My Puerto Rican Baseball Experience

This past week I travelled to Puerto Rico to experience Puerto Rican baseball and to immerse myself in the Puerto Rican culture.  This is my story.

Regular Mop-Up Duty readers know that I fetishize the way the game of baseball is played internationally and that I love to travel.  In the past I have visited many ballparks,  travelled to Florida for Grapefruit League Spring Training action, made a run for the border to witness Mexican Baseball.  Most recently, I infiltrated the amateur baseball paradise that is Cuba.

For my latest trip, I travelled to the island of Puerto Rico - a commonwealth of the United States with a rich baseball history.  Why did I choose Puerto Rico specifically?  Like an endangered species, baseball is almost extinct in Puerto Rico.  To fully grasp how far baseball has fallen in Boriquén, first we must look to the past.

The Puerto Rican Baseball League (aka Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico or LBPPR) was first established in 1938 and is comprised of six teams: the San Juan Senadores, Poncé Leones, Indios de Mayaguez, Criollos de Caguas, Brujos de Guayama and Grises Orientales de Humacao.  The following season the Cangrejeros de Santurce and Tiburones de Aguadilla joined the league to make for a total of 8 teams.

In 1952, one of the greatest players of all time (and certainly the greatest Puerto Rican-born player) - Roberto Clemente - made his professional debut with Santurce.  Please ignore the soundtrack, our country’s great shame:

Three years later, Puerto Rican Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda made his professional debut in the Puerto Rican League for the Caguas Criollos.  The Criollos thrived, as did the league itself.  Teams in the Puerto Rican League would regularly play for 10,000+ boricuas and morenas in attendance.

An original photograph of the 1947-48 Santurce team all dressed up and drinking cocktails in celebration. The photo features Hall-of-Famer Willard Brown as well as Vic Harris, Bob Thurman, Earl Taborn, John Ford Smith, and others. This picture originates from the estate of John Ford Smith.

The Puerto Rican League had another role to play: a refuge for Negro League players.  In the United States, black ballplayers were harassed, abused, degraded and discriminated against.  In Puerto Rico, however, they were celebrated as heroes.  After having played in Puerto Rico, black players didn’t want to go home.  Who could blame them?

Legendary Negro Leaguer, Josh Gibson, played and managed Santurce in 1939. His play there earned him the nickname “Trucutu” after the a comic strip character that carried a big club like Josh’s oversized, powerful bat.  Hall-of-Famer Willard “ese hombre” Brown (ese hombre means “the man”) debuted for Santurce in 1947 and won the triple crown.  The players were paid a pittance, but it didn’t matter – they played for the love of the game. Most of all, they played with a passion to please the enthusiastic Puerto Rican fans.  Santurce fans “gave back” to Brown by making collections for him in the stands after each of his home runs.

Puerto Rico has produced an impressive list of big league players: the aforementioned Roberto Clemente & Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar, Sandy Alomar Jr.,  Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams,  Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Juan Gonzalez, Javy Lopez, The Molina Brothers: Jose, Yadier and Bengie, Carlos Baerga, Candy Maldonado, Edgar Martinez, Orlando Merced, Jorge Posada, Benito Santiago, Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez and Ruben Sierra.  Not long ago a baseball fan could fill a bona-fide all-star team of players from Puerto Rico.

Not anymore.  Something has changed.

What is it specifically? Of course, opinions vary.

Many point to the fact that Puerto Ricans became subject to baseball’s Rule 4 amateur draft.  Before 1990, Puerto Ricans were considered international free agents, and as such, were able to sign for much more money than they do today because MLB teams engaged in bidding wars for top talent.  Puerto Rican players could sign as young as age 16 and be developed by their new big league club.  Today they must wait until they are 18. As a result, players miss out on prime development years (high school baseball is virtually non-existant in Puerto Rico).   The Puerto Rican lower-round selections stand to make much less money, which leads them to consider other sports, going to college or other pursuits.  Says pitcher Javier Vazquez:

“It’s not like in other countries where baseball is the only way out,” Vázquez said. “In Puerto Rico it’s not the only way. Other guys study, a lot of guys do different things. Baseball has taken a dip to other sports as well.”

