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THE PUERTO RICO HERALD
NEW TO THE HERALD:
*Puerto Rico Sports Beat*
Whats Not To Love About A Fairy Tale?
By Gabrielle Paese
January 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
What's not to love about a fairy tale? Good and bad are clearly marked; the underdog always wins.
The Bayamón Vaqueros' season read like something right out of the Brothers Grimm this year. The Cinderella team even got the invite to the Ball when they beat the Santurce Cangrejeros for the Puerto Rico winter league title and the right to represent Puerto Rico at the Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela.
Bayamón was the team nobody picked to win the Puerto Rican winter league crown. Despite a solid lineup that included Kansas City outfielder Carlos Beltrán, team owner and second baseman Carlos Baerga (a former Cleveland Indians star) and former Texas Ranger Ricky Ledée, the Vaqueros lacked pitching and a fan base.
Since Baerga bought the ailing franchise from Josué Vega in Arecibo and brought it to Bayamón, the Vaqueros had failed to even make the playoffs.
Then in late December, GM Candído Maldonado (who helped the Toronto Blue Jays to a World Series title in 1992, his last season as a major league player) brought in import pitchers John Rocker, Doug Linton and several others thanks to bench coach Guy Hansen's Atlanta contacts -- and voilá -- all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The Vaqueros went on a tear.
Baerga, who looks like he's earned himself a job with the Red Sox this season, had to pinch himself each morning to make sure he wasn't dreaming. Bayamón's rookie manager Carmelo Martínez even took a page out of Mako Oliveras' book, beating his mentor, veteran Santurce Crabbers skipper Mako Oliveras.
As a player, Martínez helped Oliveras win titles in 1984 and in his swan song as a player, in 1994. And the Vaqueros -- the team Baerga saved from bankruptcy in Arecibo two seasons prior -- headed to their first Caribbean Series since 1980.
Alas, Bayamón's fairy godmother couldn't get her magic wand past the newly beefed-up security at Luis Muñoz Marín Airport last Friday. The Vaqueros nosedived from Day 1 at the Caribbean Series this week. Bayamón's import pitching -- so sharp in the local playoffs -- opted not to join the team as Venezuela and it was adiós to the aces.
None of Puerto Rico's (Bayamón's) starters in its first three games in Venezuela made it past the fifth inning. Héctor Mercado, who got tagged with Puerto Rico's 9-5 opening game loss to the Dominicans, lasted four innings. Jaime Navarro, who started in Puerto Rico's 7-6 loss to Venezuela, lasted four while Dicky González, the starter in Puerto Rico's 9-7 loss to Mexico, went 4 1/3 innings.
It wasn't until Thursday with the team 0-3 and all but mathematically eliminated from contention, that Puerto Rico won a game -- on solid pitching. The team that Baerga built pulled out an 8-4 victory over rival Dominican Republic, with Omar Olivares allowing just four hits and two runs over seven innings.
Too little, too late for Puerto Rico, whose role for what's left of this tournament will be as a spoiler for the other four teams -- Venezuela (Navegantes de Magallanes), Dominican Republic (Tigres de Licey) and Mexico (Tomateros de Culiacán).
Puerto Rico hosts the 2003 Caribbean Series
Carolina Gigantes owner Benjamín Rivera is in Caracas this week, along with Carolina mayor, José Aponte, to iron out the details, but the Caribbean Baseball Confederation is expected to rubber stamp the motion to make Puerto Rico the next host of the Caribbean Series in 2003.
Rivera organized the Series in 1995 and 1999 as owner of the San Juan Senators. Both of those events were held at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the same stadium that hosted Major League's Opening Day game last April between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers.
This time around, Rivera's got a brand-spanking new stadium in Carolina, just east of San Juan. The stadium, named after baseball legend Roberto Clemente Walker, is a beauty -- sitting on Highway 3 just across the street from the Carolina judicial center and stone's throw from El Comandante racetrack.
Mayor Aponte is already promising to improve the traffic situation in time for next February. While the park is state-of-the art, the traffic light in front of it is decidedly antique. Coming from San Juan, the left turn into the stadium is a nightmare at any hour. The mayor said an overpass in the works.
The big question for 2003 is this: Will the Puerto Rico winter league do anything to incite baseball fans to come out to the ballparks to watch the games? The 2001-2002 season was one of the worst attendance-wise in league history. It would be a shame to be the host country and have the Caribbean Series play to empty seats. But that's fodder for another column.
Khannouchi sets precedent with 4th straight San Blas title
In 1995, Khalid Khannouchi was a virtually unknown Moroccan -- even in the circles inside the running world. That year, he won a little publicized 13.1-mile race held in Juncos -- the Modesto Carrión Half Marathon. Three months later, in February of 1996, he returned to Puerto Rico, this time at the invite of the organizing committee for the San Blas International Half-Marathon in Coamo. That year, he won his first San Blas title.
During that time he also met and married Dominican runner Sandra Natal, a frequent competitor in races here in Puerto Rico.
Khannouchi's victories in 1996, along with a repeat victory in San Blas in 1997, launched the young runner on a sure-fire path to international recognition.
That same year he copped the No. 1 spot in the Runner's World road race rankings. In 1999, he set a world record over the marathon (26.2-mile) distance, running the Chicago Marathon in 2:05.42.
Throughout all of this, Khannouchi never forgot Puerto Rico. In the year 2000, Khannouchi raced here three times -- winning all three events -- those being San Blas, the Moscoso Bridge 10K and the Abraham Rosa 10K in Toa Baja's Barrio Pájaros. That same year, at age 28, he was granted U.S. citizenship.
On Sunday, Feb. 3, Khannouchi did what no other runner has ever done in Coamo -- he won an unprecedented fourth San Blas title, covering the hilly 13.1 miles in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 38 seconds.
Khannouchi is still negotiating his participation in the Feb. 17 Moscoso Bridge 10K with race organizer Rafael B. Acosta. Khannouchi told reporters last Sunday that it was just a question of details. If by details Khannouchi is referring to the dollars of his appearance fee, then it's safe to say we can count on him.
Acosta has cash to spare now that Kenyan women Catherine Ndereba and Tegla Laroupe have both backed out. The 6.2-mile race over the San José Lagoon is expected to draw some 2,500 local joggers plus a handful of elite international runners.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the most recent recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.