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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Don't Look To Dominicans To Save Ailing Puerto Rican Winter League
By Gabrielle Paese
March 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
The Puerto Rico Winter League threw its fans a curveball last week when sources leaked out the news that three of the teams had been bought up by Dominican businessmen.
The three, Julio Hazim, Carlos Juan Musa Hazim and Daniel Aquino Méndez, have reportedly purchased the Santurce Cangrejeros, the Caguas Criollos and the Mayaguez Indios, respectively.
I say reportedly because, while in the Dominican Republic, the three owners are already talking about their plans to market the Dominican and Puerto Rican leagues together, here in Puerto Rico, the league and its owners have been playing hot potato with the news of the reported sales as though it had been Judas who closed the deal.
Santurce Cangejeros owner Reinaldo "Poto" Paniagua and Mayaguez Indios owner Iván Méndez have denied at least three times that they've sold their teams to Julio Hazim and Daniel Aquino Méndez, respectively.
"That's totally false. I haven't sold anything," is the tune Paniagua has been humming this past week.
Ditto for Méndez. Only Caguas owner José "Pantalones" Santiago has officially confirmed that he sold 40 percent of the Criollos' shares to Musa Hazim, of the Dominican League's Estrellas Orientales.
Last week, Puerto Rico Winter League president Enrique Cruz, during an emergency press conference, named a Blue Ribbon panel to investigate the potential team sales.
The special committee includes three league people: Ponce Lions owner Antonio Muñoz, Carolina Giants owner Benjamín Rivera and league attorney Joseph Lopresti. The panel's three other members are former Secretary of Justice Héctor Rivera Cruz, former Tourism Department Secretary Luis Fortuño and former Consumer Services Department Secretary Pedro Ortiz Alvarez.
Cruz denied the reports that the teams had already been sold.
Cruz said that under the WL constitution, the team's franchises can be sold. However, former Ponce Lions owner José "Chiro" Cangiano said that for a sale to go through, the new owner of the franchise had to reside in Puerto Rico.
"Any person accepted unanimously by the WL Board of Directors is authorized to be part of this league as obviously, owner of a team," said Cruz. "Section 3.01 and 3.02 states that the person has to be in total control of the franchise, including having a stadium."
While everyone in Puerto Rico vehemently denies any negotiations with the Dominican businessmen, over in Santo Domingo, Hazim, Aquino Méndez and Musa Hazim have spoken at length about how they'll run their new franchises.
Hazim, who runs the Dominican National Television Company (CNT by its Spanish acronym) has already announced plans to simulcast the games in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He points to interleague play and says that he already has at least 12 sponsors who are interested in marketing their products in both leagues.
"We've already bought the rights to commercialize the games of Santurce, Mayaguez and Caguas and we're on the verge of reaching an agreement with the Ponce Leones," Hazim said.
Why all the hushing up on one side and all the bragging on the other? It's no secret that the Puerto Rico Winter League is ailing, but it doesn't really make sense to think the Dominicans can save the Puerto Rican league.
Dominican ball has a bigger fan base because there is less competition for the fan's entertainment dollar over there than in Puerto Rico. In simpler terms: For four of the six Dominican teams, baseball is the only game in town. In Puerto Rico, baseball competes with movies, shows, theater, concerts, shopping, etc.
Furthermore, none of the ideas the Dominicans have are new. They've been floating around the leagues for some time now. The owners who have been reluctant to make any changes are the same owners who are now reportedly selling off their teams.
Bayamón Vaqueros owner Carlos Baerga said he doesn't think the reports of team sales will amount to much.
"I don't think it's going to happen," said Baerga via telephone from the Boston Red Sox's spring training camp. "The league has the right to make some kind of a decision and as team owners we all get to vote on it."
Baerga, who bought the winter league's Bayamón Vaqueros two seasons ago from Arecibo owner Josue Vega, has helped lift the ailing franchise back to a successful level in his hometown of Bayamón. In just Baerga's second season as owner/player, the Vaqueros won the winter league title this past January for the first time since 1980.
"The people who are making these comments don't have the authority to make them," said Baerga. "This is a matter for the league's teams to decide."
Even after losing a reported $400,000 this past season, Baerga says he plans to stay on as owner of the team.
"I don't have any plans to sell the team, on the contrary, I believe in what we're doing and see a lot of potential," said Baerga. "I think we've done a good job of turning things around."
Baerga called the 2002-2003 season a turning point for the ailing winter league.
"This is the year we're going to host the Caribbean Series, so this is the year to really put all of our effort into it," said Baerga, who added that he just coaxed fellow Boston Red Sox infield Rey Sánchez to sign on with the Vaqueros for the winter season. "Rey has said he'll play and I'm very happy about that. We've done our job in Bayamón. We put together a competitive team and we made it to the playoffs."
It's well known inside the league that Baerga's pull as a player helped draw in stars such as Ricky Ledée and Carlos Beltrán, who may otherwise have opted to rest up during the winter.
Baerga said he's particularly furious with the reports that have Mayaguez's Méndez selling his team to Dominican promoter Daniel Aquino Méndez. Chicago White Sox player Tony Valentín, who plays winter ball with Mayaguez, has made repeated offers to buy the Indios.
"What Iván has done to Tony shows a lack of respect," said Baerga. "Here's a guy who has been trying to help out and he didn't even get a crack at it."
By snubbing Valentín, the Mayaguez Indios may have a hard time finding players, especially if the rest of the roster opts not to play in 2002-2003 in solidarity with Valentín.
Whatever happens, the fact is winterball in Puerto Rico has been dead for some time now, and I'd venture to say that a change is in order. Will the Dominicans save Puerto Rico's league? I don't think so. It's up to Puerto Rico's own league to save itself.
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.