With interest in baseball waning, Puerto Rico playing for more than wins in World Baseball Classic

mnavarro@MiamiHerald.comMarch 8, 2013 

— When Edwin Rodriguez became the first Puerto Rican manager in Major League Baseball history three years ago, he wasn’t handed the keys to a Ferrari.

It was just another mediocre group of Marlins – a couple of legit stars sprinkled in with more than a few guys who probably shouldn’t have been on the big stage so early.

Rodriguez, 52, is managing a similar team at the World Baseball Classic. But this job as Puerto Rico’s skipper is much different, much more personal. He’s trying to help rally baseball in his island home.

With a successful run this weekend – and a monumental upset of Venezuela Saturday or the Dominican Republic on Sunday – Rodriguez believes this team can reignite his nation’s love of the game. Without one, the steady decline of Puerto Ricans in baseball could continue.

"We feel a responsibility to go out there and put on a good show, not only for the tournament but also for the young prospects that are coming up," said Rodriguez, whose team opened tournament play Friday night with a 3-0 win over Spain at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"I think that a win not only in this first round, but if we can play all the way to San Francisco [site of the WBC semifinals and finals] and go there and put on a good show ... that will interest a lot of young players from Puerto Rico."

Baseball was once king. Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda were the first to shine. Pudge Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Ruben Sierra, Carlos Baerga, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado and Benito Santiago carried the torch through the 1980s and ’90s and early 2000s. But now not only are the stars dwindling – catcher Yadier Molina and outfielders Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios are the only All-Stars on Puerto Rico’s WBC team – so are the number of Puerto Ricans on major-league rosters.

In 2001, 53 active major-leaguers were natives of Puerto Rico. That number fell to 28 in 2011, the lowest it has been since 1985. Last year there were 17 Puerto Ricans who played in the big leagues. Only 20 of the 28 players on Puerto Rico’s WBC roster have affiliations with MLB teams.

Why the drop-off? Some have pointed to the fact Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States –and baseball players have to wait until they graduate from high school or turn 18 to enter the MLB Draft. They believe it has put the island at a disadvantage that the Dominican Republic and Venezuela don’t face because players born in those countries can sign as soon as they turn 16.

But seven-time All-Star Edgar Martinez of Puerto Rican decent doesn’t buy that as an excuse. He believes more major-leaguers need to come back and play in the Puerto Rican Winter League, which has only six teams and has been floundering over the years.

"Nowadays the young kids have more options of entertainment, other sports in Puerto Rico," Martinez said. "Baseball in the years I was growing up it was the number one sport. But now children have many options."

But as down as things may be for baseball here, there is hope. The island had 25 players drafted last June – including the first No. 1 in Puerto Rican history, shortstop Carlos Correa, a product of one of the three baseball academies on the island. Beltran opened one of them in August 2011.

Right-hander Jose Berrios, taken with the 32nd overall pick by the Twins in 2012, is here pitching for Puerto Rico in the tournament.

And that brings a smile to Rodriguez’s face.

"That’s what I’m talking about, about developing young players," Rodriguez said. "Berrios, one of the best prospects for the Minnesota Twins, is only 18 years old. Four years ago he was sitting in the stands watching the Puerto Rican team. Now he is right next to Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina.

"The young players nowadays, they can look not only for Carlos Beltran, but they also can see José Berrios as a model. Four years from now they can be part of the team."

Former Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes got a chance to shake hands with one of the guys he was traded for Thursday – 22-year-old right-hander Henderson Alvarez, who will pitch for Venezuela in relief of another former Marlin Carlos Zambrano on Saturday.

Alvarez, the only current Marlin here in San Juan, said he’s enjoyed his experience hanging out with Venezuela’s national team and feels like he’s not missing anything important with the Marlins.

"If I was competing for a job then I probably would have stayed with my team," Alvarez said. "I came to the World Baseball Classic not because I’m sure I have a job but because I feel like I could learn a lot. Thankfully the [Marlins] gave me permission and I’m planning on working just as hard as if I was there."

• Venezuela manager Luis Sojo said because Thursday night starter Anibal Sanchez only threw 20 pitches before rain halted play for 50 minutes there a chance the former Marlin could pitch Sunday against Spain.

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