The decline of baseball as the go-to sport in Puerto Rico has had an adverse effect on the Puerto Rican League itself.  Whereas in its heydey the LBPPR had between 10-12 teams, today there are only 4 – and none in the capital of San Juan.  In 2007 the season was cancelled entirely.

From the New York Times:

Four years after being forced to cancel an entire season, the league has only four teams. And for the first time in its history, which dates to 1938, the Puerto Rican Baseball League does not have a team based in San Juan, the capital.  The league’s struggles are merely the most vivid manifestation of a more profound, and surprising, phenomenon playing out here: the decline of baseball in a place where it was long considered the primary pastime, if not a religion. After decades of populating major league rosters with All-Stars at every position, Puerto Rico had only 20 players on Major League Baseball rosters on opening day last season. Only two made the All-Star team. (By contrast, the 1997 All-Star Game included eight Puerto Ricans.) –snip– No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.   Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

The only player in Cooperstown wearing a Blue Jay cap on his plaque, Roberto Alomar, agrees:

“The draft has had a large effect on the Puerto Rican baseball player,” said Alomar, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in July. “A lot of youngsters don’t have the economic resources to play and go to college. For me, it isn’t what is best for us.”

Alomar said he hoped that Major League Baseball “realizes what is happening with the talent here and they give us the opportunity to be like the Dominican Republic is and Venezuela is, so we can have more players signed.”Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is that baseball in Puerto Rico is in steep decline.  Most Puerto Ricans that I spoke to were avid futbol (soccer), basketball or boxing fans.  Hardly any even mentioned baseball.  I needed to experience Puerto Rican baseball before it faded into oblivion.


 

I arrived in Puerto Rico just in time for playoff baseball.  In the 4-team Puerto Rican league, the format is this: the first-place team (Caguas) receives a first-round bye, while the #2 and #3 teams (Poncé and Mayagüez) play a best-of-5 series.  The winner of the best-of-5 wins the right to play Caguas in the final - this time, in an unorthodox best-of-9 series.  The winner of the final earns the right to represent Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series.

The first game I attended was Game 3 of the semi-final series - in Poncé - as the Leones played host to the visiting Indios de Mayagüez.  The series was tied at one game apiece.  As I took my seat at Estadio Francisco Montaner, I immediately saw a familiar face: Randy Ruiz.  Once known as the “Babe Ruth of the blogosphere,” the former first-baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays was on the field in a Mets hoodie waiting for his turn at batting practice.  Ruiz had a torrid start during his time in Toronto, crushing fastballs deep into the seats of the SkyDome.  However, once pitchers started throwing him off-speed pitches, he faded away.  As The Star’s Morgan P. Campbell refers to him:

Ruiz saw my Blue Jays hat and immediately came over to say hello.  I asked him how he was doing and what he was up to.  This is what he had to say:

“I had such a tough year in Japan.  With the earthquakes, tsunamis and radioactivity …  it was real tough.”

Following Ruiz’s release from the Blue Jays, he signed a 2-year deal with the Tohoku Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional League in Japan.  It was the 2nd year of his deal when the tsunami struck.  He hit .195 that season.  Yahoo’s baseball blog, Big League Stew, detailed his experiences with the tsunami in Japan here. Ruiz and I talked for a few minutes.  During the course of our conversation, Ruiz revealed to me that he has a full-fledged bromance with Travis Snider. The highlights of our conversation:

On Travis Snider:

“He’s ready.  I called him a few weeks ago.  His wrist is 100% – he said it’s feeling great.  He told he is ready to go in to spring training and take that LF job.  I’m confident that Dwayne Murphy is going to work that magic on him.”

On Cito:

“I loved playing for him.  Loved him.  It was great.”

On Toronto:

“Alex, the whole coaching staff – they all treated me very well.  I love Toronto and really want to come back!  Maybe I’ll give Alex a call and see if he’ll have me - just so I can learn how to hit from José Bautista.  Wow.  I love that city, I love the Toronto fans!”

On his future:

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen.  Right now I haven’t signed with a team. Maybe I’ll go back to Japan, maybe Mexico, maybe the United States.  I’m just not sure.”

