Once-proud baseball island in need of assistance

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — This is an island that needs help baseball-wise. Once one of the best in the Caribbean in terms of developing Major Leaguer talent, Puerto Rico is in a bit of a crisis — or, as Major League Baseball senior vice president of international operations Paul Archey called it, a “transition” — as it looks to re-establish the proud baseball reputation it once had. 

Players like Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Juan Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar are either at the end of their baseball careers or getting close. And besides Carlos Beltran, not many Puerto Rican-born players really stick out right now. But it’s not just notoriety. The numbers, overall, are low. Heading into this season, for example, there were just 21 Puerto Rican-born players on Opening Day rosters — 17 fewer than in 2002 and 65 fewer than those who hailed from the Dominican Republic in 2010. 
“You can’t see that in Puerto Rico,” said former infielder Jose Valentin, now the owner of the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rico Baseball League. “Every year, we get less and less players in the Major League level. And I don’t think it’s because we have bad players. I think the support is not there like in the States. I don’t think we get too many scouts seeing players in Puerto Rico, like you go in the States and see a lot of players. Puerto Rico is so small, you can see a lot of players. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t trust Puerto Rican players, but there’s a lot of players here that you can count on. The only thing is they don’t come to see them.”
A big problem, many say, lies with the First-Year Player Draft. 
Players from Puerto Rico, like players from the U.S. and unlike players from the nearby Dominican Republic, are subject to that Draft, meaning they have to compete with American players and be subject to the same rules (like waiting until you’re 18 to sign). One of the many reasons Dominicans and Venezuelans are so prominent in the big leagues is because they’re very inexpensive to sign, since they can be plucked out of their home countries as young as 16 and do not have to be paid according to slotting in the Draft. 
Since Puerto Ricans don’t fall into that category, teams don’t deploy many scouts on the island. If they’re going to spend the money on a young player in the Draft, they’ll do so throughout the more-familiar 50 states in the continental U.S. And if they’re going to pick a player up on the cheap, they’ll sign one as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic or elsewhere. 
“The Draft is a cause of organizations not scouting here in the island, not developing players,” former Major Leaguer and current ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez said. “Before, you used to be developing players from the age of 16, 17, until they signed. Now, because of the Draft, the scouts have been taken off the payroll. There are no more full-time jobs. And when you can’t look for players, you don’t get players. That’s definitely one of the weaknesses.”
Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the 20,000-seat artificial-turf ballpark that hosted the Mets-Marlins series earlier this week, is currently empty after the Crabbers moved out, and the island’s winter league is a mess. As for the younger generation, the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (which I wrote about) is the only institution on the island that combines baseball with academics (though Carlos Beltran’s Baseball Academy is set to launch next year). 
So, what can be done?
MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy (here’s more from a Q&A I did with him) believes there just needs to be faith in what’s taking shape right now. 
“I think with some attention and some academies, and the work that’s being done in the Clemente Sports City and emphasis on youth baseball, that we can recapture this market and there can be more Puerto Ricans in the Major Leagues in short order,” DuPuy said. 
“I think we need to continue what we’re doing, and I think we need to continue to emphasis youth baseball.”
In working towards that, DuPuy said more academies like the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy can sprout. And he believes the attention the San Juan Series is creating in Puerto Rico — which will likely return next season and could be a yearly event — is also a driving force. Also, Puerto Rico will be hosting the Caribbean Series next year, which will only increase the interest in baseball on the island.
Another good sign: When the Marlins dismissed Fredi Gonzalez and eventually appointed Edwin Rodriguez their skipper for the rest of the season, Puerto Rico had one of its own managing a big league team for the first time. That was a big, big deal in this series. 
An even better sign that baseball can turn around in this nation: There’s still a big interest, as evidenced by a sold-out stadium for Game 3 of the San Juan Series on Wednesday and a nearly sold out stadium the previous two games. 
“It’s still strong. It’s still the national sport in Puerto Rico, it’s still the most popular sport,” Archey said. 
“They love the game. They love baseball.”

Alden Gonzalez

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