Sanchez: Game regains status in Puerto Rico

Sanchez: Game regains status in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, the first island of baseball, may be returning to its original form.

The big boys are taking center stage this week, as the Marlins and the Mets square off in San Juan at Hiram Bithorn Stadium to kick off a busy year on an island in search of a baseball revival. The Central American and Caribbean Games will take place next month in Mayaguez. In October, the island will host the 2010 COPABE Pan American Games/World Cup Qualifying Tournament. The 2011 Caribbean Series is scheduled for February, also in Mayaguez.

This summer, there will be tournaments for the estimated 100,000 youth players on the island.

And perhaps that's where the real answer lies to re-energizing baseball on the island: getting the boys to play ball, stick with the sport and develop their skills.

The solution, however, is anything but child's play.

Put simply, the diamond isn't the top attraction in Puerto Rico anymore. Baseball competes with video games, volleyball, basketball, art, fashion and music. As one Major Leaguer said, "Kids want to be Daddy Yankee, not play for the Yankees."

Baseball is no longer the only way to get off the island. Some argue it never was.

Some believe the love for baseball in Puerto Rico is back. There are those who say the passion was never lost, only misplaced.

"The youth are dedicated to Nintendo and television, but they need to go to the park," said Jorge Posada Sr., father of the Yankees catcher and chief scout for the Rockies in Puerto Rico. "It's also important parents take their kids and explain. Puerto Rican youth need to understand that, yes, baseball is the sport, but if you don't go pro, you can still study. It can lead to a degree, and you can have a nice life. You will have a future with baseball."

The past is legendary.

Hiram Bithorn was the first player born in Puerto Rico to play in the Major Leagues when he made his debut on the mound with the Cubs on April 15, 1942. In the early 1950s, Victor Pellot Power changed the way first basemen played the position by fielding balls with only one hand in an era where the norm was using two. Power once said, "If the guy who invented baseball wanted us to catch with two hands, he would have invented two gloves."

In 1972, Roberto Clemente, the patron saint of baseball on the island, died in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. One year later, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Pirates retired his jersey.

Clemente's uniform number 21 is still revered among Latin baseball players and the community.

In the 1997 All-Star Game, a player from Puerto Rico either scored or batted in every run. Sandy Alomar Jr., playing for Cleveland and one of eight Puerto Ricans in the game, was named the Most Valuable Player, and Kansas City's Jose Rosado was the winning pitcher.

In 1999, Orlando Cepeda joined Clemente in Cooperstown. The decade also saw the rise of Puerto Rican stars like Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Edgar Martinez, Javy Lopez, Juan Gonzalez and Jorge Posada.

In 2001, Major League Baseball made Opening Day history at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium with a game between the Rangers and the Blue Jays. In 2003 and 2004, the Montreal Expos played 22 home games each year at the stadium, before the club moved to Washington to become the Nationals. Games for the World Baseball Classic were held for the first time in San Juan in 2006.

But times have changed.

Three years ago, Clemente's beloved Puerto Rican Baseball League, once home to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and many other Hall of Famers, took a one-year hiatus because of financial instability. The number of Major League players from Puerto Rico has declined in the last decade, despite the emergence of the Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose, Yadier), Carlos Beltran, Javier Vazquez, Alex Rios and Alex Cora.

There were 21 players from Puerto Rico on this season's Opening Day rosters, 17 fewer than in 2002. By contrast, the Dominican Republic, now often referred to as the island of baseball, had 86 players on Opening Day rosters this year.

"It's frustrating to see it hasn't grown, and the interest in baseball isn't what it used to be," said Sandy Alomar Jr., now a coach with Cleveland. "But the fans follow the game, and they follow major sports. It's a small island. The players, they have are good, but there are other interests -- boxing, volleyball and other things."

The number of Puerto Ricans in the Major Leagues has steadily declined since the commonwealth became subject to the First-Year Player Draft in 1989, which has fueled a debate on the island.

Players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and the rest of Central America -- as well as Asia and the rest of the world -- are not part of the Draft and can be signed as free agents. The basic categories for players eligible for the First-Year Player Draft are these: high school players who have graduated and not attended college or junior college; college players from four-year universities who have completed their junior or senior year are or are at least 21 years old; all junior college players.

"I'm not against the Draft. I think everybody should be in the Draft, and everybody should be equal," said Jorge Colon Delgado, the former official historian of the Puerto Rican Baseball League. "In the past, they signed a lot of players from Puerto Rico, but it has decreased. We have to compete with 50 other states."

Posada Sr. said the Draft is not the problem.

"If you see a player with skills, you sign him in the Draft or out of an academy. It doesn't matter," he said. "We have a lot of talent on this island, but the big bodies we need for baseball are playing basketball and volleyball. They need to be dedicated to baseball. That's where we need to focus. Don't blame the Draft."

In an effort to prepare players for the Draft and provide a high school education, former big league pitcher Edwin Correa founded the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School. More than 70 players have been drafted out of the school since its inception in 2001. Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran will open a similar baseball high school in Puerto Rico next year.

"If you do a survey, most of the kids love baseball, love it and follow it," said Carlos Berroa, sports director at Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School. "But this is also a different generation. It's the microwave generation. They want it all quick. They want it all now, but this game takes patience. You have to fall in love, because this is a very difficult sport and takes time to master."

There is reason for optimism. After the busy summer of baseball, the five-team Puerto Rican Winter League will begin its annual a 50-game regular season in early November. It is exploring ideas to improve its financial stability.

"As much as we talk about demise of baseball in Puerto Rico, whether it's about the island not producing as it once did or the Puerto Rican Winter League struggling to survive, we know that baseball at the youth level continues, and thousands are playing baseball," said Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations.

"Puerto Rico -- with the help of Major League Baseball, the private sector and the government there -- can all come together for them. There are people willing to commit time to making baseball more viable. It can certainly be back to what it once was."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.