"I took Roberto Clemente to my fourth-grade class for show-and-tell day." Ramon Maldonado, a San Juan insurance agent, says of the alltime god of Puerto Rican baseball. "My father was friends with him and arranged it. The other kids all brought their stamp collections or toy trucks or stuffed animals. I brought Roberto Clemente. I was a hero for an entire year. The night he died, New Year's Eve, 1972, was a night I will never forget. We looked out our window and saw all the searchlights over the harbor. We thought it was part of the New Year's celebration. What they were doing, really, was looking for his plane that went down."
The road trips in the Puerto Rican League are short, the two-hour ride from San Juan to Mayaguez being the longest on the schedule, so the players drive their own cars and are home every night. San Juan and Santurce both use Hiram Bi-thorn Stadium—named after the first Puerto Rican big leaguer—so there is a game every night. Who's playing? Who knows. There is a game. The showpiece stadium is in Caguas, where $5 million in renovations included the installation of a state-of-the-art synthetic field and air-conditioned locker rooms. Caguas was out of the league for three years while financing was secured and the field was repaired.
"It is wonderful for the team to be back," Caguas general manager and former major leaguer Felix Millan says. "I played here for 16 years, from 1963 to 1978. I managed here. This is where my heart is. Caguas. When I played, I played for the money. I needed it very much. But I also loved the game. These guys now, they don't need the money as much, but they still love the game.''
"The best thing, really, is playing in front of your family, your relatives, your friends," pitcher Ricky Bones of Ponce and the Milwaukee Brewers says. "If you get booed here, at least they're booing you in Spanish. For a Latin guy, you go through a lot to get to the big leagues. I was 17 years old. playing in Yakima. Washington, and couldn't speak English, and no one else on the team spoke Spanish. You have to go away and you have to grow up. Here, you can come back and be yourself.
"The games are serious, but you also can have fun. You see your friends. You talk to them. The other night I got Carmelo Martinez out to end an inning. We stopped on the field and talked. I told him that I had him figured out. He told me that I hung a slider and was lucky because he missed it. Just joking. You couldn't do that in the big leagues, but here you can."
Bones is playing in the winter league because of the strike. After pitching the normal number of starter's innings in other years, he would rest his arm from October to February. But when the major league season ended prematurely last August, he figured his best move was to do some extra pitching to stay in shape. Even the superstars, who traditionally arrive sometime in December, letting the nobodies work the first month or month and a half, arrived early this year. In fact. Texas Ranger catcher Pudge Rodriguez and Cleveland Indian catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. arrived, were injured and were finished for the season before December.
"Puerto Rican baseball is back," Luis Mayoral, the Latin American liaison for the Texas Rangers, says. "A few years ago I seriously thought it was in danger of dying. The caliber of play had shrunk low, low, low. Now I would say this is high Triple A ball. At least. The biggest names are here. The competition is terrific."
Need proof? Ask the pitchers or outfielders from Santurce. On their way out of town.