Notes: Polonia the 'King of Winter Ball'

Notes: Polonia the 'King of Winter Ball'

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico -- Growing up, Luis Polonia idolized fellow Dominican Republic native Julio Franco.

These days, Polonia finds himself challenging Franco in terms of longevity.

"I looked up to Julio Franco," Polonia said at the 2007 Caribbean Series, "and he's 10 years older than me and he's still playing in the big leagues."

Exaggerating slightly, Franco is 48, while Polonia is 43. But Polonia's quip was greeted with laughter by the media at the Series.

The fact is, Polonia enjoyed a 12-year Major League career in his own right, breaking in with the A's in 1987 and walking away in 2000 after seeing action in 37 games with the Yankees.

While he has left his big-league career behind, the 5-foot-8 left-handed-hitting outfielder has certainly not hung up his cleats.

In many ways, Polonia has become the unofficial "King of Winter Ball." He is competing in his 23rd winter season, all with the Cibao Eagles.

For his dedication and longevity, Polonia is a national hero. And he's still a productive player. In Saturday's win over Mexico, he went 3-for-5 with an RBI and a run scored.

Having no illusions that he is rekindling a big-league career, Polonia also has no desire to slow down. He's playing in the tournament with a mild hamstring pull. It is nothing that will take him out of the lineup, which means he is a designated-hitter option.

"I don't feel like being anywhere else," he said. "I still plan to play another five to 10 years."

If Franco, now with the Mets, can keep plugging away at nearly 50, why not the King of Winter Ball?

Four in Hall: Four new members have joined the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame.

The newly inducted players are former big leaguers and Puerto Rican natives Edgar Martinez and Hector Cruz, as well as Venezuela's Oswaldo Oliveras and Mexico's Nelson Barrera.

A Hall of Fame-caliber hitter, Martinez enjoyed an 18-year big-league career, all with the Mariners, before retiring in 2004. He had 2,247 lifetime hits and a .312 batting average.

Cruz broke in with the Cardinals in 1973 and he wrapped up his Major League career with the Cubs.

Also enshrined in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame are Pedrin Zorrilla of Puerto Rico and Pedro Padron of Venezuela. They were honored for their contributions to the Caribbean Baseball Confederation.

Pitching woes in Series: One of the challenges managers at the Caribbean Series face is fielding enough quality pitching.

Venezuela manager Buddy Bailey says it is unavoidable because Major League clubs often shut down their players before the Caribbean Series begins.

"I think when you get to this point, all teams lose a little bit of their pitching because Spring Training starts a week earlier for the pitchers than it does for the other guys," Bailey said.

Pitchers and catchers are the first to report at camps, which open in mid-February.

Because the Caribbean Series is so close to Spring Training opening, a number of big-league players don't participate. Still, teams like Venezuela have Major Leaguers, like Ramon Hernandez of the Orioles and Ronny Cedeno of the Cubs.

"It's up to the player, and I think it's how their body feels," Bailey said.

Another factor is each player's contract situation.

"Is it their salary year, and have they already signed a contract for a couple of years, or do they have a salary year coming up?" Bailey said. "Some may want to give 100 percent because it's their salary year coming up. I think it's a lot of variables. Some may not feel as strong as they need to feel with Spring Training coming up. It's a whole lot of factors.

"When you talk about the native players, whether they are playing in the Major Leagues or the Minor Leagues, these guys are getting to Spring Training around Feb. 15. They don't get back home until October. They have a lot of other responsibilities at home. Maybe a family member is sick or people they don't get to see much because they are playing Winter League ball? They may say, 'I'm going to take a break and see my family.' At the same time, they'll work out and get ready for Spring Training."

Seeking opportunity: It's rare for a United States native like Edward "Bubbie" Buzachero to be playing in the Caribbean Series. But Buzachero, born in Livingston, Tenn., has been a standout reliever for Puerto Rico in the early games of the tournament.

Buzachero picked up a save on Saturday against Venezuela, tossing 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, with two strikeouts.

The 25-year-old, who attended Tennessee Tech, pitched for Cleveland's Double-A Akron squad last year and went 8-3 with a 2.72 ERA and four saves. He logged 79 1/3 innings in 49 relief appearances. The right-hander struck out 71 and walked 25.

He is hopeful of getting an invitation to the Indians' Spring Training camp, but no offer has been made.

On Saturday, Buzachero had impressive offspeed pitches. His fastball, meanwhile, was clocked between 86-90 mph.

Super interest: Super Bowl Sunday isn't necessarily a big deal at the Caribbean Series.

But at least one Mexican player has a rooting interest in the game.

Left-handed pitcher Michael Tejera, who is set to start for Mexico on Tuesday, is a Cuban defector who makes Miami home. Tejera defected when he was 17 and he follows the Dolphins.

Tejera wants the Colts to win because he is a fan of Peyton Manning.

"He's a great quarterback, and I like watching him play," said Tejera, who has a non-roster invitation to the Pirates camp. "And Marvin Harrison is a great receiver. Who knows, if I had come to the United States earlier, I may have played football. I could have played wide receiver or cornerback."

Series shorts: With three home runs in two games, Dominican third baseman Tony Batista is two shy of tying a Caribbean Series mark of five set by Rico Carty and Barry Jones. ... Juan Gonzalez of Puerto Rico is a former American League MVP who would welcome another shot at the big leagues. Gonzalez has drawn interest from the Angels, Tigers and Orioles, according to published reports in Puerto Rico. A concern from scouts at the tournament is whether Gonzalez can catch up to big-league fastballs. He is hitting the offspeed pitches in the Caribbean Series, but his bat speed on fastballs is slower.

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.