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No Longer An Island Of Dreams


April 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

THERE was a time, Jerry Morales recalled with fondness and some resignation, when Puerto Rico did not need 22 promotional fund-raisers for a major league team unwanted back home. Back in the day, the best players migrated here for the winter, stocked Puerto Rican league rosters with the not-yet-so-rich and famous, made the island feel like the center of the baseball universe.

"We had a team in Caguas once that had Gary Carter catching, Mike Schmidt at third base, Willie Montañez at first, Felix Millan at second, Jay Johnstone in left, me in center, Otto Velez in right, Ed Figueroa pitching," Morales said in the cramped Expos' clubhouse here Friday night before they beat the Mets, 10-0, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

"We won the league and then went to Mexico and won the Caribbean Series, too."

The way Morales dropped in Otto Velez's name, as if the one-time Yankee and Toronto Blue Jay surely belonged in the same sentence with the Hall of Famers Carter and Schmidt spoke to the pride older Latino players feel for the achievement of reaching the big leagues. Before the now full-blown Hispanic invasion, there were fewer teams and opportunities. The major league clubhouse, devoid of Latino coaches and confidants, could be a lonely place.

Morales lasted for 15 seasons in the majors with San Diego, the Cubs, St. Louis, Detroit, the Mets and Cubs again. Then he returned home to rear his children, scout here for the Dodgers and coach and manage in the fading Puerto Rican league. He resurfaced last season, as the first-base coach for the Expos.

His children were older, he said, and it wasn't getting any easier to make a living in the Puerto Rican league.

"Today it's all changed," Morales said. "Because of the money, the players don't have to come to the winter leagues anymore. They don't want to get hurt. Things are not good in the Puerto Rican league. When I coached last winter, there would be, like, 1,300 people watching the game in Caguas. When we play in Santurce, sometimes two or three hundred. The quality now is maybe Double A."

This is an unfortunate byproduct of progress, and easily understood. Directly outside the Expos clubhouse Friday night was a promotional booth for a satellite television company. In a ballpark that was built in 1962 - following an era described by Expos Manager Frank Robinson as an amazing mix of Latinos, one-time Negro League players and major league mainstays - this was an obvious reminder of how much more connected the world is now, how invasive one culture can be on another.

It is difficult to market the local game in this United States commonwealth when the games of all 38 Puerto Rican big leaguers and other Latin American stars can be pulled off the satellite.

"Everybody watches the major league games, the Yankees, the Mets, the Cubs," Morales said. "Years ago, you couldn't follow the players. You saw them play here."

Few established players from Puerto Rico or elsewhere in Latin America have to return to get more at-bats, to battle their way onto a big-league roster. This season began with 26 percent of major league players born outside the continental United States, most of them Hispanic. That number isn't going down anytime soon. The average salary is more than $2 million. The players' life is good. It's the after life that still needs work.

Nineteen years after he played his last major league inning, Jerry Morales made it back in the big leagues. The Expos also have a Dominican, Manny Acta, coaching at third. This is not surprising, given that half the roster is Hispanic and the general manager is the Dominican-born Omar Minaya, the first Hispanic in baseball to hold that office.

Of course, Minaya was given the position by the commissioner's office when it assumed ownership of the troubled Montreal franchise. Before, as the assistant Mets' G.M., he was like many minorities in sports who have been touted as most likely to succeed. He was interviewed for jobs he never did get.

"I'm fortunate that the commissioner appointed me to the job," Minaya said. "But it's a start. There's been progress in the front office and coaching."

As it has always been for African-Americans, the progression is painfully slow. The managerial makeup of some teams - the Yankees and Mets among them - challenges, if not defies, comprehension.

With 10 Hispanic players, including the newly arrived and English-challenged José Contreras, the Yankees do not have a Latin-born coach, and this after struggling to communicate with El Duque, Orlando Hernández. The Mets, also with a strong Hispanic presence that includes the sensitive and besieged Armando Benitez, list only Juan Lopez, a batting-practice pitcher who coordinates reports from advance scouts, in their coaching ranks.

This is something Roberto Alomar has noticed. "You need someone to help the Spanish-speaking player feel comfortable, to help take the pressure off, especially the young guys," Alomar said Friday night.

It was a night when Puerto Rico took a step forward with the first of 22 Expos games, but when Jerry Morales, watching Orlando Cepeda throw out of the first pitch, felt a pull from the past. The stadium was packed, as it used to be for the winter league, when the game was good and for a few months each year, the playing field felt level.

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