By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
One strike away from his second consecutive complete game victory, José Velázquez glances at the bases. The tying run is on third and the winner on second. Then the wiry, stirrup-socked right-hander kicks and fires a full-count fastball toward the plate.
With a giant swing, Team Cuba's lean Frank Morejón pops the ball to shallow left field. At first, it seems the third baseman has lost it in the clouds. The left fielder, playing deep, has too much ground to cover.
It appears the well-placed bloop will beat LAG Plastic, Cuba's opponent.
Then, magically, LAG's do-everything shortstop, Leonel Guevara, sights the ball like a retriever chasing down a Frisbee. He sprints to his right and snares it before artfully avoiding the third baseman and leaping over the sliding left fielder to escape a painful collision.
The game is over. LAG erupts into a frenzy of high-fives and hugs as Team Cuba dejectedly watches from the dugout.
Just another day of play in July for the Nica League, a mix of former pros, up-and-coming stars, and some of the best Latin baseball this side of Managua or Santo Domingo. It all comes together from morning until sunset weekends at Tamiami Park in West Dade and McMillan Park near Kendale Lakes. And it's amazing.
"Any given Sunday, you can see 90 miles per hour [from a pitcher]," says Team Cuba's 21-year-old shortstop, Yasmany Thorndike. "If you put together an all-star team from our league, we would give the [University of Miami] Hurricanes a good game."
Youthful confidence aside, 23-year Major League veteran and future hall-of-famer Dennis Martinez knows talent when he sees it. "The Nicaraguan League is one of the elite leagues in all of Miami," says Martinez, one of only 18 pitchers to have thrown a perfect game and the winningest Hispanic pitcher in the Majors. "[The league] is pretty much between Division I and Division II [in college], but pitching-wise, it's better than Division II."
Martinez's 21-year-old son, Ricky, pitches and mans center field for first-place team Rivas. Last spring, he made only 12 appearances as a pitcher for Nova Southeastern University; he's attempting to reinvigorate his career by transferring and trying out for Florida International University, a Division I team.
Ricky sees the talent level at Tamiami Park as the perfect way to stay sharp for the upcoming tryouts. "You have guys who can just flat-out play," he says. "The talent level is pretty high. I'm sure you can compare the talent to a few Division II [college] teams."
Ricky is a tall and lanky right-hander who resembles his father in physical appearance, right down to how he throws. But he wasn't blessed with Dad's 96-mph fastball. He is one of three sons of Major Leaguers in the Nica League. The others are Aurelio Monteagudo Jr., whose father was Kansas City Royals screwball pitcher Aurelio Monteagudo Sr., and Alex Sánchez, son of the Philadelphia Phillies' Alejandro Sánchez.
"The league gives the opportunity to develop young players involved in high school and college," says the elder Martinez, now a pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals single-A affiliate in Jupiter. "Plus there are a lot of ex-professional players that play. It's a real good league."
Training is one thing. Winning is another. Team Cuba might have triumphed in the recent game against LAG if Evel Bastida had manned the hot corner, where he normally plays. Once a minor-leaguer for the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners and one of the top offensive players in the Nica League, Bastida anchors the lineup with a .442 batting average.
"I was cut [from the Orioles] the last day of spring training and I was very depressed, so I quit," says Bastida, who came to the United States from Cuba in 2000 and was out of professional baseball by 2004. "There were players who they kept who weren't as good as me."
Resembling a left-handed Sammy Sosa, the muscular Bastida pelted houses twice in one game at McMillan Park; the two home runs easily would have cleared any fence in the Major Leagues. But he plays now simply because he loves baseball.
The 30-year-old would have shown up today, but he had to work his full-time job teaching baseball to kids. Why does he bother with a league that pays no money and draws between 25 to 50 fans a game? "I play because this is what I love," Bastida says with an isn't-it-obvious expression.
Tito Rondón, a scorekeeper for the league, agrees. "Mostly it's about fun," he says. "It's not about developing players for the pros or anything like that, but it does serve that purpose."
Rondón might just be the most overqualified scorekeeper in Miami. He was a sports editor and columnist for La Prensa, the primary newspaper in Nicaragua, where he also did radio broadcasts for the nation's professional baseball league.
And he was a Spanish-language radio broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990. The 67-year-old even had his own baseball talk show on XM Satellite Radio six days a week before becoming a victim of downsizing four months ago.
Now the bespectacled baseball journalist can be seen at Tamiami Park scoring multiple games on Sundays. Rondón has deep ties to the Nica League; he helped founder Carlos Garcia and current commissioner Lester Aviles get it off the ground in 1987. "If you don't get drafted but you want to make a pro team, you play in this league," Rondón says. "The hope for some of them is that someone from the independent leagues will watch them and give them a contract... so they might make the jump to the Major Leagues."
Often hidden among the spectators are college and pro-level scouts decked out in hats and sunglasses and toting stopwatches, clipboards, and radar guns. The Miami Black Sox, currently 11-4, have lost Carlos Castillo, Bryant Perdomo, William Lavata, and Lester Contreras to the independent leagues this season.
And players such as the great Dennis Martinez, Detroit's Plácido Polanco, and Oakland's Gio González have suited up in Nica League uniforms, Rondón notes. "Plácido Polanco played here in the early '90s," Rondón says. "He was real good."
Rondón, who while he was a Dodgers broadcaster used to lunch with the incomparable L.A. Dodgers commentator Vin Scully, has plenty of stories to tell. He remembers how León, a Nica League team, was an unofficial farm team for the Miami Marlins of the Class A Florida State League in the '80s. When those Marlins, who became the Miami Miracle in 1989, needed pitchers, they would "call up" players in the Nica League or "send down" struggling players, he contends. One who played for León and the Miami Marlins was Jorge Pascual, son of Minnesota Twins star Camilo Pascual, the owner of the "most feared curve ball in the American League for 18 years," according to Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
Rondón's favorite story is when José and Ozzie Canseco came to a Nica League game in the offseason between 1988 and 1989. Ozzie was trying to become a hitter after struggling as a pitcher. José was his personal hitting coach. The night was cold, and as José signed autographs in the bleachers, Ozzie went 0 for 2. But he made the greatest catch Rondón had ever seen in the Nica League. "I don't know how he saw that ball," Rondón says. "It was an incredible catch against a player who still plays 20 years later."
Though Rondón and others say the league is meant to be recreational, it still has the power to get players into the majors. Just a few years ago, Alfredo Simón was pitching in the Nica League to prepare for the Mexican pro league. The Baltimore Orioles saw him pitch in Mexico, signed him in September 2008, and gave him a start in the Major Leagues the same year.
Simón is the rare ultimate success story, and most of the Nica League knows that. It's the fraternity that keeps them coming to a park where paracortos are shortstops, entradas are innings, and America's favorite pastime is béisbol.
After LAG's 3-2 victory over Cuba, the winning team relaxes under a shade tree. Unlike Major Leaguers, these players don't have chauffeurs or seven-figure contracts capable of curing life's ills.
"When I'm home in Miami, I go about every other Sunday to watch them play," Dennis Martinez says. "It's just a great atmosphere."