Despite power outages, Puerto Rico will play winter ball

By Hiram Alberto Torraca

Nearly nine weeks after Hurricane María, Puerto Rico struggles to regain electricity, communications, and above all, a sense of normalcy.

But the truth is that life is a daily grind in a world that revolves around cash and daylight hours. Storm debris has not been cleared from neighborhoods or beaches. Power in areas where it has been restored comes and goes, as happened last week when a massive outage blacked out much of San Juan from Wednesday to Friday. Many traffic lights still don’t work.

In the South around Ponce — the largest city outside the San Juan metropolitan area — and in the west around Mayaguez and Rincón, there’s little cell, text or internet connectivity. If you are in a dead spot, you might not see that someone is trying to reach you until you return to San Juan.

And while the Puerto Rican government said that 47 percent of the power grid was operational on Monday, there are people on the eastern end of the island — from Guayama in the south to Loíza in the north — who have lived without electricity since an earlier storm, Hurricane Irma, swept past Puerto Rico on Sept. 7.

Forging ahead

Amid this dysfunction and uncertainty, the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League — as the island’s winter league has called itself since 2012 — is forging ahead and insisting on celebrating a season this winter.

Four teams will play an abbreviated 21-game schedule, starting by design on Jan. 6 — a major holiday known as Three Kings’ Day or Little Christmas — and running through Jan. 31.

“The league is dedicated to helping our country and preserving its social role,” RCPBL president Héctor Rivera Cruz said in Spanish during a press conference held by the league in October. “It would be unacceptable that a league named after Roberto Clemente — named after someone who gave his life to help those in need — refused to do anything during this crisis.”

“Puerto Rico will rise again by regaining its normalcy. And baseball will help the island regain its normalcy,” Justo Moreno, president of the Cangrejeros (Crabbers) de Santurce, said in Spanish during an interview with La Vida Baseball.

The crisis in Puerto Rico has already forced the cancellation of two professional leagues that play at this time of the year — men’s volleyball and women’s basketball.

Nonetheless, four of the five RCPBL teams will take part in the 2018 season — Santurce, Criollos (Creoles) de Caguas, Gigantes (Giants) de Carolina and Indios (Indians) de Mayaguez. Due to financial difficulties, the Tiburones (Sharks) de Aguadilla have been merged this season into the Indians.

Day games and double-headers

Because of the damage sustained by sports arenas and complexes around the island, the league will use only two ballparks — Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan and Isidoro “Cholo” García Stadium in Mayaguez.

Given the uncertainty over the power grid, the RCPBL will play day games — at 1:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 1 p.m. double-headers on Saturdays and Sundays.

And because many people on the island have lost their jobs, admission to the games will be free.

All this, Rivera Cruz and league owners say, is to ensure that baseball survives in the aftermath of María. And to help Puerto Rico take its first steps to recovery. Those we spoke to were nearly unanimous about the role of sports in the island’s recovery.

“Puerto Rico won the Caribbean Series last winter for the first time in 17 years,” Rivera Cruz said. “It has finished second the past two World Baseball Classics. And regarding the players we have now in the major leagues, we haven’t seen talent this good in 20 years. We can’t allow this progress to come to a halt.”

“To play is to give the island some peace, similar to what the major leagues did after 9/11,” said Yamil Benítez, a former major leaguer who is now the president of the Players Association of Puerto Rico.

“The one thing that unites Puerto Rico is sports,” Juan Antonio Flores Galarza, owner of Mayaguez, said in Spanish during an interview with La Vida Baseball. “You saw it when Mónica Puig won a gold medal in tennis in the 2016 Olympics. When Los Rubios finished second in the World Baseball Classic. When Félix ‘Tito’ Trinidad and Miguel Cotto and others were champions in boxing.

“Sports has always been an instrument to unite people,” Flores Galarza added, “and during this historic moment, when we are in the midst of a crisis, I believe that the league should fulfill its social responsibility by providing diversion and fun, and helping the Puerto Rican people through this crisis.”

No imported players

At the end of the 21-game schedule, the top three teams will advance to the playoffs. The first-place team will automatically qualify for the finals, while the second- and third-place teams will play one game to determine the second finalist.

The finals will be a best-of-five series. And the champion will defend Puerto Rico’s crown at the Caribbean Series in Guadalajara, Mexico, in early February.

It remains to be seen whether the level of play this winter in Puerto Rico is much above rookie ball or Single-A. Rivera Cruz said that the RCPBL will operate under a strict $500,000 budget for players — $125,000 per team, which averages out to $5,000 per player based on a 25-man roster.

For the first time, the league will not allow importados, or imported players, the phrase for players from the United States and other countries, relying exclusively on homegrown talent.

Meanwhile, just like Puerto Rico is witnessing an exodus of residents moving to the States — as much as 150,000 by some counts — the RCPBL is seeing its peloteros request permission to participate in other winter leagues.

According to Benítez, there are 17 players already in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and at least five more in transit for the rest of November and December. The Águilas Cibaeñas (Cibao Eagles) in the Dominican Republic have five Puerto Ricans on the roster and the coaching staff, including manager Lino Rivera and pitching coach David Rosario.

“It’s sad to see what happened in Puerto Rico this year,” Efraín Nieves, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer currently pitching for the Leones (Lions) de Caracas, said in Spanish in a telephone interview with La Vida Baseball. “It’s been a difficult situation for all of us on the island. I’m grateful to Venezuela for opening its doors to us. I would love to play back home in January to give the fans in Puerto Rico some joy.”

Baseball helped lift battered spirits in Houston after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area in late August. The Astros played one series in Tampa before returning home to appreciative fans, taking advantage of the moment to snap out of a late-season slump and conclude their magical season with their first World Series championship.

Unfortunately, the situation in Puerto Rico is much different, exacerbated by the island’s already-existing $74 billion debt and decaying infrastructure, two calamities that had mushroomed before Irma and María.

RCPBL has been dealing with financial crises since 2007-08, when it was forced to skip a season for the first time since its founding in 1938. Despite restructuring at least twice, the league has been unable to find sound economic footing. Earlier this year, it had announced a condensed 40-game season starting on Nov. 15, only to change course drastically after María.

Baseball is life in Puerto Rico. But the question remains as to what the island’s priorities are right now. The RCPBL and its owners say that it includes playing ball.

“We are thinking beyond the crisis,” Raúl Rodríguez, owner of Caguas, said in Spanish during an interview with La Vida Baseball. “In difficult times, (Puerto Ricans) have always done the right thing and we’ll do it once again. It would have been easier to cancel the season and leave all the decisions for the following year, but we bear a responsibility to our ballplayers and our fans, and that is to tell our fans that we’ll be there for them.”

Featured Image: Criollos de Caguas

Inset Image: Criollos de Caguas