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PUERTO RICO HERALD
P.R. Winter Baseball League President Speaks Out
By Gabrielle Paese
December 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
"Ailing" has been used as an adjective to describe the Puerto Rico winter baseball league for so many seasons now that the words fit tighter than a professional wrestler's uniform.
So, imagine my surprise when current winterball league president Enrique Cruz tells me he doesn't think there's a crisis in Puerto Rican baseball.
Even the most eternal of optimists would hope for a better average than 300 fans per game in one of the league's six ballparks. The sad fact of the matter is that the league's fan base is all but completely eroded and the average fan is well past middle age.
No fans at the ballparks is a crisis no matter whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full. But Cruz has a point: The ballpark seats have been empty for the past decade or so. Does that make it a crisis? Isn't a crisis a short-term kind of disaster? Can you have a 10-year crisis?
From the looks of the league, you sure can. But it's a good thing for Puerto Rico that people like Cruz continue to maintain a positive attitude, even in the face of a decade-long debacle.
The American Airlines executive is in his first full season at the helm of the league and already he's left his mark. For starters, Cruz is the first league president to have voice and vote -- he's not just a rubber stamp for the owners as all previous presidents have been. His arrival also coincides with Dominican ownership (or partial ownership) of teams in Mayaguez, Santurce and Caguas. The new owners have brought new ideas and new energy to the table.
Cruz also recognizes that Rome wasn't built in a day. He's got a five-year plan for the sport and he hopes to stick around at least a little while longer to see it through.
To his credit, Cruz has listed his assets. Puerto Rican winter ball is a great product. It falls flat due to a lack of marketing and promotion.
"The league has also lost so much credibility in the eyes of the fans," said Cruz. "For years, the owners would promise that a [major league] star was going to join the team and he would never show up. But this league isn't about bringing in the players once they are stars. In this league the time to watch the players is when they're on their way up. If you miss them [in the early years], then you missed the boat."
Cruz acknowledged that the league has a quality show, but not enough people are coming out to see it. He said it's not fair to compare attendance at ballparks in the Dominican Republic, where major league stars play and fans pack the seats.
"They are two completely different situations," said Cruz. "Baseball is part of their culture there. They have more big leaguers than we do, they have all these baseball schools and the people live baseball in a way that we don't. In Puerto Rico there is so much entertainment competing for the baseball fan's attention. You have the movies, [amusement parks], the Internet."
Yet there's no denying that Puerto Rico has a huge, untapped group of fans just waiting to be courted. Former Texas Rangers pitcher Edwin Correa, who is now the principal of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy High School, said his demographics show some 15,400 teens between the ages of 15-17 play baseball on the island. He said the numbers are even greater at younger ages.
Bayamon Vaqueros marketing director Robert Rodriguez and Vaqueros owner Carlos Baerga have been working hard to bring the younger set into the ballpark and the results can be seen in Bayamon's attendance record. This year, the franchise that some nights was lucky to get 50 fans last season, is now bringing in 2,000 nightly.
Cruz said he's pleased with Baerga's work, but added that the league needs to make a unified effort and not have each team pulling in a different direction.
That's one of his goals for next season, as is starting interleague play with the Dominican League.
"We got the two most difficult approvals this season but the Dominican League wouldn't OK it," said Cruz. "I'm of the opinion that now it's time for us to sit back. When you are too interested, people tend to back off. We're not desperate. The Dominican League isn't going to save me from drowning. I already know how to swim, thank you very much."
Cruz also said the league's website is not a priority this season.
"It's mostly the reporters who are clamoring for a website and honestly, I can't justify making an investment just so people can get information," said Cruz. "Nor do I want to put my name on something mediocre. I prefer to wait until we can put something really good together, but that's going to take a couple of years."
Cruz estimated it would cost $300,000 to put a Puerto Rican league fantasy baseball-type website together. He said that's one of the missing puzzle pieces for improving the league's fan base.
As league president, Cruz said he has no official comment on how he feels the Montreal Expos' 22-game homestand in San Juan will affect winterball.
"Because of the position the league has taken, I have agreed not to comment," said Cruz. "But I think I've made my personal opinion pretty clear. The Expos in Puerto Rico is not going to change winter baseball much."
While Cruz said he felt having major league baseball in Puerto Rico would have a great impact, he didn't think that the Expos' presence would necessarily sap or strengthen his league.
Ponce Leones owner Antonio Munoz, who is the man behind bringing the Expos to Puerto Rico, said he hoped the Expos' games would revive winterball. This week, Munoz came out of the shadows and revealed himself, not promoter Angelo Medina, as the man who brokered the deal to secure the 22 games at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
"Puerto Rico will be known as the country that brought [major league] baseball to Latin America," said Munoz.
"This is the best way we have to unite the Puerto Rican family, which hasn't turned out to the ballpark in 15 years. At the same time this is going to serve as a stimulus for baseball from the winter league down to the Little Leagues. This will be the push that Puerto Ricans need to get involved in baseball again."
Here's a toast -- with a full glass -- to Puerto Rico's favorite pastime.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.