03/18/09 2:05 AM ET
More good than bad for Puerto Rico
Elimination hurts, but sport may now regain its footing in country
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Puerto Rico got off to a hot start in the World Baseball Classic. It won its first-round pool, outlasting the rival Dominican Republic. It handed the United States a humiliating loss in the two teams' first meeting in Pool 2 play. Then quickly, it all crumbled. Two magnificent, memorable games ended up with Puerto Rico on the losing end, and suddenly, the last unbeaten in the Classic was the latest team eliminated.
Many in the clubhouse took it extremely hard. Several players declined requests to face reporters, choosing understandably to keep to themselves and their teammates at a time of dejection.
But in the bigger picture, Puerto Rico did accomplish something. From where baseball on this baseball-mad island was two years ago, to where it is now, hopefully is a significant step forward.
"I think this is a great event for Puerto Rico," said Carlos Delgado, the all-time leader in home runs by a Puerto Rican player. "Especially having the opportunity to play the first round in San Juan. ... I think it's great. The fans in Puerto Rico, they were fired up about this team. And I hope this can really be a trampoline for baseball in Puerto Rico."
In the land of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez, baseball has been in trouble. The Puerto Rican winter league fell on such hard times that it did not play a 2007-08 season, replaced instead by a baseball center that helped train some players over the winter. The league resumed in 2008, but nonetheless, the game does not occupy the same place it once did.
The hope is that by accomplishing what it did, this Puerto Rican team will help the revival. Tuesday night's 6-5 loss to Team USA was crushing, but perhaps it can be a beginning, rather than an ending.
"There's no secret that the last few years baseball has gone on a downhill angle," Delgado said, "and it's sad. ... We like to see it go the other way around. So hopefully, an event like this will help it go the other way."
Nelson Figueroa, one of the game's more thoughtful and articulate players, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. But he's of Puerto Rican descent, and he knows what his team's showing could mean on the island.
"I think for baseball in Puerto Rico, hopefully we're able to spark the interest," Figueroa said. "The winter league, the last couple years, there was not many fans. There was one year, 2007, where there was no league. So hopefully, we'll get fans to want to come out and see these players, see these guys give their heart and soul to their teams and their cities and have a chance to represent the island."
None of which is to say that they're OK with having lost. This team believed it had a chance at not only advancing to the semifinals, but winning the tournament. It's just that if the 5-2 showing had some encouraging side effects, no one will be complaining.
"If everything was done with pride and giving all you've got," said manager Jose Oquendo, "what can you do? Keep your head up high and keep going forward. That's part of baseball."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.