Major league baseball players flock eagerly to the Caribbean Sea each winter, but not to lie in the sun. They go there on business, and their business is baseball. Winter leagues operate in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama and Venezuela. Schedules are light, travel limited and the general caliber of play not quite up to major league standards. All in all, winter baseball seems like a soft pipe to an accomplished Big Leaguer: extra cash without too much extra effort.
This year, led by Willie Mays, more Yanqui players than ever before raced for the Latin peso. They found it no soft touch. The Caribbean teams played hell-for-leather baseball, and a major leaguer had to play at his best all the time to stay with them and to keep the sharp-eyed, sharper-tongued fans off his neck. Injuries, frazzled nerves and weariness were common occupational diseases. Willie Mays growled that he was "tired of baseball," fought with teammate Ruben Gomez and sank into a dismal slump at the start of the Caribbean Series at Caracas. Willie came out of the slump in his usual flamboyant style (see page 16), but the fact remained: winter baseball is serious business, and the Big Leaguer who plays it runs serious risks.
Injuries on same play strike Willie Miranda, kneeling in anguish over gashed hand, and Ruben Gomez, who glumly quits after he sprained his fingers stopping ball.
Rabid fans wear banners, stand on seats, wave arms and jeer at players and umpires alike. The noise is deafening. Reports Photographer Mark Kauffman: "It makes your spine feel it should be someplace else. Someplace quiet. Like Ebbets Field."
TOO MUCH BASEBALL SOURED WILLIE MAYS, HERE STRIKING OUT. FOR HAPPIER MAYS, TURN PAGE...
...WILLIE FINALLY BELTS ONE
The ecstatic El Nacional told Venezuelan fans, "You just HAVE TO SEE him," when Mays came to play in Caracas. But Willie made out 12 straight times, and the fans began to hiss. With the score tied 2-2 in the 11th inning of the third game, it was a grim Willie Mays who came to bat. He took a ball, fouled one back and then swung viciously, digging his body into the pitch (above). In unsmiling satisfaction he watched the ball sail over second base and into the center-field stands for the game-winning home run.
...AND NO. 24 IS UP AGAIN
Moments later, it was the old Willie, the hero, high on his teammates' shoulders, his arms raised joyfully. The homer started him on a rampage. He collected 11 hits in 13 at bats as he and his Santurce, Puerto Rico teammates won the six-game series. By the series' end Willie had racked up two home runs, two triples, nine runs batted in and a .440 batting average. But even with the happy ending, a weary Willie Mays announced that he wasn't going to play winter baseball in the Caribbean next year.