We may only be around the halfway point of another marathon Major League Baseball season but die-hard fans are already planning their late winter holiday around the sunny Gulf of Mexico for the next installment of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. Like football fans (soccer & pig skin), baseball fans travel, and they’re awfully good at it.
And while the weather in Florida in February is usually just what the doctor ordered, those who’ve been there and done that may be looking for the baseball fan’s next frontier. Baseball is undeniably still ‘America’s favorite pastime’ but could it be as highly regarded and fun to watch elsewhere?
By all accounts, the answer is yes, and in some cases, it is more than just a pastime. In many Latin American countries, professional baseball is a lottery ticket, affording anyone that signs a Major League contract unimaginable riches and a one-way ticket out of systemic poverty.
In Cuba, for example, where all organized baseball has officially been amateur since the Cuban Revolution, talent and hard work will only get you so far. If Cubans want to play against the world’s best and get the big bucks, they either have to defect while playing an international tournament or migrate over treacherous seas for a shot at the big leagues.
Truth be told, baseball around the world is as passionate as it is at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. If your baseball addiction needs a new high, something to fill the gap between the Fall Classic and Spring Training, consider checking out a few games in any of these must-see baseball-crazy destinations.
Baseball in the Dominican Republic
Based on internet search traffic for the word ‘baseball’, the Hispaniola nation ranks second in the world (after the U.S., of course) and has probably produced the most Major Leaguers out of anywhere in the Caribbean. The talent here may be genetic, as each year, MLB’s makeshift farm clubs in the Dominican Republic are flooded with a slew of promising new players. To catch some of these future superstars locally should be on any serious fan’s radar. And hey, the beachy resorts to enjoy during downtime between games aren’t bad either.
Santo Domingo, DR’s capital and most populated city, is the perfect place to start. Intimate and boisterous Estadio Quisqueya is the place to be and seats along the first base line can run as low as $20USD a piece. The Liga de Beisbol Dominicano season runs from October till the playoffs in January, after which the winner goes on to play in the Caribbean Series against top teams from Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
If you find yourself on the island’s north coast, check out Dominican Republic’s largest ballpark, the 18,000 capacity Estadio Cibao. Complete with cheer-leading dancers, pounding drummers, hot dog vendors and uppity Merengue music between innings, it’s as good a place as any to catch the next Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz or Sammy Sosa.
Baseball in Japan
If you’re looking for a completely different baseball experience, head east – Far East. The generally reserved Japanese sure enjoy their balls n’ strikes and catching a pro game in one of the country’s many stadiums is a thrill like no other. If you find yourself at a Tokyo Swallows game, don’t be surprised by the sea of umbrellas, dancing, and chants of ‘Banzai!’ when a home team run is scored.
An American Professor first imported the game to Tokyo in the 1870s but it wasn’t until the 1930s that saw the country launch its own pro league, the Japan Professional Baseball League. Today, it’s Nippon Professional Baseball and it’s two leagues of six teams each that provide the excitement, keeping baseball firmly cemented as the country’s national and most popular team sport.
The rules of the game they call ‘yakyū’ are the same as they are in North America with a few minor technical difference. The baseball itself is smaller in Japan, as is the strike zone and the diamond itself, making for a more challenging, if not tougher game all around. The games also tend to be shorter, with a limit on the number of innings played capped at 12 during the regular season and 15 in the playoffs. Regular season games can end in ties too.
The Japanese may not have padded America’s Majors with their stars to the extent that other baseball-loving nations have but LA Dodgers star pitcher, Hideo Nomo, did tear up the National League in the early 90s, and today, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki are all making an impact. Japan’s national team has won the World Baseball Classic twice and is currently ranked #1 in the world.
Baseball in Cuba
Baseball has a storied history on Caribbean’s largest island. Brought over by American sailors and Cuban students returning from U.S. schools in the 1860s, it quickly caught on to become Cuba’s most played sport. Soon after, Cuba’s then colonial Spanish rulers outlawed the game in favour of bullfighting and the sport played a significant role in rallying Cuban nationalism when it was used as a form of protest until it was eventually reinstated after Cuba’s War of Independence.
