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A Mariner in Licey

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Mike Marjama played for the Tigres del Licey this winter, and was kind enough to share his experiences

Every offseason, with decades-long regularity, dozens of professional baseball players in the United States flock south, like large, athletically-talented migratory birds, to the Caribbean Winter Leagues. They scatter to teams throughout Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela (Cuba runs winter leagues as well, and competes in the Serie del Caribe with the aforementioned four, but does not currently allow non-Cubans to play, nor do they allow defectors to return), based often on their connections with the managers or GMs of these respective organizations.

For many Latino MLB players returning to their native countries it’s about pride in their history, pride in where they come from. It’s about returning home. For Mike Marjama it was the absence of home that made playing in the Dominican Winter Leagues (Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana, often referred to as the LIDOM) so compelling. “I wanted to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable,” said the Mariners backup catcher. “I wanted to put myself in a situation where I was a minority, where I didn’t speak the language. In those situations there’s a lot of pressure, like in the big leagues, and by getting acclimated to being uncomfortable you can learn how to deal with it and control the controllables.” He was also inspired by the experiences of former teammate Willy Adames, as well as the stories from Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz. “They can tell you stories about their lives in the Dominican, and you can nod along, but I truly don’t believe you can understand it until you’re actually there. You have a newfound appreciation for what those guys have gone through to get to where they are now.”

In recent years there has been a steady decline in the number of big-name major leaguers playing in the Caribbean Winter Leagues. Perhaps this is because of the political unrest in some of the leagues’ countries, and the safety risks that poses (in November of 2011 Willson Ramos was kidnapped while visiting his mother in Venezuela and, just last night, Elias Diaz’s mother was rescued after she too was kidnapped there). It could also be that players have grown more weary of the physical risks of playing through the offseason, as seen when Jesús Sucre broke his leg while playing winter ball in Venezuela. In all likelihood the decrease of stars in the winter leagues is likely a combination of those two challenges, and evolving personal preferences. Unlike Ozzie Guillen, who infamously ranted to the Chicago Tribune that “no player should play [in the winter leagues],” Mike Marjama is effusive in his praise of the experience, calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity to get to go to the Dominican and play.”

Many major leaguers begin to shore up their winter league commitments at the start of the MLB season, typically signing on to play for the first half of the winter season so that they can use the second half to condition and prepare for Spring Training. Therefore, other players are needed to fill in throughout the season - that’s where Marjama came in. “Some teams called [around Thanksgiving] and asked if I was interested in coming down and playing, and I figured ‘you know, why not?’ I’ve always wanted to go learn the culture, and have that experience, so two days later I flew home, got my stuff, and flew down to the Dominican.” The Tigres del Licey were founded in 1907, making them the oldest franchise in the Dominican League, and their 22 LIDOM titles and 10 Caribbean Series victories also make them the most successful. Both of these were factors in Marjama’s decision to play for Licey.

When Marjama donned the Tigres’ distinctive blue and white, he joined the likes of José Canseco, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Vlad Guerrero, Bob Gibson, Orel Hershiser, and Tony Oliva as another major leaguer who decided to test his skills in the Dominican. The list of veteran major leaguers who have, or continue to play, in the Dominican winter leagues is extensive and, in fact, another element of what compelled Marjama to spend weeks of his time off in Licey. He’s a man constantly seeking to learn and better himself, and took advantage of the presence of major leaguers like Erick Aybar, Jair Jurjenns, Juan Francisco, and Emilio Bonifacio, the team’s captain. Through conversations with them he learned about life in the major leagues, and what it’s like to be a Latin player in the states, and plans to use those conversations to “maybe help translate things better” when he’s working with teammates in Seattle.

He confessed that most of his off days in the Dominican were spent working out, reading (something he “wasn’t that into” until he traveled to the Dominican Republic and was faced with the prospect of two and a half hour bus rides without his phone), and laying out by the pool, but his favorite day involved a trip to Bonifacio’s farm for a pig roast. The farmhouse is perched on a hillside out in the country, overlooking all of Santo Domingo, with chickens and other animals running around. There were only a handful of other guys there, so Marjama sat down next to Bonifacio and “had a glass of wine, which turned into a few glasses of wine, and just talked baseball with him. This was a guy who’s been around the league so long, and he’s been such a successful player, so to be able to pick his brain and learn from him, not just mechanically but experientially, was great.”

Marjama wasn’t the only willing and eager to listen to what Bonifacio had to say. “When one of the veterans said something, all the younger guys would just stop in listen,” he said. Bonifacio took his leadership position seriously and led a team prayer before and after each game, regardless of win or loss, wherein the entire team would gather together in the room, hold hands, and bow their heads. Marjama couldn’t understand much of the prayers themselves because, though he has the basic formalities down, his Spanish isn’t great, but the prioritization of team unity was clear regardless of language.

Team unity in Licey extends well beyond the boundaries of the clubhouse, too. Licey fans are a passionate, and immensely loyal bunch - “If you’re a Licey fan, you’re a Licey fan,” Marjama said. “I brought three bags with me when I first came down, but when I got to the airport to fly home they said I could only bring two, and I’ve got all my bats in those bags, I can’t leave them behind, so I was panicking. But then the woman called the supervisor over and is like ‘You’re Mike, you play for Licey! I’m a Licista, my husband played for Licey back in the day. Yeah, I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about it.” But, just because the fans are loyal doesn’t mean they’re always, well, fans. “Every game there matters, especially to the people, and if you have a bad game they’re going to let you hear it,” warned Marjama. “They’re very proud of baseball, they’re very proud of their culture. Everyone’s constantly trying to yell louder than the other, no one can talk at a normal voice level. There’s so much passion and so much life in every game, and every pitch and every at bat, it’s just incredible.”

Marjama admits that he’s a more stoic guy when it comes to displaying emotions on the field, but his time in Licey helped him to appreciate the enthusiasm with which Latin players approach the game.

Latin players often get criticized by mainstream media here overdone swag, I guess. I don’t know how to say it other than people think it’s selfish. But when they’re doing it, there’s just so much pride and passion tied into winning the game. If you go 0 for 3 but Licey won then that’s great, because they won, and that’s how it is in the big leagues.

Of course I had to ask Marjama, after his time spent in the LIDOM, if we were going to see some more bat flips in his future? He laughed, and responded, “I’m more of a hit the ball and run guy. I’m not a bat flipper, because I’d never been a home run hitter until a few years ago...if it’s a big situation I might. If it’s a game winner in the World Series, I’d probably bat flip.”

Here’s hoping we see that bat flip one day.