The sports rivalry between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has been the main reason why the Caribbean Series has been kept alive for the past 36 years.
Dominicans and Puerto Ricans have not only sustained one of the toughest rivalries of international baseball, but they have also shared the honor of winning in most years, leaving only crumbs for Mexico and Venezuela, the other two participants.
The first stage of the Caribbean Series started in 1949 with Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. The event collapsed in 1960 when Fidel Castro banned professional baseball in Cuba.
The Dominican Republic and Mexico joined Venezuela and Puerto Rico in order to rescue the tournament from 1970 onwards, and since then they have participated in the following 35 editions of the tournament.
The D.R. leads with 15 championships, followed by Puerto Rico (14), while Venezuela and Mexico are tied with five titles each.
The baseball rivalry between the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans has grown every year, primarily because of the great migration of Dominicans to Puerto Rico.
Each year, hundreds of Dominicans risk their lives going through the La Mona Canal in search of a better life in Puerto Rico, which offers superior standards of living because of its position as a free state associated with the United States.
Although it's tough to establish the real number of Dominicans who live in Puerto Rico, because most of them are there illegally, it easily surpasses 200,000.
Thanks to the D.R.-Puerto Rico rivalry, the Major League Baseball strike of 1994 and an urgent necessity to offer an attractive showing to the Puerto Rican fans -- the country had not hosted the Caribbean Series in 10 years -- in 1995, they assembled one of the most powerful teams in history: a Puerto Rican dream team.
The San Juan Senators, helped by the presence of many of MLB's best players, had a star player at every position. Future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar joined Carlos Baerga, Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzalez, Edgar Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Ruben Sierra, Rey Sanchez and Carmelo Martinez to form a lineup that destroyed opposing pitchers, including Dominican starters Pedro Martinez and Jose Rijo, as they cruised to a 6-0 record.
The only two defeats for the Eastern Bulls of the Dominican Republic were against Puerto Rico. This provoked Dominicans to form their own dream team for the following year's series, which took place in Santo Domingo.
Although it wasn't as dominant as the Puerto Rican squad of 1995, the 1996 Dominican team was a talented group: Raul Mondesi, Moises Alou, Stan Javier, Henry Rodriguez, Geronimo Berroa, Julio Franco, Jose Vizcaino, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Perez, Jose Mesa and Yorkis Perez.
But far from watching a dream team, Dominican fans witnessed a nightmare after their squad lost the first two games and finished with a 2-4 record. Led by right-hander Esteban Loaiza and American outfielder Darryl Brinkley, the Culiacan Tomato Growers (Mexico) captured their third title, while Puerto Rico was the runner-up.
However, since 1996, the Dominican Republic has dominated the tournament, winning six of the last nine Caribbean Series.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has been going the opposite way in past years; it hasn't won since 2000, and will begin this year's quest Thursday in Maracay and Valencia having lost 13 out their last 14 games overall in the tournament.
Among individual winter-league teams, Licey of the D.R. leads the all-time list with nine titles, followed by the Santurce Crabs of Puerto Rico (five) and the Cibao Eagles of the Dominican Republic (four).
The Dominican Republic has the edge over Puerto Rico in the head-to-head series (43-33), and the two countries needed a one-game tiebreaker to decide the champion (all of them in Puerto Rico) in 1987, 1999 and 2003. The final game of the 1999 Caribbean Series might be considered one of the greatest in the history of the event.
That year, Licey and Mayaguez finished tied for first place at the end of the round-robin series, which included two games against each other in a packed Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
Second baseman Jose Vidro hit a home run in the first inning as Puerto Rico took a 1-0 lead, but the Dominicans tied it in the second inning with an RBI single by Willis Otanez. They then took the lead on a two-run homer by David Ortiz in the third.
The Puerto Ricans scored two runs in the seventh inning and tied the game on a Wilfredo Cordero homer in the ninth inning.
In the 12th, Ferdinand Rodriguez hit a solo home run that gave the Indians a 5-4 lead. In the bottom half of that inning, Luis Castillo, Henry Rodriguez and Ron Belliard loaded the bases, before Ortiz hit a game-winning two-run double.
Again in 2003, when the series was played in Carolina, the Dominican champions (Cibao Eagles) were forced to play an extra game in order to defeat the Indians. Caguas scored four runs in the seventh inning in 1987, and added six more in the eighth in their road to demolish the Dominican Eagles, 13-2, and win the title in a tiebreaker.
In Maracay and Valencia, the 2006 host cities located in northeast Venezuela, it is possible that neither Puerto Rico nor the Dominican Republic will be the favorites to win the tournament. But when they face each other, they will be ready to continue the tradition of one of baseball's toughest rivalries.