Reviving a tradition in Puerto Rico

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – After the speech, they started to clap. First Ivan Rodriguez, then Jose Oquendo. The rest of the proud Puerto Ricans in the room soon joined in, because Carlos Delgado had just declared that baseball is not dead in their native land, and all of them needed to hear that.

There is a problem here, something that the Puerto Rican team running roughshod through Pool D of the World Baseball Classic won't quell. The nation that gave the world Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda and opened the door for the influx of Latin American talent into Major League Baseball has seen a precipitous drop in the quality of players it produces. And while the decline does not keep Puerto Rico from fielding a good enough team to surge to three WBC wins in three games, including Wednesday's 5-0 victory against the Netherlands that sets up a second-round matchup with the United States in Miami, it worries Delgado.

"For the last few years, we haven't produced as many players as some of the other Latin countries," he said. "As a Puerto Rican, we don't like that. We like to see our game continue to grow."

The run of Puerto Rican players who ascended to the major leagues alongside Delgado is incredible for an island of 4 million. From 1991-93, eight players started careers that ended with 1,000 or more hits. Rodriguez will be a Hall of Famer. Delgado has an outside shot. Bernie Williams made five All-Star teams and more than $100 million. During that time, only two 1,000-hit players came from the Dominican Republic: Manny Ramirez, who actually spent his teenage years in New York, and Raul Mondesi.

Since 1998, Carlos Beltran is the only 1,000-hit player to emerge from Puerto Rico. Only two have more than 500. The Dominican, in that same time, has 16 with 500-plus, and even Venezuela produced nine.

Last year, only catcher Geovany Soto represented Puerto Rico in the All-Star game. There were 11 Dominicans and four Venezuelans.

So, yeah, there is an issue here, and with the commonwealth's eyes on the team for an evening, Delgado wanted to assure everyone that he was taking it upon himself – that all of them were – to ensure the slippage ends.

"This is our passion," he continued. "This is the game we love. And the reason why we say we love it and we continue to push it and encourage young players to continue to play is because of events like this. Because in a world-class event you can see how three nights in a row it was sold out.

"So the game lives here. It is very much alive."

It was. Fans packed nearly 20,000 seats at Hiram Bithorn Stadium for Puerto Rico's three games. They chanted and cheered and saw their pitchers post a 0.33 earned-run average.

Delgado, too, thrived. He reached base in 10 of 11 plate appearances, rapping a home run the first game and drawing five walks in the final two. Though Beltran may one day take the title, Delgado is the best living Puerto Rican player. His 469 home runs and 1,489 RBIs are tops among his countrymen, and those who know him cannot fathom he used performance-enhancing drugs, without which would make the numbers doubly remarkable in an era where steroids so skewed them.

He is politically active, bitingly funny, socially astute – a gem of a person, by all accounts, and one whose voice carries credence among a population that seems to tune out baseball more and more.

"By the same token," Delgado said, "I encourage the fans to continue to support the games – especially in the winter leagues."

The Puerto Rican winter league once thrived. Young players spent their offseasons here honing their game and natives returned to charm big crowds. Then salaries exploded, and the allure dissipated. The Puerto Rican league didn't pay as well as those in the Dominican or Venezuela. The generation of stars from the early '90s started having families, and anyway, an eight-month season takes its toll.

In 2007, the Puerto Rican winter league folded.

And though it returned this offseason, it was on life support. Without stars there is no league, and Beltran or Delgado simply won't play when the pay for an entire winter-ball season amounts to what they make in a few major-league at-bats.

Still, Delgado is adamant. Baseball is the national sport. It will survive. It must.

"We know that baseball lives here," he said, "and we're going to encourage, and we're going to do everything within our power to continue to push the game from the Little Leagues up until we can continue to produce big-league players."

The claps followed, and so did five more minutes of chatter before officials whisked the players through the back doors and to awaiting golf carts. A skinny teenager in a bright yellow shirt stood next to them with a few baseballs and a pen.

His name was David Sepulveda. Since his father, Jorge, couldn't get a ticket to watch the WBC, David dreamed up an idea: He would get a job at the tournament so he could get an autograph of his dad's favorite player, Carlos Delgado.

This was his chance. Delgado sat in one golf cart. Fans mobbed him. He moved to another, this one next to David. One woman handed him a ball. He signed it. And then the driver of the cart pumped the gas pedal, and off Delgado went.

"I fought for this job only to get a signature, and I have nothing," David said. "I love baseball. All my family loves baseball. It's not like a sport. It's a way of life. If you don't have a bat, you ain't Puerto Rican. It's true that 20 or 30 years ago baseball was the only thing here, and now there's basketball and so many other things.

"But I can't help it. I just love baseball."

David shook his head. Delgado is off to Miami for the second round of the WBC, and in April he begins his 17th major-league season, and maybe after that he can help save baseball in Puerto Rico. The burden is heavy. Delgago can't, by himself, promote the sport and be its ambassador and sign autographs for everyone that asks.

And yet he is the same Carlos Delgado who refused to stand for "God Bless America" because he opposed the war in Iraq. The same one who has long used actions to back up his words. David, and the rest of his country, will be standing there waiting.

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