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Puerto Rico: Baseball's Hot Corner In The Winter

By Gabrielle Paese

November 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Winter baseball season is upon us. "Play ball!" was heard in three Puerto Rican league ballparks Wednesday night as the 2002-2003 season officially got underway with six teams.

There's nothing like winter league baseball in the Caribbean. For one tenth of what it would cost you to watch a major league game in the states you can get choice seating, players' autographs and a pina colada.

What takes place on the field is as unpredictable as the weather (usually rain, rain and more rain). Last season, the Bayamon Vaqueros won the league title with an unemployed major league infielder named Carlos Baerga at second base. Baerga performed so well for the team he bought three years ago that he earned himself a job with the Boston Red Sox for the 2002 season.

Once again this season, the league offers a pleasant mix of veterans and rookies, making for still better drama than you'll see at any Triple A ballgame.

But enough of waxing poetic, here's a quick peek into the upcoming season.

Bayamon looks to defend its title with Baerga once again. The veteran slugger retained the services of manager Carmelo Martinez and the early season lineup includes catcher Izzy Molina, first baseman Omar Garcia, Baerga at second, Lou Lucca at third, Danny Gonzalez at short and Orestes Marrero, Agustin Sanchez and Jose Leon in the outfield. Joel Chimelis could be the team's DH.

Out to dethrone Bayamon will be the Santurce Cangrejeros, who have a new owner, Dominican television magnate Julio Hazim, and a veteran manager in Mako Oliveras. Eduardo Perez, son of Hall of Famer Tany Perez, will play right field on a team that also includes Ramon Castro, Hector Villanueva, Angel Echevarria, Edwin Diaz, Edwards Guzman, Angel Santos and Al Martin. Santurce's pitching staff includes Stevenson Agosto, J.C. Romero, Gus Gandarillas, Wililam Vazquez, Luis Gonzalez, Brandon Backe, Brian Mallete, Ariel Prieto and David Manning, among others.

Former big leaguer Jose "Cheo" Cruz, father of Toronto Blue Jays slugger "Cheito" Cruz, is in charge down in Ponce and the Leones' lineup includes Hiram Bocachica, John Lin Pachot, Carlos Rivera, Luis Lopez, Brian Roberts, Kevin Witt, Miguel Correa, Juan Lebron and slugger Robinson Cancel. Starting pitchers include Derrick Lewis, Eric Ludwick, Osvaldo Fernandez, James Lira and Pedro Feliciano. In the bullpen is 46-year-old reliever Luis "Mambo" De Leon.

Mayaguez is the other team breaking out this season with a new owner (Dominican Daniel Aquino) and a new manager, Nick Leyva, who last guided Mayaguez to a league title in 1994. Tony Valentin, who played this past season with the Chicago White Sox, has been with the team since its first practice and his teammates are Wilbert Nieves, Jim Rushford, Luis Figueroa, Julius Matos, Joe Borchard, Willie Harris, Alex Diaz and Javier Valentin. Enrique Calero opened Wednesday night for Mayaguez.

Former big leaguer Jose "Cheito" Oquendo is managing the Carolina Gigantes this season and he has plenty of talent to work with, including Cesar Crespo, Edgar Clemente, Michael Rivera, Travis Haffner, Vic Rodriguez, Luis Figueroa, Andres Torres, Jason Michaels and Yamil Benitez. Yadier Molina, the younger brother of Anaheim Angels catchers Bengie and Jose Molina, will be behind the plate. Carolina's pitching staff includes Dicky Gonzalez, Josue Matos, Lino Rivera, David Rosario and imports Les Walrond, Luther Hackman, Travis Hughes, Sam McConnell and Evan Thomas.

The Caguas Criollos also have a new skipper this season, Oscar Acosta, who came in as a last-minute replacement for Sandy Alomar Sr. The team includes Jason Jones, Jose "Chepito" Munoz, Ramon Vazquez, Jared Sandberg, Hector Ortiz, Jorge Padilla, Luis Matos, Miguel Negron and Raul Nieves. Omar Olivares, Jaime Navarro, Angel Miranda, Thomas Taylor and Randy Keisler are all part of the early season starting rotation.

As the season progresses, expect some big leaguers to join these rosters, especially because Puerto Rico is hosting the Caribbean Series in February (2003) at Carolina's Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium, and the league will be looking to put together a Dream Team to rival the 1994 season, when Puerto Rico last hosted the Caribbean Series and won the title.

While the league has no plans for a website this season, you can keep track of your favorite team or player statistically via the sportsticker, which you can access by going to and clicking on the links to the Puerto Rican winter league. There are several unofficial websites to keep score and get the game schedules. My favorite is, which is simple yet informative.

Obviously the league hasn't yet realized that the internet is a marketing tool. Hell, the league finally this season acknowledged television as a promotional asset (former league administrators feared that if they showed the games on TV, folks wouldn't come out to the ballpark). Promoter Angelo Medina will show a selection of the leagues games locally on his new sports venture, Channel 13.

The Mayaguez Indios retain the rights to the services of catcher Bengie Molina, although Mayaguez GM Carlos Pieve says he hardly expects Molina to show up anytime soon now that the eldest of Benjamin Molina's three baseball-playing sons has a World Series ring to show off to his family.

Molina gave tribute to his father on Sunday as the Anaheim Angels beat the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series on the same day that Molina Sr. was inducted into Puerto Rico's amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

As if there wasn't enough going on in Puerto Rico last weekend, Sugar Ray Leonard put on his first fight card in Guaynabo, an ESPN televised show headlined by Alex Trujillo and Javier Jauregui. Trujillo, managed by Leonard, lost the decision and Leonard's other boxer, John Michael Johnson, also lost by decision to Puerto Rican featherweight Angel "Avispa" Chacon, a 1992 Olympian. It was not a good day at the gate for Leonard either, with only about 2,500 fans showing up, although one of them was Puerto Rico's best loved boxer, Felix "Tito" Trinidad.

Still, Leonard promised he will return to Puerto Rico to promote more boxing. Let's hope Leonard keeps his word.

Cuba surprised the amateur sports world this week when it announced that it was pulling out of the Central American-Caribbean Games scheduled for November in El Salvador due to "security concerns."

In an Associated Press report datelined Havana, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was quoted as saying that El Salvador was the cave of Luis Posada Carriles, whom Castro accused of plotting to kill him at the Iberamerican Summit in 2000. Cuba allegedly fears that its athletes will be coaxed into defecting in San Salvador. Castro said that Cuba would stage its own games on Cuban soil. Central American-Caribbean Games leaders are furiously working to salvage competition as many events run the risk of not having enough competitors with Cuba's boycott. Cuba is one of the few countries in this region that competes in almost all the sports with a full slate of athletes and is historically, the major medal winner at this level.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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