The Puerto Rican League, in operation since 1938, was in danger of folding only four or five years ago. Now it's enjoying an aesthetic and financial comeback.
"What happened, maybe 12 or 15 years ago, when the multimillion-dollar contracts came around in the major leagues, our native stars didn't want to play here anymore," Santurce owner Reinaldo Paniagua says. "They had always played, all of them, because they could use the money. Then they didn't need the money. Plus some of their American teams didn't CD want them to play. There has always been i an agreement with the major leagues that Caribbean players couldn't be stopped from playing in their countries during the winter, but with any agreement, there are still ways a team can coerce its players not to play because it is worried about its investment.
"When the top players stopped playing, the fans stopped coming. That is natural. They want to see the stars. It wasn't until about four years ago, when a new crop of native stars arrived, that our comeback began. These new stars—Juan Gonzalez was one of the first, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga—they wanted to play here. They realized that it was healthier and better for them to play here. They had grown up playing baseball year-round. Plus they wanted to give back something to their country, to let their fans, many of whom will never get to the States in their lives, see their heroes in person. Now, at last, we are starting to bring those fans back."
The teams play a 54-game regular season from early November to early January, then there is a 12-game, round-robin playoff among the top-four finishers. The two teams with the best playoff records advance to a best-of-nine championship series, with that winner joining the champions of the Dominican, Mexican and Venezuelan leagues in the Caribbean World Series. The world series this season will be played Feb. 4-9 in San Juan.
Native players are drafted and traded by the Puerto Rican teams. However, the use of imported players is restricted, with as many as 10 allowed if replacements are needed and native players cannot be found. The imports generally are young players, Double A or Triple A prospects from the U.S., because imports are not eligible if they have played four years or more in the big leagues and batted more than 250 times or pitched more than 100 innings in their most recent major league season. No one gets rich: The league has a maximum player salary of $5,000 per month. While some of the superstars might get two and three times that amount with quiet bonuses and perks, it is not uncommon for a player such as Alomar or Gonzalez or Sierra to donate his entire check to charity.
"People ask me why I play," Alomar says. "They say, 'Aren't you worried about getting hurt?' I just like to play. There are still things I can work on. I go out there and play as hard as I can. I'm a professional. If I get hurt. well. I'd rather get hurt playing baseball than riding a Jet Ski somewhere, which is probably what I would be doing."
"This is my fifth season, and it's the first year I'm the starting catcher every night." says Delgado. 22. who hit eight home runs in his first 14 games when he started last season with the Blue Jays. "That's how good this league is. I sat for three years behind Junior Ortiz, and then last year I split the job with Javier Lopez. Now Javier was traded to Ponce, so finally I have the job by myself."
The league has tradition. Willie Mays played for Santurce. Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax played for Caguas. Negro league stars were welcome and played yearly—Roy Campanella, Luke Easter, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige. Strange names can jump out of any conversation. Famous names. Frank Robinson was Santurce's manager before he became the first black to fill that role in the majors. Wally Joyner once won the Puerto Rican League Triple Crown.
"The longest home run I ever saw was in San Juan," Caguas first base coach Felix Maldonado says. "'Jack Fisher was the pitcher, and Frank Howard hit one over everything. This was at the old San Juan park. The ball landed on the beach and rolled into the ocean. Frank Howard hit the ball into the sea."
"Dave Kingman played a year here," Melendez says. "He couldn't hit a thing. He had a good career in the big leagues. but here he had trouble."