Frankie Thon is thinking about firing some pitchers. He is sitting in the stands behind home plate, and he does not like what he sees on the field at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Mayaguez Indios are just hammering every pitch served by a succession of Santurce Cangrejeros lefthanders and righthanders. Thon is the general manager of the Cangrejeros in the six-team Puerto Rican winter league. "You're paid by the month in this league, but with pitchers it's really a day-to-day business," he says. "You pitch well or you can be gone at anytime."
Fire the pitchers! What a unique baseball thought these days! Suddenly time seems to stand still, locked, say, in the early 1950s, long before the arrival of the big money and the long-term contracts and the agents and the union and the federal mediator and the meetings in bland hotel function rooms and.. .. Fire the pitchers! Yes! Perform or disappear!
"I already fired the outfield," Thon says. "I had to do it. We started 1-11, and those guys just weren't producing. I told them I would do it, warned them a week earlier, but they just didn't hit. Troy O'Leary, Gerald Williams and Carl Everett. They're all gone. Between them, I think they were hitting about .175 and had two home runs. I had to do something, get some new guys in here. This is a performance league, not a development league. You have to win."
The crowd is small at this game, maybe 800 people in the 18,000-seat stadium, due to the threat of rain. A fan could buy a ticket for $4 and sit almost anywhere in the park, sit so close he could hear the players talk. There are no television cameras, so there are no television delays. There is no great introductory fanfare, no megascreen replay of every scratch and spit. A scratchy sound system plays music between innings. The brightest lights are in a Christmas display in someone's apartment window beyond the leftfield wall. There is just the baseball. The killer baseball.
"I was the general manager for San Juan last year," Thon says as Santurce staggers toward a 7-0 loss. "The owner there, he wanted me to fire everybody. We were 30-7, and he still wasn't happy. He wanted to go 55-0. I told him that's not how it is in baseball; you can't win every game. I wound up resigning."
The Santurce uniforms are copies of the Los Angeles Dodger uniforms. The Mayaguez uniforms are traditional traveling gray with maroon trim. The rhetoric and invective of the ongoing major league strike are far, far away, unable to be heard. If the sport is moribund, out of commission, argued to death in the States, well, it is alive here. Preserved. In the Puerto Rican League this year, as in other winter leagues throughout the Caribbean, Latin players have turned out in greater numbers and increased their time in the league to stay in shape following the strike-shortened season. This is the major leagues in exile. Fire everybody! These are the old-time roots of the game, planted in a window box about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, watered daily and doing fine.
Better, in fact, than they have been in awhile.
"This is the best baseball in Puerto Rico since 1973," says former Milwaukee Brewer outfielder Sixto Lezcano, who managed the Caguas Criollos until he resigned on Dec. 10, after the team had lost nine of 10 games. "That year, in Caguas, we had a team that had Mike Schmidt at third and Gary Carter catching and Jay Johnstone in center. We had a lineup...our team batting average was .303. Julio Cesar Gonzalez hit .323 and had to bat ninth. There was nowhere else to put him. That was how good our team was. Not until now, 21 years later, has the talent been that good in the league.
"You look at the teams. Every team has at least four or five major leaguers, and San Juan really has a total major league lineup. You look at the players that are here this year. Every team seems to have a superstar."
Ruben Sierra of the Oakland A's is with Santurce. Joey Cora of the Chicago White Sox is with Ponce. Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers, only 25 and almost larger than Puerto Rican life after filing for his third divorce and being linked romantically with salsa star Olga Tanon, is with Caguas. And in San Juan, Roberto Alomar of the Toronto Blue Jays alternates with Carlos Baerga of the Cleveland Indians at second, and Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners plays third, and Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays catches, and former major leaguer Carmelo Martinez plays first, and there is such a line of talent that manager Luis Melendez says, "With a few more arms I'd take my chances in the big leagues with this team." He adds that if some of the pitchers he has don't start throwing better (the team was struggling to stay above the .500 mark), he might be fired.