Graig Nettles and Roric Harrison will always remember the night eight years ago when they first had dinner at Dave Concepcion's house in Ocumare, Venezuela.
For Nettles, the current American League home run champion, and Harrison, a St. Louis Cardinal reliever, that night was the epitome of the culture shock that hits Americans who play winter ball in Latin America.
Concepcion, the shortstop of the world champion Cincinnati Reds, was then a skinny AA teen-ager who asked to have the honor of inviting his two American winter league teammates to his home.
A 90-minute ride from Caracas brought Nettles and Harrison to mountainous Ocamure and a small one-room house divided into sections by cloth hanging from teh ceiling. The room was full of smiling people and barking dogs.
"Dinner was barracuda head soup," said Harrison. "That was their top-of-the-line meal. It was a pot of water with a barracuda head floating in it with the eye looking at us, a piece of potato on one side and the vegetable on the other. One of the dogs just sat there and looked at us. He knew two gringos weren't going to eat any barracuda head."
Nettles and Harrison worked on the broth, but avoided the piece de resistance.
"We said we were really honored," said Harrison, "and that now we'd go out and get the beer, if they'd keep the soup warm. So we came back with a case of Polar beer and we all drank and ate bread, and eventually Nettles slipped the barracuda head to the dog, just like the mutt knew we would.
"That was one of the best experiences of that part of my life. Meeting those wonderful people who had nothing and gave us everything.
"That taught me that if you're going to play winter baseball," said Harrison, who pitches this winter for San Juans Caguas Crillos, "you better come with your mind open, a sense of humor and leave all your American standards behind.
"You're coming to a world that is at a different place in history. It's like going back in time to something like the Americn wild west. You are going to see excesses of violence and of generosity and extremes of wealth and poverty with not much in between.
"The things that happen in between.
"The things that happen to your down here . . . well, if you don't hang loose, you're lost."
The adjustment for American players and managers coming to winter leagues in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are far greater than that for the everage vacationer.
Tourists here in San Juan, for instance, explore the alabaster coastline of $75-a-day hotels, casinos, bars and beaches. Or they visit the ruins of Old San Juan or drive into the mountainous rain forest.
But the ball players see the real "beisbol fanaticos" - the struggling people of the urban projects, and the jibaros living in their scabrous hillside shanties - in short, a genuine cross section of a Puerto Rican population 70 per cent of which gets federal food stamps.
Hiram Bithorn Satdium here is no bilingual, polite vacation world. It is not listed in official Puerto Rican guide books. Its atmosphere is reminiscent of a rough-and-ready Guno smoke saloon. Fistfights are part of the entertainment.
The sign in center field reads, "India beer - buena buena, buena," and both teams playing here this week - Caguas and Santurce - wear advertisements for rum on the backs of their double-knit jerseys.
Money is not freely spent. Parking is 25 cents. There are no programs. If you can't tell the players without one, you shouldn't be here. There is no seventh-inning stretch. Puerto Ricans stretch when they feel like it.
Since the stands are divided in half along intractable partisan lines, the feeling of a family party exists on both sides of the dividing line. A person squeezing into the middle of a crowded row will not allow any of his fellow rooters to stand up to make room.
Instead, he pats the seated strangers on the shoulder or head as he passes as though he were bumping knees and feet with his oldest friends.
Every play, almost every pitch, is a full-scale celebration of noise and marvelous, expressive waving of hands. Tambourines, air horns, triangles, police whistles and voices are strained to the limit, not only by children but by jubilant white-haired men as well.
"Every single inning is like nothing you ever experience in the States," said veteran big leaguer Kurt Bevacqua of Caguas. "I never knew baseball was this exciting a game until I came here.
Or as Sixto Lezcano, who grew up here, said proudly, "Puerto Ricans are sentimental, lovable people. They get too excited for words. They just love anything. If the umpire gets hit with a foul ball, they laugh their heads off. Every little thing can be a cause for joy."
