Aguilas Cibaenas manager Tony Pena addresses the media at Citi Field in New York before game one of the Titanes del Caribe series between his club and the Tigres del Licey. (Photo: Leif Skodnick/World Baseball Network)
By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
NEW YORK – Sixty-seven years after Ozzie Virgil Sr. became the first Dominican to appear in a Major League Baseball game with the New York Giants, two teams from his home country squared off in the city with the third-largest Dominican population in the world.
But the two teams, the Aguilas Cibaenas from the city of Santiago de los Caballeros in the Northwest and the Tigres del Licey, from the capital city of Santo Domingo, weren’t in the Dominican Republic.
They were in New York, with a Dominican population of over 700,000, at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, the first time teams from the Liga de Beisbol Profesional de La Republica Dominicana have squared off in a Major League Baseball venue in New York. Though the three exhibition games don’t count towards the LIDOM standings, they nonetheless have an outsized place in the consciousness of players and fans alike.
“Coming to a city like this, especially being in a big stadium like this,I think there are a lot of kids who haven’t experienced that yet,” said Tigres del Licey manager Jose Offerman ahead of Friday’s game. “They are experiencing it for the first time and that makes things much better, so that each of those players feels good.”
The stage is different, for sure.
And so is the weather, with a game-time temperature of 51 degrees in Flushing Meadows, almost certainly as cold a night game as has ever been played in the LIDOM.
“Yeah, the main thing is the weather, okay? That’s going to be the difficult part,” Offerman said. For comparison, it was 75 degrees in Santo Domingo at game time on Friday night.
But the atmosphere during the game was decidedly Dominican, from noted merengue artist Rubby Perez singing the Dominican national anthem to the copious Reggaeton songs played in the stadium to the horns, drums, and noisemakers utilized by the LIDOM-record crowd of 25,233 to create the sound of Latin baseball during play.
The Tigres are Caribbean baseball’s most heralded team, having won 23 LIDOM championships and 12 Caribbean Series titles, while the Aguilas Cibaenas aren’t far behind – they have won the LIDOM title 22 times and the Caribbean Series six times.
“I think it’s a step forward for baseball. Because it’s the first time you bring two teams from the Dominican ball to play here,” Pena said.
They’re two unique teams in different places heading into this series. The Tigres are two games out of first place at 10-8, just behind the Gigantes del Cibao, while the Aguilas got off to a slow start, going 5-11 before firing manager Jose Leger and replacing him with long-time MLB catcher and coach Tony Pena, who had previously managed the Aguilas from 1997 through 2000, leading the club to two LIDOM championships in the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 seasons.
Licey won the Caribbean Series last year in Caracas, Venezuela, while the Aguilas won two years ago in Mazatlan, Mexico.
“I haven’t seen this ball club play in quite a bit. And number one, I’m an Aguilas fan. That’s number one. And I’ve been suffering,” Pena said. “ And whenever they call me, I say, ‘Ok, I’ll take the job.’
“I see a lot of ability. I see a lot of young players, players that want to play and players that are interested to make some progress,” Pena said. “And winning, goals, [are]a very interesting thing because it’s not that long, it’s very very very short. How you need to win. But I think we got talent.”
To say it’s been a rough start for the Aguilas would be an understatement. The club has been outscored 125-87 thus far this season, and has only won back-to-back games once. They have lost eight straight going into the exhibition series at Citi Field.
“The defensive side has been one of the key points. The team has been making a lot of mistakes. I think that in the next few days things will be fixed,” Pena said. “It’s been a combination of everything. At the same time, offensive, pitching and all that. But the game has to go on. We have to change. We have a good team. I think that the boys are trying to do a lot of things at the same time. It’s a matter of relaxing and letting things flow.”
With a 50-game regular season, every game has an outsized value in LIDOM, but Pena’s Aguilas, at six games under .500, aren’t out of it just yet. With 34 games left to play, the Aguilas are only three-and-a-half games out of the final spot in the 18-game round robin stage of the playoffs that will begin just after Christmas.
In the second, the Aguilas manufactured a pair of runs, with Christopher Morel reaching on a single and then scoring two batters later on a single by Cesar Prieto, and Elehuris Montero scoring on a sacrifice fly by Francisco Pena. They added a third run in the bottom of the eighth on Alexander Canario’s sac fly to left that scored Yefri Perez
The Aguilas managed 11 hits and just three runs, and cost themselves a run in the bottom of the third when Starlin Castro was doubled off second base like a nincompoop when Montero flew out to left.
But unlike most managers, Pena’s found himself in a unique situation, with two more mid-season exhibition games to figure things out.
“There’s no question about it,” Pena said when asked whether this unique midseason exhibition series could help turn things around. “Like I said before, we have some players that are just starting to play, like Montero, and Canario being in the front. But those three games help them to relax themselves and go out and play the game. …Because they’re going to lose that stress. Because they have been in stress for about three weeks.”
If the Aguilas can get themselves into the LIDOM playoffs, anything could happen.
In late January, they might be looking back, remembering how three exhibition games in Queens turned the season around.