Licey-Aguilas rivalry unmatched

Licey-Aguilas rivalry unmatched

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The dates for the most anticipated three hours of baseball all winter are circled by midsummer. This contest is the Subway Series, Battle of the Bay, and Lone Star Series all rolled into one game.

It's Licey vs. Aguilas at Estadio Quisqueya in the capital city and until you've seen it first-hand, you have not seen what a rivalry in baseball is all about. Sure, most would say the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is second on the list, but it's a distant second.

"This is the game of the year and you just have to say 'Wow' when you step on the field and see everything," said former Boston outfielder Willy Mo Pena, who plays for the Aguilas. "It's more than Red Sox and Yankees. It's like a playoff game every single time."

The game on the field is rivaled only by the gamesmanship off of it. Bells, horns, whistles and improvised noisemakers are all the rage. Fans taunt each other so mercilessly that the occasional scuffle in the stands becomes commonplace when Licey and the Aguilas get together for this ultimate fighting championship. It's rumble time with thumping melodies, either played over the public address system or chanted by the fans, providing the bass line. If you can carry on a conversation with the fan sitting next to you it's because you are screaming or you are sitting in your living room watching the game's national broadcast.

It's that loud.

And colorful. It seems as if everybody is in Licey blue or Aguilas yellow, and those who are not are either in line at the stadium team store or outside the park purchasing "pirata" (knockoff) versions of team gear. Ever see a family of five wave five monster-sized team flags -- the kind of flags big enough to fly over elementary schools -- in unison?

Go see a Licey-Aguilas game.

Want insane? Players and fans say that at least one person dies after every Licey-Aguilas game of shock, heartache or elation. The death, they say, can occur at the stadium or at home in front of a television. The morbid tale is usually said with a straight face.

No kidding.

"It's intense, crazy, and funny at times. It has a little bit of everything," said Rays star Carlos Pena, who plays first base for Licey. "For us players, it's a challenge to keep that out of our minds and play the games, but sometimes it creeps in and you get caught up in it. You really want to kick the other team's butt because everybody is so into it."

For all its drama, the Licey-Aguilas game is only part of the Dominican Winter League experience. The modern Dominican Winter League is made up of six teams located in various parts of the country: Tigres del Licey and Leones de Escogido in Santo Domingo, Estrellas Orientales in San Pedro De Macoris, Aguilas del Cibao in Santiago, Gigantes del Cibao in San Francisco de Macoris, and the Azucareros del Este in La Romana.

Made up of Major League and Minor League players, the Dominican Winter League begins when the Major League season ends, and concludes with a round-robin playoff in January. The winner of the Dominican Winter League advances to the Caribbean Series to take on the championship teams from the leagues in Venezuela and Mexico.

In 2008, the Caribbean Series celebrates its 50th anniversary when the event moves on to the Dominican Republic.

"Overall, I say in Dominican baseball, you multiply the intensity of a regular Major League game times 100," Pena said. "Fans have so much passion that it's like a soccer match, where each team represents a different culture and everything is about personal pride and bragging rights for the rest of the year. Intensity takes over in all aspects much more than they do in the United States. It's hard to compare anything to it."

Pena is right. No baseball game in Latin America is more intense than Licey-Aguilas, although there are those who will argue the Caracas-Magallanes Winter League game in Venezuela is as good or better.


"It's a must-see for every baseball fan," said Nationals manager Manny Acta, a former manager of Licey. "You can't see a game in the Dominican Republic and not see Licey-Aguilas. It's what it is all about."

The actual rivalry could be about championships and respect. Licey, the winningest franchise in the Dominican Republic, is also the oldest. The club was established in 1907. The Aguilas were established in 1936.

The two clubs have combined to win 13 of the last 14 Winter League titles with the Aguilas winning eight of the last 12 titles starting in 1995. Licey, the champions of the 2005-2006 season, is a 19-time champion.

"Has this helped my career? Are you kidding? Of course, it has," said Yankees outfielder Melky Cabrera, who plays for Aguilas. "You play in this game, you can play anywhere."

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