Talkin' Beisbol: Problems in Puerto Rico
Financial constraints cancel upcoming Winter League season
Jose "Tony" Valentin is hurting, and it has nothing to do with the foul ball that broke a bone in his right leg last month.
The Mets infielder is the owner of the Manati Athenians in the now defunct Puerto Rican Winter League. Last week, the league cancelled the upcoming season because of financial problems. Valentin is one of several Major League players lamenting the league's disappearance.
"It's a sad situation," Valentin said. "As an owner, it's something that it's a shame to be a part of that situation when you take a chance like that, but definitely the situation is hard. Our league's been real negative in situations about money. There's not a lot of money. The market in Puerto Rico has gone to a situation where it's money the people just don't have. To be able to run a team in Puerto Rico, it's a lot of money involved. When there's no support, it's tough to get it out of your pocket."
"Why we're taking a year off is not because teams don't want to play," he continued. "It's because we want to take the time to regroup and find a way how we can get the league back again. So now we're going to have a whole year to regroup and get together how we can get some money, how we can put everything together and not have any more problems."
But Valentin might not be around to see a resolution. He has been trying to sell his team for the past couple of years.
"Still, if anyone wants to buy it from me, I'll sell it right now, but I don't think anyone wants to buy it," he said. "I don't think anybody's going to take a chance and buy a team like that. But for me, it hasn't been too much of a problem. It's been fun for me for the three years that I've been an owner there. We've enjoyed it. The only thing is the people who told me they would help me a lot about money-wise, they haven't given me the support. I've really been upset about that part, but everything else has been fine."
An alternative winter league plan, as proposed by David Bernier, Puerto Rico's secretary of sport, calls for the expansion of the island's popular amateur league, Liga Double-A, into a six-team, 20-game league called La Liga Inveral Boricua that will run in November and December before concluding with a semifinal and finals tournament. Bernier is hoping for support from Major League Baseball. MLB has not announced whether it will help the proposed league.
"It's the worst thing that could happen to Puerto Rico players," Yankees catcher Jose Molina said. "You've seen how many players have come from Puerto Rico, and how big Puerto Rico was with baseball. Obviously money was a problem, but it's really going to hurt these players, and even players like myself. I only get 200 at-bats here [in the Major Leagues], so I would go there to get up to 400. It's going to be tough."
Not that he needs it, but Red Sox infielder Alex Cora will be out of a job this winter since he plays for his hometown team in Caguas, Puerto Rico, every winter. He is hoping to get the Players Association involved in salvaging professional baseball on his island, and made a call to union leader Don Fehr on his island's behalf.
He's also had extensive conversations with Bernier.
"I think what we are proposing in Caguas with our mayor, is for kids to go to the stadium there and have hopefully breakfast, lunch and maybe a snack for the guys, some kind of nutrition, and they can run in the morning and work on baseball skills in the afternoon," Cora said. "It goes hand-in-hand with what David is saying, because they might work out during the week over there in Caguas and then go play on the weekends."
The decline of the Puerto Rico Winter League will hit developing players from Puerto Rico the hardest, but also translates into the loss of jobs for American players and coaches who spent the winter on the island. There will be stiffer competition for the limited rosters spots in winter leagues of Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Mexico.
"I'm more worried about the kids who just signed, the rookie ball guys, the Class A guys and the Double-A guys, because there'll be a few guys that go off to Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican, but what are they going to do now?" Cora said. "You can't go back to school now because it's too late -- school starts in August. What are you going to do, but go to McDonald's or Burger King to work now? I think what I'm pulling for is to help these kids work out the right way, and keep working on their skills, and hopefully the program will work out."
But what happened? Puerto Rico Winter League used to be the premiere spot for players in the big leagues, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of the game's top stars were from Puerto Rico. Nobody knows for sure, but there is one certainty -- Cora believes the professional league should follow the example set by the amateur league on the island, not the other way around.
"We got our Double-A. Right now, they play in Caguas, and they get 12,000 fans," Cora said. "We [the professionals] don't get 12,000 fans, so there's something wrong there. But they're running it the right way. We're talking about non-professional athletes. The way they do sponsors is they sponsor the whole league, and split the money into teams. We get 5-6,000 fans to a women's volleyball league. ... The sponsor's money is split evenly. But in our league, everybody is pulling for themselves, and you can't do it that way. Not the way our economy is."
But like in any sport, success lies heavily on fan support. Get the fans back and the league will return.
"Growing up when Joey [Cora] was playing, it was huge," the Red Sox infielder said. "We had a packed house every night. Most of the big leaguers would play. When I started playing, there were a few [Major Leaguers] that were playing still. ... All of a sudden, the fans stopped going and sponsors stopped sponsoring the league and the big leaguers stopped playing in it. Everything started snowballing from there. The level of playing was good. It wasn't great, but it was good. The fans weren't into it, though. If you don't have fans, you can't get it going."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.