Ruiz saw my camera and asked if I wanted a picture.  Of course, I said yes – and he hurried off to get rid of his Mets hoodie.  He apologized for having worn it.  Awesome.

Sunscreen? Never heard of it.

I looked into the dugout and saw a miniature Ruiz jersey hanging from the roof.  Randy told me that during the playoffs, the Indios won every game that his son attended.  El hijo de Ruiz was unable to make that game, so for baseball-superstition reasons,  he was there in spirit by way of  his mini-jersey.  SPOILER ALERT: it worked.

Ruiz was by far the nicest ballplayer that I’ve ever met and I wish him well in finding a place to play for the 2012 season.  He’s among the Puerto Rican league-leaders in most of the key offensive catergories and he has been on a torrid offensive pace in the playoffs. He is bound to land somewhere.

Another notable player for Mayagüez was Cuban enigma José Julio Ruiz.  If you recall, Ruiz defected from Cuba in 2009 and subsequently held open tryouts for major league teams.  At the time, he was seeking a $10 million deal.  The Tampa Bay Rays signed him to a minor league deal that paid him $20K per month before declining his 4-year/$4 million option and cutting him loose.  The Texas Rangers signed him to a minor-league deal and he finished the 2011 season at AAA.  José Ruiz apparently has a “bad character” – but that was not the impression I got when I spoke with him.  I can see how some people might think that because, well, he is a big and scary dude.

I was standing above the Mayagüez dugout and Ruiz spotted my Havana Industriales t-shirt (Ruiz played for Santiago of the Cuban League – a rival to Havana similar to that of the Red Sox to the Yankees).  Ruiz pointed at my shirt, smiled, walked toward the stands and spoke to me in english.  We exchanged a few pleasantries and he then went on his way.  José was very affable and didn’t seem to have any character issues to me… in the five minutes that I spoke with him.

José Julio Ruiz.  Big and scary… but really nice.

Once the other players saw that I was on good terms with Ruiz², they came over to mingle.  They were curious to see who this whiteboy was and what I was up to. Much to their disappointment, I was just a lowly blogger. Regardless, they were very friendly and were happy to allow me to chat with them in my broken Spanish. I was able to meet Brewers’ catching prospect Martin “Machete” Maldonado (video) and former Mets centrefielder Jesus “Motorita” Feliciano (video).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz0SIavPEXQ]

Jesus Feliciano makes a strong throw from CF and Martin Maldonado decoys the runner at the plate.  Notice how the runner never touches the plate.  Oops!

When it comes to the players, the Puerto Rican League is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. The biggest stars in the league have only played a handful of games at the Major League level: Robinson Cancel. Hiram Bocachica. Ruben Gotay. Jorge Padilla. Luis Matos. Irving Falú. The pitching is absolutely terrible. The aces of the league are AAAA players Yadel Marti and Giancarlo Alvarado. The rest are young players or middling prospects that were taken in late rounds.  Journeymen from independent leagues such as the Atlantic League round out the rosters.  The only players in the Puerto Rican league that I would consider to be “real” prospects are Seattle’s Jeff Dominguez (video) and Minnesota’s Daniel Ortiz (video).  Like any other fringe league, the Puerto Rican League also attracts novelty pitchers like Ben Grezlovski and this guy.

The first thing I noticed was that the crowd was mostly made up of older people. It is apparent that Puerto Rican baseball is struggling to make in-roads with the coveted 18-35 demographic. Transistor radios accompanied almost all of these senior-citizen fans. It was like being at the UN General Assembly with every fan having an earbud in their ear.

The ballpark had typical fare: pizza, hamburgers.. but also chicken skewers in a barbecue/satay glaze.  I chose the roasted pork with tostones on a skewer. They serve this, of course, with mayoketchup. In Canada, we call this Thousand Island dressing. The only beer served is Puerto Rico’s delicious Medalla Light and it runs for $2. Piña Coladas can be had for $3.

On this night it was NPB star Giancarlo Alvarado toeing the rubber for the visiting Mayagüez team. Poncé countered with left-handed junkballer Gaspar Santiago. Toronto Blue Jays fans may or may not care that Poncé, on paper, was managed by Dickie Thon – father of Blue Jay prospect Dickie Joe Thon (who was born in Puerto Rico) and a veteran of the Puerto Rican League. The reason I say on paper is because there was no sign of him. Dickie Joe is listed as part of the roster but he has not played in any games this season.


