The Past, Present and Future of Baseball in Puerto Rico

Francisco Lindor is one of the game’s brightest stars from Puerto Rico. (via Erik Drost)

“Baseball is not just the major leagues, it’s part of being Puerto Rican.” – Adrian Burgos Jr., Editor-in-Chief LaVidaBaseball.com

More than six months after Hurricane Maria shattered Puerto Rico, reliable electricity is still scarce in parts of the island, communication can be difficult, and infrastructure is in various states of disrepair. But as Major League Baseball makes its way to San Juan for a two-game series between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, one thing that needs no rebuilding is the island’s love for baseball.

It’s impossible to deny the allure of the million-watt grin of “Mr. Smile” Francisco Lindor, the indomitable swagger of Javier Baez, or the show- and heart-stealing performance of Carlos Correa in the World Series. These young men stand out for their remarkable baseball skill and their dynamic personalities, and watching them perform small feats of great athleticism night-in and night-out is a reminder of how great baseball players from Puerto Rico can be.

This cadre of incredibly gifted young men inspires kids around the globe to pick up a ball and glove and imitate their heroics. But as the recovery from the most devastating hurricane in island history drags on, these players also inspire a question: How will the aftermath of Hurricane Maria affect the next generation of Puerto Rican ballplayer?

For 65 years, Puerto Rican players have graced the ballparks of major league baseball, with 262 players appearing in major league games (as of the 2017 season) since Hiram Bithorn debuted as the first Puerto Rican big leaguer in 1942 with the Chicago Cubs. Talent from the island, as measured by WAR, took a decidedly upward climb through the 20th century, though it waxed and waned in its ascent.

The first peaks of greatness from Puerto Rican players came in the form of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. After their generation retired, however, the success of players from the island bottomed out in the ‘80s, with an average of 29.4 players appearing in major league games but producing a per year average of just 14 WAR. Participation and value for Puerto Rican players took a precipitous rise in the 1990’s, however, with future Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Ivan Rodriguez entering their primes. From 1995 to 2001, the average WAR by players from the island increased 5.5 wins per season, from 28.7 to 61.8.

The year 2001 was a high-water mark for Puerto Rican participation in the major leagues, with 50 players making a big league appearance. Puerto Rican players made up just four percent of all players rostered, but they claimed 12,961 plate appearances, or approximately seven percent. The 2001 season also marks the start of a three-year span in which Puerto Rican players were more valuable than ever before or since, with players accumulating 61.8, 59.9 and 60.3 WAR in 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively. Puerto Rican players such as Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Jose Hernandez, Javy Lopez, Mike Lowell, Jorge Posada, Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro and Bernie Williams were well above average during this stretch, each posting individual seasons worth more than four wins.

As this golden generation of players left their primes and the big leagues, however, production from Puerto Rican players took another nosedive. Although the nadir of the decline was greater in the early ‘80’s, the gravity of the fall was more severe in the early 2000’s. Whereas WAR from Puerto Rican players fell from 19.1 in 1977 to a low of 3.9 in 1981, the dip in the early part of the 21st century was from 60.3 in 2003 to 8.5 in 2014.

The reasons for the early ‘80’s dip are opaque, but the timing of this most recent bottoming-out seems to correlate to rule changes made in 1989. That year, MLB altered its draft, mandating players from Puerto Rico be selected via the amateur draft rather than scouted and signed like players from other Caribbean islands.

“It took us time to readjust, it took us some time to learn how to develop players,” Eduardo Perez, former major league player and current broadcaster, said. “It took time also at the major league level, the organizational level, to understand how to be patient with players from Puerto Rico.”

Families on the island not only had to overcome the new learning curve of how to make it to the major leagues but also with a feeling of abandonment by the professional game.

“Part of what happened was the efforts that MLB had in Puerto Rico in terms of scouting and development slowed,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., editor-in-chief of LaVidaBaseball.com. “One of the changes that arose was you had former MLB players pick up the mantle of developing baseball academies…What the ‘90’s-2000’s generation realized was MLB was not going to do it, that they’d have to take it upon themselves to make sure baseball does not die in Puerto Rico.”

Today, several baseball academies in Puerto Rico help groom future stars from the island, many founded through efforts of former players. Edwin Correa’s vision led to the founding of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy; likewise, Carlos Beltran poured his soul and money into an academy bearing his name. Numerous other academies also have been constructed to usher the next generation of Puerto Rican players through adolescence and into the big leagues.

The academies on the island provide rigorous academics and baseball instruction for their students and can also provide a kind of cultural education for players. For instance, the Beltran Academy, unlike some others, teaches classes in English to help students overcome the cultural barrier that can overwhelm some youth upon leaving the island. Beltran himself struggled with his mastery of English after being drafted by the Royals. It’s this kind of education, which was not available to athletes or their parents in the years immediately following the MLB draft rules change, that is helping increase the prominence of Puerto Rican players in the majors.

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“The work of the baseball academy in sustaining this kind of renaissance or resurgence is really important,” Burgos said, “Because families themselves are not going to have the resources to develop that talent. So it’s an economic strategy as well as a baseball development strategy that’s going on in Puerto Rico, particularly in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane.”

Though it has been more than half a year since Maria ravaged the island, the recovery is still far from complete. That makes the question of a resurgence of Puerto Rican talent in the long term uncertain. As major league baseball heads to the island for a series, there is hope, of course, and the awareness and tourist dollars that accompany the Indians and Twins to San Juan will be important, but the island still faces a recovery estimated to cost up to $50 billion.

