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Original Issue

A Latin Beat

With the return of homegrown stars, winter baseball is hot in Puerto Rico again

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.

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."

"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.



Stars like Mays (left) were winter league headliners in the '50s, but in Puerto Rico as elsewhere, there's more of a local flavor now.



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Today's parks may be nicer, but a draw like Mays (24)—plus better weather—would still help the gate.



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Sparky Anderson and Robinson managed in Puerto Rico in '69; now Melendez (26) feels the heat.



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Big leaguers Gonzalez (top). Bones (bottom left) and Baerga are Puerto Rico's heroes today, but no one will ever replace Clemente.



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