Giancarlo Alvarado pitches to Ruben Gotay

Poncé has something else in common with the Blue Jays: it’s own theme song. It’s a really great, catchy tune –  but I can’t find it on the internets. Maybe someone from Poncé can tell me what it’s called? At any rate, Poncé’s theme song can’t hold a candle to OK Blue Jays.

Poncé itself has a population of only 200,000, yet with a playoff baseball game, the team was only able to attract approximately 1000-1500 fans. However, like in Cuba, the amount of fans in the ballpark does not correlate with the energy level, enthusiasm and noise exhibited. The 1000 Ponce fans would easily drown out a Monday night SkyDome crowd of 15,000. In fact, there are many similarities between the Cuban baseball fans and Puerto Rican fans. Like Cuban fans, Puerto Rican fans are VERY passionate and expressive. They will legitimately become angry if their team allows a base hit. ¡Coño!

And if their own team strokes a base hit?  Well, you can see what happens:

Although, to be fair, a run-scoring single elicits a similar response:

¡Wepa!

Because of this passion, the ballpark is divided into 2 sections much like a soccer game: the home team and visiting team supporters divided according to each team’s dugout location. Although, unlike Cuba, there are no armed guards to keep fans from both teams in check.

That’s baseball, and it’s my game. Y’ know, you take your worries to the game, and you leave ‘em there. You yell like crazy for your guys. It’s good for your lungs, gives you a lift, and nobody calls the cops. Pretty girls, lots of ‘em. —Humphrey Bogart

Like in Cuba, the ballpark is almost like a community centre. There is a strong social aspect of coming to a game and mingling with people from the community.  People leave their troubles from work behind and go to the ballpark to see colleagues, friends and family that they have not seen in a while (or, as the case may be, at the last ballgame :)).

Again, like Cuba, there is great emphasis placed on defensive prowess. #5 for Mayagüez, Sergio Miranda, was a VERY slick fielder. This is key because the Puerto Ricans like to employ a small-ball style of play similar to the Cubans. An aspect of Latin-American culture that is ingrained into the men is the concept of machismo. This machismo finds its way into the game through players taking risks they normally would not, in order to prove how big of a man they are. In this case, with a man on second base, a Mayagüez player laced a single between right and centrefield. When the centrefielder arrived at the ball, it was clear that there was no play at the plate – the runner from second would score easily. No matter. The centrefielder threw home, wide of home plate and well behind the runner, allowing the runner on first to advance to second base. Considering that 2 batters later, the runner on second was able to score and that the game finished with a 5-4 score for Mayagüez, that machismo move cost Poncé an important playoff game.

Unlike Cuban fans (and very much like Jays fans), Puerto Ricans do enjoy trying to start the wave. In this case, it happened in the 8th inning of a one-run playoff game.

Oh, and that big scary Cuban dude who I talked about earlier?  He want yard off Alvarado to put Mayagüez on top:

Pretty loud cheers for a visiting-player home run, no?

The highest-profile player in PR (with 3 years MLB experience!), Ramon Troncoso, came on to close the game out for Mayagüez. It was a man against boys.

The next day I travelled to the city of Mayagüez for Game 4. The Indios play out of Estadio Isidoro Garcia. Built in 2010 for the Caribbean games, Estadio “El Cholo” (as the locals call it) is a great baseball venue. While the stadium can hold 10,500 people, for Game 4 of this semi final series about 1500-2000 people showed up (however, Mayagüuez is only half the size of Ponce with only 100,000 inhabitants). Mayagüez has a rich baseball tradition, having captured a record 16 championships since the Puerto Rican Baseball League’s inception.

The one thing you will notice about Latin baseball, is that no matter what ballpark you go to, immediately before game time you are guaranteed to see both teams engaged in a heated game of “Pepper“:


Note: they are using a Naranjo (orange) instead of a baseball.

