Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Baseball revival

Puerto Rico sees hints of the game's rebirth 40 years after Roberto Clemente's death

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- On an island where the name of Roberto Clemente is emblazoned on stadiums, streets and schools, baseball is making a rally.

In the past year, Major League Baseball reported the second-highest number of signings from Puerto Rico since 2000. The U.S. territory also has seen the opening of new baseball academies and an expansion of its winter league teams, whose tournament this year is dedicated to Clemente four decades after his death.

Clemente died in a plane crash off Puerto Rico's north coast on Dec. 31, 1972, while helping deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Thousands mourned the loss of the Hall of Famer who won 12 Gold Glove awards and whose name is on the yearly honour for the MLB player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement.

"I always think of Clemente because he did so much in so many ways to help the game, people of his country, everything," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "How he died was a great testament to his desire to help other human beings. He was an amazing guy. Amazing on the field, better off the field."

Puerto Rico has since been searching for its next Clemente ever since. Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran all debuted in the late 1980s and '90s, a period regarded as Puerto Rico's golden era. The nation's influence has waned since then.

There are only 18 Puerto Rican-born players in the major leagues, the lowest number since 1968, and down from 29 in 2011 and a record 53 in 2001. The number of regular-season MLB games played in Puerto Rico has dropped from 23 in 2003 to only three in 2010. The Puerto Rico Baseball League cancelled play in 2007 for the first time, citing a drop in attendance and profits.

Local baseball officials have blamed the first-year player draft for the changes. Since 1990, Puerto Rican players are required to complete high school before competing with players from the U.S. and Canada for a professional contract. The rule does not apply to other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where players can sign as free agents and where recruiters have invested millions in baseball academies.

Officials call the draft unfair, saying the island has substandard training, facilities and programs compared with the mainland U.S.

"Our boys are at a disadvantage," baseball historian Humberto Charneco said. "In the U.S., there is a great methodology in preparing players, providing them guidance and advanced training. In Puerto Rico, there are no facilities to do that."

In 2007, Puerto Rico Sports Secretary David Bernier unsuccessfully asked for a 10-year moratorium on the draft to help the island adjust, arguing that recruiters were focusing on other Latin American countries.

Edwin Rodriguez, former manager of the Florida Marlins, said the rise in popularity of soccer and basketball is also to blame, along with a lack of good baseball coaches and training programs. He dismissed the idea that the draft had led to a drop in players.

"Puerto Ricans have always had to compete against the Americans, the Canadians, the Dominicans," he said. "If one is a prospect at 16, one is a prospect at 18. No one can convince me that a Roberto Alomar at 16 was not going to have the same talent at 18. That for me is very hard to digest."

There are signs of a baseball revival.

The Puerto Rico Baseball League has added two more teams for a total of six, and this year was renamed the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

"In a firm commitment to Puerto Rico baseball and its fans, we will turn the league into a stepping stone to promote the development and improvement of young talents," said Hector Rivera, the league's president.

There was also a surge of fresh interest in the sport after 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican to be the first overall pick in the draft, receiving a $4.8 million signing bonus with the Houston Astros in June. Previously, the highest-drafted player out of Puerto Rico was catcher Ramon Castro, who went No. 17 to Houston in 1994.

"Puerto Rico baseball is rising little by little," Correa said. "A lot more young players began dedicating themselves to the sport and saw that it could be done."

Correa is a graduate of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, which receives $400,000 each year from MLB and has produced athletes who have been drafted or awarded scholarships at Division I universities in recent years.

"The talent that we're seeing now, we will likely see it knock on the doors of the major leagues in the next four to six years," said Lucy Batista, the school's headmaster.

Correa's achievement also has stirred interest in recreational baseball players across Puerto Rico, with teams in some towns being forced to wait in line to play at public fields. Using Correa's popularity as a platform, MLB plans to start tournaments and after-school programs across the island to further stimulate interest in the sport, said Kim Ng, the organization's senior vice-president for baseball operations.

"I think that we're on the upswing there," she said. "Carlos Correa being the first pick in the draft this past year is more indicative of what's going on in Puerto Rico, and I think it has to a certain extent reinvigorated the game down there."

The importance of local academies is key. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Hiram Burgos said he enrolled in the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in 10th grade and graduated in 2005.

"I developed immensely," he said of his time there. "I added almost 10 miles to my speed as a pitcher."

Rodriguez, the former Marlins manager, said he anticipates a spike in talented baseball players from Puerto Rico in the next 10 to 15 years, thanks to the academies. And while he believes that another Clemente could be in the works, he warned against expectations that Puerto Rico would see a second golden era.

"It's not fair to compare what's happening now to the time of the Roberto Alomars, Carlos Baergas," he said. "That was a cycle. It is very, very rare for that to happen, not only in Puerto Rico, but in any state in the United States."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2013 A1

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