, held on Saturday of this year, between the Caimanes de Baranquilla and the Tigres de Cartagena of the Colombian winter league.
The Colombian Winter League is the worst of the Caribbean winter leagues. A very quick glance at the rosters of its four teams indicates that there is very little major league talent involved, past or present. And unlike the winners of winter leagues in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba when it feels inclined, the champions of the Liga Colombiana de Beisbol Profesional do not play in the Serie del Caribe.
In fact, the most notable thing about the league is a feud that broke out some years ago between Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, by far the two best players Colombia has produced. (Renteria, whose family runs the league, accused Cabrera of buying the Cartagena team with the explicit purpose of running it into the ground before selling it back. The alleged motive? Jealousy.)
Renteria and the Cabrera brothers were among those welcoming my girlfriend and I into Estadio 11 de Noviembre in Cartagena, featured as they were, in a mural by the main entrance titled Glorias de Beisbol Colombiano. The stadium, built in 1947 and capable of seating 12,000, is simple in design. Tunnels lead from the underground concourse to the single tier of brightly colored seats above. The outfield bleachers are not attached to the main structure. In the concourse, there were a few historic box scores painted on the walls, various fried snacks for sale, and windows that gave you a ground level view of the field. In a room marked VIP, you could buy a red New Era Tigres hat from a woman who kept them in a giant duffle bag. I did this.
There were maybe 350 people at the game, mostly families and groups of old men sitting together and bullshitting. Large swaths of seats were empty, including all of the outfield bleachers. But from the third base side you could at least see part of Cartagena’s beautiful 150-year-old bullfighting stadium, which is next door.
Before the first pitch we wandered around. Tickers were about $3 and allowed full reign of the park. Jolbert Cabrera, with racing stripes shaved into his hair, stood before the Cartagena dugout telling dirty jokes to his teammates. He was bigger than almost all of them, and looked less like a former utility man and more like a guy playing the superstar in a low budget baseball movie. Little kids hung over the bullpen fences and bugged the starters warming up. Eventually the Colombian national anthem played, and the PA announcer said “Bienvenido al templo principal de beisbol Colombiano,” which means welcome to the principal temple of Colombian baseball, which, from where we sat, hardly seemed all that impressive. That said, baseball in Colombia is only a regionally popular sport. And even around the Caribbean, soccer abides.
The game began with exceeding slowness. Nobody scored, but neither did they rush to be called out on strikes or the bases. The humidity seeped into the movements of the players and the track of each batted ball. Umpires were caught undecided between calling runners safe and out. Even the vendors crept slowly, deliberately, up and down the aisles, taking seats at random to talk to their friends in the crowd. The vending scene was totally unregulated, with men and women selling such DIY snacks as salami sliced freshly onto crackers, homemade plantain chips, small cups of coffee. Sometime in the second inning, the p.a. announcer said “por favor encendar las luminarias,” or please turn on the lights. Randall Simon made a nice play at first base on a sharply hit grounder. It was baseball, essentially. Lazy summer baseball. Only it was December 1.
The PA guy, despite his voluminous between-inning messages (“Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year to all those kids who play baseball”) only announced batters’ names intermittently. The same went for pitching changes. This is how I had no idea that the man who hit the three-run homer that put Baranquilla up 3-0 in the top half of the sixth was Donovan Solano, who batted .295 as a rookie for the Marlins this year while playing a Jolbert Cabrera-esque number of positions. It is also how I had no idea that the man who pitched a quiet eighth for Baranquilla, to maintain a 4-3 lead, was former wannabe bad boy Julian Tavarez.
The atmosphere at Estadio 11 de Noviembre was so mellow, so hugely tranquilo, that it hardly mattered who was or was not a major leaguer. Solano, Tavarez, Simon, Cabrera. The lazy rhythm of the game conquered the histories of the men playing it. Fine for Solano, who is probably on his way to millions of dollars. But for Tavarez and Simon and Cabrera, the Colombian winter league felt like a very quiet end, a last hushed breath into obscurity.
The Cartagena crowd was as good as could be expected, chanting for local players and haranguing the umps for indecision. Everyone stayed until the end, including a mutt that had spent the game casually scavenging the bleachers. A trio of bats fluttered in and out of the lights, and dive-bombed the infielders. Boys hunted down foul balls and tried to sell them to fans. Cartagena went into the inning still down 4-3 but loaded the bases with one out despite a foolhardy double steal of second and third. A base on balls later and they were loaded for Harold Ramirez, an 18-year-old who last year signed a million dollar bonus with the Pirates. Ramirez fouled an early pitch into the air between the catcher and the first baseman. They stood and watched it fall between them, only taking action afterward to yell at one another. Then Ramirez sent a walk-off single into left field. His teammates mobbed him between first and second base. The children rushed the field, too. Julian Tavarez still got credit for a hold.