Former big leaguer Ryan Rowland-Smith toed the rubber for Poncé. The Indios de Mayagüez countered with Benny Cepeda. Again, the similarities to Cuban baseball were evident right away. Cepeda worked himself into trouble early on and Indios’s manager (former Cincinnati Reds manager) Dave Miley pulled him from the game after recording only 2 outs in the 1st inning.  How Cuban of an American manager!  As they say, “when in Rome“….


Dave Miley

Cepeda’s counterpart, Rowland-Smith, suffered the exact same fate after being roughed up with 2 out in the 1st. Rowland-Smith was telegraphing his pitches so clearly that it almost was like he was tipping his pitches. As a result, Indios hitters were all over him. Our friend Randy Ruiz was a beneficiary of Rowland-Smith’s fat meatballs:

That’s-a tasty meat-a-ball!

Surprisingly, not a single Leoné or Indio hit the ball out of the ballpark. The ball doesn’t seem to carry very well in both Mayagüez and Ponce. This is likely due to the fact that Poncé and Mayagüez are both seaside communities and the humidity is high.


Poncé’s Ryan Rowland-Smith

My vantage point for Game 2, as you can see, was directly behind home plate (for only $12!).  This perspective afforded me the opportunity to appreciate the fact that Puerto Rican catchers pride themselves on framing pitches.

This is not surprising, since some of the best pitch-framers have come out of Puerto Rico: the 3 Molina brothers. Other catching studs include Ivan Rodriguez, Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, Sandy Alomar Jr., Benito Santiago and Geovany Soto to name a few.

The fans in Mayagüez were even more enthusiastic revelers than those in Poncé. Indios fans will form salsa bands (complete with band leaders) and play music between innings or at key points during the game:

The Mayagüez fans celebrate a strikeout with a song:

As well, if there is a rain delay, there is no better way to get down.  This has to be my favourite of all the videos I recorded on the trip:

Imagine this taking place at the SkyDome? How much fun would that be?!

The festive atmosphere didn’t last long, however. The home team Indios found themselves in a deep hole early and the fans essentially checked out of the game. Collectively, the fans directed their ire toward former big-leaguer Hiram Bocachica.  Transalted into english, Bocachica means “small mouth.”  The fans would cleverly pair the word boca (mouth) with other Spanish profanities as a play on words to describe various sex acts - homosexual or otherwise.  It’s basically the same sort of thing you get at the 500 level of the SkyDome.  Again, like Cubans, with the home team down by 4 runs in the 6th,  fans began to file out in disgust.  Poncé ended up winning this one by a score of 9-4 to conclude my Puerto Rican baseball experience.

One interesting thing that I noticed was that a parade of relievers would warm up in the bullpen at the same time. Typically 3 relievers would warm up simultaneously, but at one point there were 4.  Puerto Rican teams have this luxury because there are limited restrictions on roster size.  Some teams would carry 25 pitchers on their roster alone.

Though I left, the Puerto Rican baseball playoffs raged on.  Mayagüez took game 5 to win the semi-final and moved on to the final to face the Criollos de Caguas.  Mayagüez defeated Caguas 5 games to 3 in the best-of-9 series.  Martin “Machete” Maldonado led the way, going 2 for 4 with a home run – in front of 9,000 Indios fans.  Mayagüez will now represent Puerto Rico at the upcoming 2012 Caribbean Series, beginning February 2nd at Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

To summarize, the baseball experience in Puerto Rico is an extremely enjoyable one. If you have the opportunity, make the trip before baseball fades away completely on this small island.  That said, it’s not all bad news. The San Juan Senadores announced that they would return for the 2012-2013 season.  The Senadores sat out 2011-2012 because negotiations with the City of San Juan for the lease of San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium were unsuccessful.  If that fact alone isn’t enough to tempt you, keep this in mind: there are most likely some Puerto Rican girls that are just dying to meet you.

¡A, mi gusta mi gente!

Check back later for ballpark reviews of Estadio Fransciso Montaner and Estadio Isidoro Garcia!

Photos taken by me, logos from respective team sites, painting of Willard Brown from Kadir Nelson’s “We Are The Ship

has written for Mopupduty.com since 2006. Follow Callum on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram (@callumhughson)