Estaban Bellan was Latin America’s first ever player to suit up for a U.S. Major League team during the sport’s prohibition. Before black players were allowed to play in integrated American leagues, they would play in Cuba. In the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution, all sports including baseball would become amateur, creating Amateur Leagues throughout the country. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner, the economy began to crumble and Cuban players started defecting for a shot at the Majors in America.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the Cuban National Team played its first gave ever against a Major League Baseball team, playing the Baltimore Orioles in a home and home, 2-game series which they split. In 2016, the Cuban National Team played the Tampa Bay Rays in Havana, with Presidents Obama and Raul Castro in attendance.
Today, in cities like Holguin, tourists can book ‘Home Run’ packages at their resort’s front desk that include round-trip air-conditioned transport to and from the game, a home team t-shirt and a ticket in a sectioned off area for tourists for approximately 30 Cuban Convertible Pesos.
Baseball in Puerto Rico
Rivaling the Dominican Republic in the amount of talent it has sent to the Majors in America is Puerto Rico. Baseball is by far the most popular sport on the island and catching a game or two here is a treat. It may be a U.S. oversees territory, and soon possibly the next U.S. state, but the flavour of baseball here is uniquely Puerto Rican.
Names like Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez, Jose Cruz, Edgar Martinez and the Molina family are all synonymous with great achievements at baseball’s highest level and the talent on the island shows no signs of waning. As of 2016, more than 100 Major League Baseball players were active in the six-team Puerto Rico Baseball League, keeping the caliber of play high.
The league’s winter season lines up nicely with the end of baseball season in North America, beginning as the World Series winds down and ending around the start of Spring Training, allowing for a perfect escape from the cold for those that can’t get enough ball. It all ends with the Caribbean Classic in February, which Puerto Rico has won an astounding 14 times.
For some history, check out Estadio Sixto Escobar, San Juan’s oldest stadium built in 1935 to accommodate over 15,000 fans. Today, San Juan’s team, Cangrejeros de Santurce, play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, continuing its rivalry with the league’s hottest team of late, the Criollos de Caguas.
Baseball is flamboyant here, played with attitude and flair and whenever the national team is involved, the entire country gets behind them. At the World Baseball Classic earlier this year, the whole club dyed their hair blond in solidarity, and many of its fans did too, uniting the country behind their beloved team. That is the power of baseball here.
Baseball in Canada
If you’ve watched a Seattle Mariners vs Toronto Blue Jays game south of the border in the past few years, you know how fanatic Canadians are about their baseball. Nearly half of Safeco Field is filled with maple leaf inspired Canada swag, Blue Jays jerseys and even the odd Montreal Expos hat. The pilgrimage is an annual event and the support is always strong.
But it isn’t just for the big leagues. There are over 75 minor league teams in Canada as well as Vancouver’s Class ‘A’ Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, the Vancouver Canadians. Attendance for the C’s is at an all time high, leading some Vancouverites to hope for a MLB club of their own – after the Montreal Expos get theirs back, of course. Vancouver’s Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium has seen the young prowess of current Blue Jays Kevin Pillar and Roberto Osuna, who this year made his first All Star Game, and the talent pool is only getting deeper.
Historically, Canadian-born players have fared pretty well in The Majors. BC native Larry Walker was a seven-time Gold Glove winner, a 3-time Silver Slugger, and in 1997, MLB’s Most Valuable Player. Justin Morneau, also from BC, and Toronto’s Joey Votto also took home MVP honours. The Blue Jays won two Word Series championships in the early 90s and have recently been competitive again with consecutive post-season appearances.
While no threat to hockey yet, baseball is definitely on the up-swing. It has a more unisex fan base and the game is cheaper to play for youngsters than hockey is. If it keeps on its current trajectory, along with basketball and soccer, it can soon eclipse the popularity of even hockey, Canada’s game until now.
Looking to take your baseball fandom on the road? We’ve got the flights and hotels to get you there from across Canada. To plan your trip, connect with us online, call 1877 967 5302 or visit your nearest Flight Centre store.