“After everything Puerto Rico has had to go through and endure with Hurricane Maria, it will be a relief to see the lights on. It’s going to be awesome to see Hiram Bithorn Stadium at night with the lights on…but just because you see lights on in the capital doesn’t mean the rest of the island [is okay],” Perez said.

During the most recent Caribbean Series, the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League had to play a shortened schedule, featuring only day games due to a lack of electricity, to qualify a team for the international tournament. Despite the hardship, Criollos de Caguas emerged victorious in Mexico for the second consecutive year, winning the island its 16th Caribbean title.

Unlike Criollos, which garnered international press coverage for its victory, the status of baseball academies on the island is more of an unknown. With unreliable electricity and communications, it is hard for those on one side of the island to know how the other side is faring. But despite the circumstances residents find themselves and their island in, baseball endures.

“Baseball is deeply rooted in their cultural DNA. Baseball is not just the major leagues, it’s part of being Puerto Rican,” Burgos said. “I learned my passion for baseball not from my grandfathers–I never knew them–but from my grandmas. That’s a testament of how baseball is about family and community.”

Perez added his own flavor: “The beauty of baseball, it’s like rice and beans on our plate. We live it.”

In the wake of Maria, the poverty level has spiked in Puerto Rico, with more than half the island’s population now living in poverty. Many families lost everything, including their livelihoods, and have migrated north to places like Florida, where they have joined diaspora communities. As Burgos puts it, even for those who no longer reside on the island, who they are is always Puerto Rican. A passion for baseball is part of how those displaced peoples maintain the connection.

In fact, some families emigrated to Florida several years before Maria in order to help their sons reach the majors. Players like Lindor and Baez dominated the Florida high school circuit en route to becoming first-round draft picks.

Though Maria displaced hundreds of thousands of families and robbed them of all they knew as home, for those like the Lindors and Baezes, baseball at least represents something they can bring with them. As Perez sees it, it can be a chance for new, important experiences that can make the next generation of Puerto Rican major leaguer better, on and off the diamond.

“I see that as an opportunity to open their eyes,” he said. “I went to Westminster Academy in Miami and a parent said, ‘Listen, we lost it all.’ Their son was at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and now he’s at Westminster… happy and so grateful that he’s able to fit in and play baseball and get a great education and at the same time be able to polish more of his English.

“You never forget your roots, you never forget where you come from, but this is an opportunity to open his eyes to maybe [go the college route]. It’s hard to get recruited out of the island unless someone is really helping you. This will definitely open the door for a lot of these young kids to go to college,” Perez added. “At the end of the day, one thing they’ll all still have is their family and the game of baseball that will keep them moving forward.”

Already hotbeds of baseball talent, Orlando (where Lindor played his amateur ball) and Jacksonville (where Baez played) are seeing rising Puerto Rican populations, and it seems possible academies built specifically to help those from the island could be established. Burgos does not discount the idea, especially after seeing the outpouring of support for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria.

It is a testament to the island, to the way the Puerto Rican flag pulls on the hearts of the island’s residents, that so many major league players were active in recovery efforts this offseason. Shortly after winning the World Series and being named the first Latino manager in Boston Red Sox history, Alex Cora delivered 10 tons of supplies to the island. His former boss, Jim Crane, owner of the Astros, sent a private plane to the island to help relocate the affected, in particular cancer patients in need of treatment, before the start of the 2017 playoffs.

And that’s just a fraction of the work done by those in baseball to aid in the recovery of the island. Yadier Molina played a role. Enrique Hernandez raised more than $126,000 in relief aid. Former Indian and current team ambassador Carlos Baerga distributed supplies. Carlos Beltran donated $1 million of his money and hours of his own time. Carlos Correa sent a cargo plane of supplies to the island and has remained active in his relief work.

The generosity of the players in the aftermath of Maria has not turned the lights on across the island; it has not repaired the 1.1 million households that applied for FEMA disaster aid. But the willingness to give of oneself and one’s resources speaks to the character of the Puerto Rican people, to their resilience in the face of adversity. And it speaks to the impact one of the island’s greatest heroes, indeed one of baseball’s greatest heroes, Roberto Clemente, continues to have.

“One thing that’s really fascinating is that we saw a generation of players–Hall of Famers like Clemente, Cepeda–who weren’t able to enjoy big-money free agency. So Alomar and Pudge [Rodriguez]…they got to enjoy the money that came with being a star in the league. They’re also parlaying that into the development of baseball in Puerto Rico,” said Burgos. “That’s how you honor Clemente, by making sure that the next generation has the opportunity, you give to the impoverished community, you seek out ways to help them have that opportunity…It’s not trite, not passé, not rote, it’s deeply meaningful in the culture of Puerto Rico, particularly in baseball but also in education: How do you honor the spirit of Clemente? How do you carry on that tradition?”

With so many giving back, the tradition of baseball in Puerto Rico seems strong, and perhaps capable of avoiding another hollowing out of talent from the island as seen in the early part of this decade despite Maria. And with players like Correa, Lindor, Baez and the other leading lights from Puerto Rico? Well, it’s not hard to imagine them hitting the heights of predecessors like Alomar and Rodriguez. With their example in mind, the optimism present in everything Burgos and Perez shared in the face of a tragedy like Maria seems not only understandable, but warranted.

As Perez said, “Baseball wise, it’s going to keep getting better.”

References and Resources


Chris Davies (@chris_d_davies on Twitter) is a father and husband from central Illinois. He is a writer for Let's Go Tribe and had a piece of fiction published in the 2018 Hardball Times Annual.
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channelclemente
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Aside from just Puerto Rico, is the current political climate effecting the supply of new, young talent from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic as well?

gtagomori
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Member
gtagomori

It’s a good article. Humanity goes much deeper than political identity