Tim Livingston, Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations
Baseball season comes to a close at the dawn of fall, but from the Tropic of Cancer to the equator, preparations for some of the biggest baseball competitions in the world are just getting started. In Latin America, baseball in the winter is as big a tradition as it is in the United States during the spring and summer. And with it comes an opportunity to get more experience for players who aspire to play in the United States the following season.
The foundation of the Sonoma Stompers in 2014 was built with a guy who played several seasons of winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Former manager Ray Serrano, who now serves as the roving catching instructor for the Atlanta Braves, honed his craft during his offseasons in one of the most competitive atmospheres he’s ever been a part of.
“It’s not just about getting experience,” said Serrano, “It’s more of a competition, more to win. If you can’t do it, you’re out the door quick.”
Serrano played in Puerto Rico until 2009, which was a norm for players who had experience in affiliated minor league baseball. Knowing it could benefit the players he managed in Sonoma’s inaugural season, he hoped that some of his players would get the opportunity to hone their craft in Latin America over the winter months in preparation for the 2015 season.
The biggest success story came out of Colombia, where three former Stompers combined to have a tremendous winter.
Playing for Leones de Monteria, catcher Jaime del Valle was a key cog in the team’s success. After his late season call-up to the Evansville Otters of the American Association in 2014 ended with a playoff run, del Valle was the starting catcher for a team that ended up winning the Colombian Winter League title with a .313 OBP and his normally great defense behind the plate.
Meanwhile, Randy Consuegra’s 2014 season with the Stompers ended on a down note when he hurt his elbow in the final weeks. However, when he returned to Colombia, he ended up playing for Caimanes de Barranquilla in his hometown.
Whatever issue there was with his elbow didn’t show over the winter, as he went 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA. He struck out 26 in his 25 innings pitched and was the unquestionable ace of his team.
Shortstop Charlie Mirabal began the season for the Toros de Sincelejo and absolutely raked. He hit .409 (27-for-66) with a .985 OPS while playing his usual stellar defense. When Leones went to the playoffs, Mirabal was chosen as the team’s “reinforcement player”, which allows a playoff team to be better prepared for the competition they’ll face.
Joining his former Stompers teammate, Mirabal and del Valle ended up facing Consuegra’s Caimanes in the Colombian Series. Consuegra started both Games 1 and 5 of the series, but it was the Leones who came out on top to win the title in five games.
After winning the Colombian Series championship, Leones moved on to represent Colombia in the Latin American Series, which was being held in Panama this year. Just like Mirabal had done for the Colombian playoff run, Consuegra joined his former Stompers teammates in their run for even greater baseball glory.
Matching up with his hometown battery mate, Consuegra came up huge in the tournament semifinal against Nicaragua, going six innings by allowing only one hit and walking two while striking out three as Leones cruised to a 10-0 victory to put the team in the final.
Leones then took down the host nation’s representative in the final in a 1-0 nailbiter, giving Colombia its second consecutive Latin American Series title.
"Admittedly, I'm not the most neutral party when it comes to my team, or to these three men," said Stompers COO and general manager Theo Fightmaster, "Jaime came in to our organization and was a great player and a better person. I feel the same about Charlie. And Randy, though he wasn't here as long, and ended up with a cranky elbow, when he was on top of his game, he was incredible.
For del Valle, the chance to return to his home country over the winter is something too good to pass up.
“To get to play baseball and see my family this winter made me very happy since I don’t get to see them during the regular season,” said del Valle. “I was happy I was able to play down there again. I played really good, especially on defense and helped my team win."
Del Valle’s success aside, both Consuegra and Mirabal went on to further success as part of the team representing Colombia in the upcoming Pan-American Games. They won a tournament in Brazil in February and are set to join the team at the upcoming tournament in Canada beginning in June.
To see these former Stompers players have success in winter ball bodes well for the Stompers place in the professional baseball world, and Fightmaster is more than happy to see the players he brought in to the organization find success and carry the Stompers banner.
"As proud as I am of them as young men and young ballplayers, I'm just as proud of our organization. People may not realize it, but the level of competition they're facing in Latin America is elite. And three real factors in the [Latin American] Series were players that our fans could walk into Arnold Field, pluck down a few bucks and watch play right here in our back yard. You never know who you're gonna see when you come to a Stompers game, and you never know where you'll see them next."