Brewers' Cruz in control in raucous, competitive Dominican Winter League
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- On the field, Dominican Winter League baseball looks just like its American counterpart. But it sure doesn't sound like it. With horns blaring, revved up fans screaming at the top of their lungs, and Spanish, of course, being the only language spoken in the stadium, "beisbol" is a national obsession on this Caribbean island.
It's where up-and-coming Major Leaguers, current stars and players hoping to get back into the game come to sharpen their skills and represent their nation. This year, three Dominican-born Brewers are taking part in this ultra-competitive and raucous league of six teams.
The season stretches from November to February, and winter baseball is more than just the national pastime of the DR, it's practically a religion here. And rightfully so -- the country has been playing the sport for nearly a century.
Originally, the Dominicans learned baseball from the Cubans, who were taught by American sailors. Several teams claim proud legacies, exporting Hall of Fame players like Escodigo's Felipe Alou and Juan Marichal.
Today, taxi drivers can spout the career stats of home-grown stars like Pedro Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero. But they can also tell you all about up-and-coming players like Brewers outfielder Nelson Cruz, pitcher Jose Capellan and infielder Enrique Cruz. Nelson Cruz and Capellan play for the Gigantes of the Cibao Valley, and Enrique Cruz plays for the Escogideo Leones in Santo Domingo.
Nelson Cruz, who's only had a cup of coffee with the Brewers, is a rising star in the Dominican League, and he represented his country earlier this month in the Dominican-Puerto Rican All Star Game. This winter marks Cruz's third season playing winter ball.
"It makes you stay in baseball all year and learn about the big league guys," says Cruz. "For guys like me who are coming up, it's good to play."
But playing at such a high level almost 12 months out of the year can be physically draining, too. Still, Cruz says he has an advantage over players who sit at home during the off-season.
"Now, I'm a little tired," admits Cruz. "But you learn about baseball by playing it, you don't learn by watching it. What you do in practice is different than what you do in the game."
Another adjustment is the level of recognition Cruz receives in the DR, versus his relative anonymity in Milwaukee. Here, he's already a superstar.
"I keep doing what I'm doing, and stuff is going to happen. Here, once I started playing well, people began to recognize me," says Cruz.
Brewers coach Mike Guerrero is here, too. He serves as assistant manager for Escogido. But when he's not in Santo Domingo, he works for Milwaukee in a variety of capacities, including as a former player, a hitting coach with the Beloit Snappers, and more recently running the Arizona mini-camp and extended spring training. Guerrero says he spends about eight months out of the year in the states.
He's also the son of legendary Dominican scout Epy Guerrero, who is responsible for bringing an incredible 133 players to the big leagues. The elder Guerrero worked for a number of teams, including Milwaukee.
The Brewers, like most teams, once had an academy in the Dominican Republic for scouting new players, but the organization disbanded its school about four years ago.
"We don't have a school here anymore," says Guerrero. "If there is any recommendation I can do for the scouts, I'll do it through the (Brewers') office.
"We're trying something new. We might be able to develop players a little faster. But the only problem the kids will have will be (the lack of) a cultural encounter (with Americans). They'll have the language barrier. But I think the best players will get over the hump, anyway," says Guerrero.
To a certain extent, the Brewers are putting their money where their mouth is. Even without a formal camp on the island, the team recently signed a highly-regarded teenage player named Orlando Pascual, and in the process, outbid some teams with much deeper pockets.
"He was given a signing bonus of over $700,000," says Guerrero. "Every time you find a pretty good talent, you have to try to compete. But it takes hard work to develop a talent. The most expensive talent doesn't necessarily make it to the big leagues."
Cruz says the Brewers have been supportive of him playing winters in the Dominican Republic.
"They want me to," says Cruz. "Last year when I showed up for Spring Training, they said they believe in winter ball. They like me to play."
Guerrero says he is impressed by what he's seen from the up-and-coming Brewers, and he especially admires the work ethic of the future Milwaukee outfielder.
"I think Nelson Cruz and Capellan are real good players. Nelson Cruz is leading the Dominican winter ball in home runs," says Guerrero, pointing to a sign well beyond the right field wall. "He hit a ball over that sign, and it was still going. I think he will be an outstanding player for the Brewers."
As for Capellan, who struggled with his control in 2005, Guerrero is also optimistic.
"He has the arm, but he still need to make some adjustments. But the beautiful thing is that he has the ability."
Others weren't so sure. One member of the Licey public relations staff joked that Capellan was feigning a sore arm because his team wasn't playing well. And to be sure, none of the local observers had the same accolades for Capellan and they did for Cruz.
Still, Cruz says Brewers fans should be excited about the future of the franchise.
"We've got really good power in (Prince) Fielder, Corey Hart, (Dave) Krynzel, Rickie Weeks," says Cruz. "These younger guys coming up are going to be superstars. We have a good future."
In 2005, Cruz played in just eight games with five at bats. He batted an even .200 in limited action, but Cruz says the experience was memorable.
"It was exciting, you know. Being around those guys is a dream come true."
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Mike said: I am a big Brewers fan and I think Cruz is going to be a great for the Brewers. Starting RF in 2007. This is just another example of what a good GM Doug Melvin is. Cruz for Ginter Great move.
Robert B said: Thank you for this fantasic article on Nellie Cruz and Dominican baseball. I'm shocked how mant fans don't know who Cruz is. He'll be the man soon enough.
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