When it comes to baseball, Puerto Rico has been a solid cornerstone in promoting and keeping the sport relevant. Ask any Puerto Rican what the most popular sports are and baseball will be the top answer (along with boxing and basketball). It is one of the most watched, spoken of, and played sports with a rich history on the island.
The pipeline of talent that the island has produced is unquestionable. From Roberto Clemente to Carlos Correa, baseball fans have enjoyed the contributions of players from the island. Why do I mention Carlos Correa and not Javier Báez or Francisco Lindor? Simple, despite all being drafted, they were drafted under different circumstances. Carlos Correa was a direct product of a Puerto Rican high school baseball program while Lindor and Báez graduated from mainland U.S. high schools.
It is important to highlight that Puerto Rico does not count with a robust high school baseball program. It counts with a handful of baseball academies: 5 private schools and 2 public schools (which were in the crosshairs of being closed after Hurricane Maria but were saved after outcry from the public and Yadier Molina). There are several aspects to the draft and baseball academies on the island that I will touch upon on a future post.
The draft has impacted so much of how the game is played in Puerto Rico, that it has taken decades for local agencies to adapt to the changes, how players are developed and how the pool talent is generated on the island. While, the draft is not the sole reason that contributed to the decline of baseball on the island, it sure did take a significant role in its demise.
The decline I’m referring to is not in the pipeline of Puerto Rican talent in MLB. Talent from the island was never in questioned. Dwindling by the draft, yes. But to say that Puerto Ricans do not aspire to play the game, that is far from the truth. The arrival of Correa, Báez and Lindor has placed a bright spot on the future of Puerto Rican baseball and increased hope that more players will be drafted from local academies instead of having to be exported to high schools and colleges on the U.S. mainland.
The decline I’m referring to is in the appetite for professional baseball on the island. The Liga Profesional de Béisbol de Puerto Rico, renamed in 2012 to Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente (after our “patron saint” in baseball), has been in declined for quite some time. In addition to the implementation of the draft in 1990 (brought on for political reasons I will not get into today), the league has been bleeding money and it has not be able to fully recover from the blow of canceling the 2007-2008 season due to low attendance and low revenues. It’s been able to come back, but it is just a mere shell of its former glory.
This is the league that first introduced us to Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Juan González, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, Bernie William, Edgar Martínez, Iván Rodríguez among other greats.
This is the league that gave an opportunity to Puerto Ricans to see the likes of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Tommy Lasorda, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Tony Francona, and Cal Ripken, Jr. play in ballparks a few blocks away where they grew up.
Today, you look at the four team rosters that compose the league and the first thing you might ask is: “who?” Well, that’s if you don’t follow minor league baseball. This is where the league has been attempting to gain ground, but they also have the challenge of combating decades old mentality that minor leaguers aren’t worth the expense or effort of fandom.
There are hidden gems in this league and league officials need to do a better job of carrying that message to fans and the general audience. Once talent is exported, it rarely comes back. MLB teams are move protective of their players and will limit any extra playing time outside of anything that is related to their organization.
Instead of griping over the lack of Lindor (Indians), Molina (Cardinals) and Berríos (Twins) in the league, we need to take the opportunity to appreciate the young talent that exists now before they get called up and never step foot into a Puerto Rican stadium as a local player again. Outside of the World Baseball Classic, the chances of seeing Javier Báez in a Puerto Rican league uniform is slim to none.
However, chances are that the next Javier Báez might be playing for a local team, but the average casual sports fan may not notice because they do not know who the players are. This is something fixable and the league has started to promote its players on social media in hopes of building awareness. But this needs to expand beyond social media.
The league must make a better case for its existence if it wants to continue and regain relevance. Instead of hyping the glory days, it needs to redefine its purpose of showcasing the island’s future stars while they have a chance to play, because as mentioned before, talent exported does not come back.
The rosters that compose the league are composed with amateur players, recently drafted players, rookie or Class A, and the occasional AA or AAA baseball player that has been granted permission to play in winter league. Most are Puerto Rican by birth or heritage, and on the rare occasion you will see international players trying to keep their resumes warm and ready to go for Spring Training.
The Mayagüez Indians (one of four active teams in the league) saw the likes of Zack Greinke in the 2002-2003 season. Yes, Arizona Diamondback’s Zack Greinke. The 2017-2018 season might have been the last time San Francisco Giants rookie, Dereck Rodríguez, in a Mayagüez Indians uniform. He did for three seasons, and hardly anyone knew or went to see the games.
Many of the teams like to boast that they have gained the “rights to play” of well-known MLB players to the like of Francisco Lindor (Santurce Crabbers), Yadier Molina (Carolina Giants), Nolan Arenado (Caguas Criollos) and Marcus Stroman (Mayagüez Indians), but these players never play because their MLB organizations nor the players themselves want to be exposed to injury.
Puerto Rico’s professional baseball league has many issues to handle, but one thing it does not have is a lack of talent. It needs to rebrand itself as a league that showcases future stars, increase the level of competition to bring back the young, lesser known international talent and become the premier league for all of those wanting to make their way to MLB. It will also need to tackle the lack of appetite from the local fans. Tickets are cheap and last season it was free, but attendance remained anemic. A far cry from the images of a packed and buzzing Hiram Bithorn Stadium during the World Baseball Classic or MLB games hosted on the island.
This 2018-2019 season marks the 80th anniversary of the professional baseball league in Puerto Rico. May it serve as the catalyst for a new beginning. It’s time that baseball retakes it’s throne on the island. It’s time for the league to regain its relevance and build a chapter for the sport that many remain devoted to. Serious economic and developmental challenges remain, but if the league wants to continue, it will require commitment to improve awareness, access and provide a quality product people will want to come and see regardless of who is playing.