SAN FRANCISCO – For a place in which baseball was deemed terminal, sent to hospice and left to shuffle off this mortal coil, Puerto Rico is doing a mighty good impression of a land with a ripe baseball future. Just ask Venezuela. And the United States. And its latest conquest, the only champion the World Baseball Classic had known.
Japan traipsed into AT&T Park with a third consecutive WBC title on its palate only to run into the improbable buzz saw that is Puerto Rico. With a 3-1 victory over Japan in the books and another giant felled, it makes sense for Puerto Rico to want to face one team and one team only in Tuesday night's WBC final.
"Of course we'd like to play Dominican," said Mike Aviles, Puerto Rico's shortstop. "Everyone knows that. We want to play the best team. Everyone knows Dominican has beat us twice."
In the first round, it was 4-2, and in the second round it was 2-0, and should the heavily favored Dominican Republic triumph in the second semifinal Monday night against the Netherlands, that's exactly what it will be: Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic, Round 3, the fight for Caribbean supremacy – the perfect topper for a WBC with a decidedly Latin flavor.
"First two didn't matter," Puerto Rico second baseman Irving Falu said. "This is the one that counts. This is the one we want."
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Neither Aviles nor Falu wanted to dismiss a talented Dutch team that's only getting better as the great young shortstops from Curacao – Jurickson Profar, Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Schoop – mature into stars. It's just that – well, it's just that bragging rights over the Dominican Republic go a lot further than a former colonial island of Holland.
For the next four years, the remnants of that dying Puerto Rican baseball system want to remind people around the sport that the rumors of its demise were flat-out lies. Three things happened in Puerto Rico: Major League Baseball included the commonwealth in its draft, other sports gained popularity and the once-popular winter league atrophied so badly it shut down one year. All three hurt Puerto Rican baseball. None metastasized to the point of turning Puerto Rico into a baseball no-man's land.
"It was [dying]," said Fernando Cabrera, who recorded the final two outs. "Compared to Dominican, Venezuela – even the islands with the Netherlands. Baseball is growing there. Puerto Rico, for a little bit, was down, in the late '80s, early '90s. But we're back on track. We want to keep showing to everybody that we still love this game – that we have a lot to do with this game."
Ousting the trio of powerhouses, Puerto Rico showed love and passion, sure, but, most important, talent. Starter Mario Santiago, who wasn't even invited to major league camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers, shut down Japan for 4 1/3 innings before exiting with an injury and yielding to a bullpen nearly as anonymous but similarly effective. And Alex Rios, who along with Aviles and Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina and Angel Pagan gives Puerto Rico a dangerous lineup, belted a two-run home run in the seventh inning that stretched Puerto Rico's lead to 3-0 and provided all the cushion necessary.
When Pagan squeezed the final out in center field, the Puerto Rican dugout exploded onto the field. They traded hugs and high-fives and yelps as though currency at a swap meet. And the small pocket of Puerto Rican fans converged above their dugout, sponging in this moment where once again the Boricuas meant something in the baseball world.
It's not as though Puerto Rico disappeared altogether from the baseball landscape. It was just such a fertile ground, the home of Clemente and Cepeda and the Alomars and Pudge and Bernie. And it's not anymore, not like that, struck by the same bug as the U.S.: that baseball is far from the only game you can play.
Bringing them back to baseball, like here, is just as difficult.
"We want to encourage them to come to the sport and be somebody in life," Pagan said. "You can go to college playing baseball. You can be a professional someday. It's not only to get to the major leagues but to educate yourself, get as far as you can. Challenge yourself in life and try to do something and see how far you can go, just like I did.
"I grew up in a project. I wanted to see how far I could go in baseball and life."
He ended up here, and, based on recent years, a Puerto Rican renaissance seems amiss. The Houston Astros chose Carlos Correa with the No. 1 pick in the draft last year, the first time a Puerto Rican player had gone first overall. And later in the first round, Minnesota pluck J.O. Berrios, a reliever for Puerto Rico's WBC team this year. New baseball academies produced them, and they're likely to fertilize what once looked so barren.
"What we're doing now is going to start turning the page," Aviles said. "… Yeah, it's a small island. Doesn't mean it has to be forgotten about."
No one will forget Puerto Rico now, not after this performance. One upset is big. Two is monumental. Three is beyond belief. Four would be a championship. And a championship that matters, to Latin America at least.
Those who scoff domestically at the WBC have every reason to do so. The tournament is ill-timed, its pitch limits stink and the best players in the world don't necessarily participate. If it is indeed a Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic final, the starting pitchers will be Giancarlo Alvarado and Samuel Deduno. Alvarado has pitched for 17 years and spent not one day in the major leagues. Deduno turns 30 in July and has logged less than 100 big league innings. It's the sort of pitching matchup better suited for Triple-A.
And yet these places care, and that care gives this tournament a sense of importance even if it's missing the gravitas that usually accompanies it. To Puerto Rico, being WBC champion is something players can take back to their countrymen and show off. Making it this far is a nice story. Winning makes them legends.
"Our country is happy just to see us in the finals," Pagan said. "But they would really appreciate Puerto Rico and the Dominican. We are Latin. That's who we all are. And we can put our countries on a pedestal in baseball.
"We beat USA. We beat Japan. But it doesn't stop here. We have to put Puerto Rico on top."
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It's not far to get there. One more yank of the rubber band, one more perfectly placed pebble and one more thud of a leviathan hitting the ground. If Puerto Rico is going to do it, it wants to do it in style.
Bring it on, Dominicans. They're waiting.
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