Yet Puerto Rican emotion is tame by Latin winter ball standards. In fact, that sense of relative safety is why many American players are here rather than in countries like Venezuela, where corwds are often three times as big and salaries correspondingly higher.
Harrison, a tall 30-year-old who has toiled for six major league teams, admits he is a bit nostalgic for Venezuela and Mexico, where he has played before.
After all, this season in San Juan he has had only one sawed-off shotgun and one pistol pointed in his face and in both cases the plainclothes policemen who held the weapons left after learning Harrison was a ball player.
Only one of Harrison's Stateside Caguas teammates - Kevin Bell - has been mugged in front of his hotel.
Harrison, who has a bit of conquistador in him despite coming from a family of academics, genuinely misses the Venezuelan customs. The fans in the losing half of the stands light a bonfire of rubbish every night to signify their capitulation. Each team has an old hunchback as a bat boy to bring luck. And every team has its own guard with a tommy gun stationed in the dugout.
But most of all Harrison misses his buddy, El Turko, the professional assasin. He is the Venezuelan equivalent of a double-o agent who greeted him outside the clubhouse every night and led him on the rounds of nightclubs and bullfights.
"Sometimes, of course," said Harrison, "Turko has to go out of the country on government business."
El Turko, a rabid fan, was a constant comfort to the major leaguers in Caracas. When a leather-lung heckler threatened Oscar Zamora, the slender, 56-year-old executioner asked the fan, "Do you know who I am?"
"Then you know that if Oscar Zamora so much as gets a sore arm, I will kill you."
Such stories are teh staple of winter ball conversations. Virgin Islander Elrod Hendricks remembers his first Caribbean World Series game with 100 soldiers with machine guns ringing the field. The Mexican fans at hermosillo became an instant legend the day they dumped a bucket of urine on Maury Wills' head.
Yet the Americans here profess their love for Latin ways in the same breath that they slap their knees about the dangers and escapades that fascinate them.
"The people are so darn good down here," says Santurce manager Jack McKeon, who will direct Oakland next season. "I have so much respect for this area. People will do anything for you."
One veteran National Leaguer here admitted, "Ball players get special treatment. Even the blackjack dealers help you win a few hands, then they give you a look that means, 'That's enough. Leave.'
"And the Latin fans idolize us. In Mexico my father and I were fishing at sunrise and our car got stuck on the beach and the tide was rising. The water was up to the hubcaps when a busload of peons going to a factory stopped. When they found out who I was, the whole bus emptied and they got down in the mud in their good clothes and pushed the car a quarter of a mile.
"Not one of them would let me give hime a cent."
If many American ball players find the generosity and affection of their hosts particularly estimable, they snicker at the Latin athletes' addiction to macho games.
"Latin players are comically obsessed with establishing a pecking order of toughness among themselves," said one player here who is not anxious to get pecked.
"The same guys will keep challenging each other day after day to 'slap fight' (boxing with open hands) in the locker room. It's so important in this culture for a man always to be the aggressor."
If machismo is essential here, efficiency often is not. "The biggest economic problem in Puerto Rico is jobs," said Harrison, noting the 30 per cent unemployment. "And everyone knows there are more jobs available when something breaks than when it is kept in working order. It seems there is no such thing as precentive maintenance here."
The consequence is that a beautiful 15-year-old stadium like Hiram Bithorn is already in shabby condition. Older stadiums in Ponce, Mayaguex and Arecibo are considered a scandal by American players.
But Americans do not visit this island in the Caribbean to play on manicured fields or dress in spotless lockers. They come for baseball experience, but stay long enough to pick up another sort of Latin seasoning.
"You are here as a sort of mercenary," said Harrison. "You're using their country and their league for your purposes - anything from getting over a sore arm to forgetting a divorce.
"But if you get out and blend in, you can give something back. There are people here to whom it is practically a highlight of their life to have some contact with a major league player."
And in return? "Nettles and I still talk," said Harrison, "about Dave Concepcion's family and their barracuda head soup and our Polar beer."