Jesse Sanchez

PR skipper Perez looks to relive Caribbean Series magic

PR skipper Perez looks to relive Caribbean Series magic

Former Major Leaguer Eduardo Perez can still hear the celebratory sounds on the field in the Dominican Republic the last time Puerto Rico won the Caribbean Series. There were rowdy cheers from the Puerto Rican fans in attendance at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo. Noisemakers rattled. Horns echoed throughout the stands.

Perez leapt for joy after the final out that February night. He hugged every Santurce teammate he could find and he soaked in the team's undefeated run through the round-robin. Fifteen years later, Perez is back in the Caribbean Series with Santurce, this time as the team's manager, and the baseball lifer wants to relive history.

"A lot of people talk about Puerto Rico's Dream Team [in 1995], but the 2000 team I was on beat Mayaguez in the final and won it all with a solid team full of balance and chemistry," said Perez, who also managed Ponce in Puerto Rico for two seasons. "We'll have to have that again to win this year."

This year's Caribbean Series will pit the Winter League champions from the Dominican Republic (Gigantes Del Cibao), Mexico (Tomateros de Culiacan), Puerto Rico (Cangrejeros de Santurce) and Venezuela (Caribes de Anzoategui) against each other, beginning on Monday, at Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"The best part about the Caribbean Series is not that it's just back on the island, but it's back at Hiram Bithorn Stadium," Perez said. "It's back to where you feel is home and you know this is a place where a lot of good teams and players played in front of packed stadiums. We want to bring back that winning tradition."

This year's field also includes Cuban Serie Nacional champion Pinar del Rio as a special participant. Last year, Cuba's Villa Clara team became the first team from the island to participate in the Caribbean Series since 1960.

In the end, Villa Clara finished the tournament with a 1-3 record and did not advance to the semifinals. This year's Cuban team features a group of talented reinforcements that includes infielders Lourdes and Yulieski Gourriel, outfielders Frederich Cepeda and Alfredo Despaigne, along with right-handed pitcher Norge Ruiz.

"I think Cuba did not know what to expect last year," Perez said. "Now, they know they have to bring in the best available talent and put on a good show for Cuba. Last year, they didn't take many guys, but this year, they didn't cut any corners, and that's a great thing for this competition."

Deciding on a favorite for the Caribbean Series is a challenge. This much is certain: A team from the Dominican Republic has won the Caribbean Series title 19 times. Puerto Rico has the second most championships, with 14. Cuba and Venezuela have seven Caribbean Series titles each.

Overall, Mexico has won eight Caribbean Series titles since it began participating in the annual tournament in 1970. A team from Mexico has also won the Caribbean Series championship two years in a row and three times in the past four years.

"Before, Mexico was kind of the token team you played to start the Caribbean Series with every host nation playing against Mexico in the first game because it was supposed to be the easiest team and easy win," said former Major League infielder Benji Gil, who manages Mexico. "It's become clear that it's not the case anymore and it hasn't been that way for a while now. The teams that represent Mexico go to compete and have every intention of winning the Caribbean Series. We are going there to win."

The history of the Caribbean Series in Latin America traces back to the union of the leagues in Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela -- then called the Baseball Organization -- and the formation of the Caribbean Federation in 1948. After Cuba hosted in 1949, Puerto Rico played host in '50, Venezuela in '51 and Panama in '52.

The initial design of the series was 12 games, with each team squaring off against each other twice. Cuba won the title seven times from 1949-60. Puerto Rico won four times during that span, and Panama won its first and only Caribbean Series title in '50.

In 1959, communist leader Fidel Castro took over Cuba and ended the country's participation in the event after '60. Depleted, the Caribbean Series eventually disappeared for 10 years until a revival in '70 that included the addition of the Dominican Republic and Mexico and the removal of Panama from the tournament.

A new format extended the double round-robin format an extra day in 2013, with a championship game played between the teams with the two best records. The latest format pits each team against each other once, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

"Playing the games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, and I mean nothing against Estadio Quisqueya [Dominican Republic] and Estadio Universitario [Venezuela], but Bithorn is the biggest stage in the Caribbean," said former Major League infielder Alex Cora, the manager/general manager of Caguas. "We have not won since 2000 and it's about time. Last year, we were in the championship game and lost. It's time for us to win it."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.