Puerto Rico embracing WBC as a chance to reignite nation's love of the game

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Jose Berrios, an 18-year-old whose fastball and polish made him a first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in last June's draft, held out his hand and offered an apologetic hello.

"My English …," he said, drifting into a smile.

On Thursday, he wore the colors of Puerto Rico, host of the rigorous Pool C in the World Baseball Classic. He'd share a dugout at Estadio Hiram Bithorn with Yadier Molina, with Carlos Beltran, with coaches Carlos Delgado and Carlos Baerga, baseball royalty here.

"Very good," he said quietly. "Very good."

Four years ago, he said as he waved his hand deep into the stands, he'd sat up there, with the people of an island who had seen baseball lose its grip. Only a handful of high schools fielded baseball teams anymore. The winter league was a tired spectacle of four teams, mostly straining to pay their bills.

The draft had come, and that was part of it. Basketball and volleyball, indoor games, took their share of the athletes, so perhaps the next Alomar, Sierra, Cepeda, even Clemente. The great Puerto Rican baseball players of past generations were gone or leaving, and the next generation would have to come from a population that seemed to have lost its abiding affection for the game.

Berrios, though, he would be a ballplayer. At 11 years old, he said, he attended the first WBC in this ballpark. Three years later, Delgado had three hits, Ivan Rodriguez had four, Bernie Williams pinch-hit, and Javier Vazquez and Nelson Figueroa combined to pitch seven shutout innings against Panama.

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Now here stands Berrios, taken 31 spots after Carlos Correa, a shortstop from one of Puerto Rico's rising baseball academies drafted first overall by the Houston Astros. Nineteen picks after Berrios, the Los Angeles Dodgers selected shortstop Jesmuel Valentin, the son of former big-leaguer Jose, and another graduate of the academy in Gurabo.

The game appears to be rallying in Puerto Rico. Then along comes the WBC, with chances against the Dominican Republic on Saturday night and Venezuela on Sunday night after opening Friday night against Spain. The ballpark is expected to be full.

"For me and my family," Berrios said. "My chance. Everything, my town, my Puerto Rico."

There lies the great obligation of the Puerto Rican team, playing to advance past at least one of the world's baseball super powers, and playing to further the cause of the game, and to return to its past. Somewhere up there in this ballpark, a boy like Berrios will want to hit like Beltran, lead like Molina, even throw like Berrios. And so, in spite of the obstacles, the game lives another day.

"It is a huge responsibility for us to make sure it doesn't go away," said catcher Jose Molina, Yadier's brother, who was born in Bayamon and raised in Vega Alta. "If it does go away, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

"If we could win, it would give Puerto Ricans even more pride, and gratitude, to say, ‘Yeah, I'm in.'"

Baerga sat on the top step of the dugout Thursday morning. The heat from above was vicious. The day before, the temperature on the artificial turf had reached 162 degrees, according to an MLB official. By U.S. standards, the ballpark is of minor-league quality. But, to Baerga, this is home, the ballpark of his youth. He played his last winter league game in this stadium only seven years ago, and manages one of now six winter teams in Puerto Rico. He loves the place, the people who fill it, and the players who've come through it. He, too, had been waiting on the next generation.

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"I've seen so many players like the way it used to be before," he said. "It's happening."

There's the hope. That baseball isn't slipping away. That Correa, Valentin and Berrios represent more than just a healthy class, more than outliers in an inevitable trudge to irrelevance. Puerto Rico had 25 players drafted last June. Four more signed shortly thereafter.

So, the WBC is a tournament in some places, a point of pride in others, an opportunity for embarrassment in others. What is it for Puerto Rico? Maybe it's too much to declare a win by Puerto Rico – even a strong showing – could help save the national game. Its spirit is too strong on the island, even when dormant. And the problems are too real for a few large gates to solve. So what's left?

"For me, the tournament is going to be important to show people we're here," Yadier Molina said. "We're here and we haven't died yet. It's important."

Like Jose Berrios said, "My town, my Puerto Rico."

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