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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Pro Ballplayers At Olympic Baseball Qualifier Could Help Revive Ailing Winter League
By Gabrielle Paese
September 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
One sees the glass half-empty, the other, half-full. That's the essential difference between the leaders manning the island's two most popular sports leagues -- Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League and its Winter Baseball League.
Over at the basketball league, the glass is half-full. The league voted this week to move its 2004 season from its usual May-September schedule in favor of a March-July calendar. The reason? Puerto Rico's Olympic basketball team, most of whose players see action in the league, goes to Athens in August and the federation wants the team to spend the month of July practicing together. This might be the first time in league history that its franchise holders have willingly conceded to accommodate the Olympic team's practice schedule. In years past, the team has gone to the Olympics on just a few days of practice because the league's summer schedule has directly conflicted with international play.
Not this time.
"Basketball is by far the No. 1 sport in Puerto Rico and the entire island stops whatever it is doing to watch its national team," said league president Henry Neumann earlier this week. "That's why we've decided we should make sure the national team is part of our league."
The move is not just patriotic, it's economically brilliant. When Puerto Rico's basketball team plays internationally, island sports fans tune in to watch and cheer them on. When Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Carlos Arroyo and Rolando Hourruitiner put on their Santurce Cangrejeros uniforms, it means more fans (and sponsors) support the Superior League.
Should be an easy marketing lesson for the Winter Baseball League, no? Olympic team players give league more drawing power. You would think. But this week, the owners of the six-team league failed to see the gold glittering before their eyes.
For the first time since 1996 when pros were cleared to play baseball in the Olympics, Major League Baseball and the Puerto Rico baseball federation gave Double and Triple A level professional baseball players the green light to play internationally for the island. The imminent tournament is an Olympic qualifier the first two weeks of November in Panama. Teams from the United States, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Aruba, Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua and possibly the Dominican Republic will compete for two Olympic berths in Athens.
Yet instead of seeing it as a chance to revive the ailing league, its owners spent the week jealously hoarding their top players like a mother bear guarding her cubs. The players eligible for the Athens qualifier would normally all be playing winter ball the first two weeks of November and the league owners didn't want to part with their "stars" for that long.
Some would say the Olympic qualifier tournament's timing is really bad for the league, but those are people who see the glass as half-empty. Sure, it's rougher to keep a playoff race alive in a 52-game season when your best players are off in Panama, but why not see it this way? Just as you are without key players, so are the other five teams.
Consider the payoff. The entire island, and baseball fans throughout the Americas (including the United States) will be tuned in to the Olympic qualifier. When Puerto Rico's 24 players return home to re-join their winter league games in progress, they will suddenly be household names like their basketball counterparts, Ortiz, Arroyo and Danny Santiago.Interest in the winter league will pick up, fans will come out to the ballpark and voila, the league's glass will be half-full for the first time in nearly 10 years.
In terms of baseball, history is in the making here for two reasons. Never before has the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation approved of the use of professional baseball players in international play, despite the fact that the pros have been cleared to play since 1996. It took a new federation president, Israel Roldan, who took office in 2003, to put an end to the antiquated era of baseball amateurism.
Secondly, this is the first time Major League Baseball has cleared Puerto Rico's "second-tier" pro ball players to represent the island. Major Leaguers aren't eligible to play in the Olympics (the calendars conflict), but players not on the 25-man roster of a major league team as of Aug. 31 were fair game.
The league's six owners handed over the following players after nearly three days of deliberation. Ponce's Antonio Munoz agreed to let Puerto Rico team GM Jose "Ronquito" Garcia have five players, including pitchers Fernando Cabrera and Héctor Mercado, catcher Robinson Cancel, third baseman Luis López and outfielder Juan Lebrón. Mayaguez coughed up four key players in pitcher Chris Rojas, shortstop Luis "Wicho" Figueroa, catcher Wilbert Nieves and outfielder Alex Díaz. Caguas owner Quique Hernandez grudgingly parted with five players: veteran pitchers Angel "Chimilon" Miranda and Omar Olivares, catcher Juan Pachot, infielders Jose "Chepito" Munoz, Donny Leon and outfielder Alexis Rios.
Pitchers Joe Rodriguez, Jose Alberro and Luis Arroyo, along with first baseman Omar Garcia were ceded by San Juan owner Carlos Baerga. Carolina owner Benjamin Rivera agreed to lend out pitchers Josué Matos and Dicky González, plus outfielder Armando Ríos. They will be joined by four from Santurce: outfielders Jesus "Motorita" Feliciano and Bernard González plus infielders Luis López and José Flores.
Oquendo loses IBF heavyweight title shot to champion Chris Byrd
IBF heavyweight Chris Byrd successfully defended his belt last weekend with a controversial unanimous decision over Puerto Rican No. 2 contender Fres Oquendo, who won the fight on lots of scorecards, except the three that counted the most. The judges at the Mohegan Sun Arena saw it 115-113, 1116-112 and 117-111 in favor of Byrd.
Figueroa wins Olympic sailing berth
Puerto Rican catamaran sailor Enrique "Quique" Figueroa and his Tornado teammate, Jorge Hernandez, qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens this week by cinching the seventh and last qualifying spot during the World Sailing Championships in Cadiz, Spain.
While the duo finished 17th overall in the Tornado class, it was good enough for the seventh and final qualifying spot in Cadiz because six of the top-finishing teams there had previously met the Athens standard.
Australia, France, Austria, Argentina and Sweden had all previously qualified for Athens 2004. Greece, by virtue, of being the host country, also has an automatic berth. Germany, England, the Netherlands, United States, Italy, Spain and Puerto Rico all qualified for the Olympic Tornado class in Cadiz.
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 email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.