October 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
With the philosophical discussions of amateurs versus professionals now out of the way, Puerto Rico's baseball team of minor leaguers got down to the business of practicing this past week in preparation for the Olympic baseball qualifier Oct. 31-Nov. 11 in Panama.
A total of 13 teams in the Americas will be vying for just two qualifying spots for the Athens Olympics. The United States, Cuba and Puerto Rico are considered the favorites, although the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico are all expected to field competitive professional teams.
On the surface, the Puerto Rico team's practices look like those of any other Winter League team. Manager Santos Alomar Sr. throws batting practice, along with third-base coach Joey Cora. But upon closer inspection, this is more than just a group of minor leaguers. In terms of talent, it looks a lot like a reinforced WL champion team preparing for a Caribbean Series. Mayaguez's Luis "Wicho" Figueroa says the Olympic Qualifier represents much more.
"This is even better than a Caribbean Series," said the shortstop. "Most of us have been playing together or against each other since we were little. It's something we're all really motivated for and I hope to be included. It's a chance to represent Puerto Rico."
A total of 37 position players and pitchers have been invited to try out for the all Puerto Rican lineup, which must be trimmed to 24 players two days prior to the start of the qualifier. Alomar Sr. hopes to have 12 pitchers on his staff. With six games in the first seven days, the former major leaguer with big-league coaching experience is concerned about his pitching staff wearing down.
"I'll leave the decision as to which pitchers should come along up to [pitching coach and former major league pitcher] Eduardo Figueroa," said Alomar Sr. "But I know we're going to need 11 or 12 because in this type of tournament, pitching is key."
Chemane Carradero, who managed all of Puerto Rico's Olympic baseball teams for the past two decades and will serve as first-base coach in Panama, agreed.
"Pitching and defense is what wins games," said Carradero. "We can put together a very competitive rotation."
Of course, to be included on the team, the players have to show up for practice. Of the 37 invited to try out, only about 25 have donned practice uniforms. Former Puerto Rico amateur team pitcher Efrain "Cano" Velez, who is helping out on the administrative side, downplayed attendance issues.
"Most of the players are in the United States. We're having a total of 16 practices, so it's not that big of a deal that some of the players are missing this week," said Velez.
Alomar said many of the players are just finishing up their minor league seasons and taking a short rest. Some are still at the instructional leagues.
Heading the pitching staff are veterans Omar Olivares and Angel "Chimilon" Miranda, both of whom belong to Caguas. While Olivares did not play this past summer, he reported to practice in good shape and looks to be one of the teams' starters, according to Alomar. Miranda saw action in the independent Atlantic League this summer. Josue Matos, Jose Alberro, Francisco Cabrera, Joe Rodriguez, Giancarlo Alvarado and Stevenson Agosto are all pitching staff potential. Alomar Sr. Is waiting on left-hander Luis Gonzalez, who is at instructional league, as well as right-hander Javier Martinez.
Matos, who finished the season at Triple A Seattle with a 2.24 ERA, said he's happy to be included at tryouts. He worked this past season primarily as a reliever and set-up man, but would love a chance to start.
"I'm working on a sinker and I'm hoping that will be the pitch to take me up to the big leagues," said Matos. "In Carolina I think I have a chance to be a starter but I don't care what role they want me to play. The decision here with the national team is up to Eduardo [Figueroa, pitching coach] and Santos [Alomar]. Wherever they put me in the rotation, that's where I'll pitch.
"Each country is going to be bringing its best players and everyone wants that qualification," said Matos. "Every team has strengths and weaknesses and we hope to find their weaknesses game by game and continue improving."
The team has also met criticism that it lacks power hitters, especially a clean-up man. Former amateur team star pitcher Velez said the idea is pure nonsense.
"On this team everyone can hit home runs all the way down to [infielder] Wicho [Figueroa]," said Velez. "This team is much stronger than our amateur team. It has good pitching and the home runs will come.
The team's outfielders are Wilbert Nieves, Jesus "Motorita" Feliciano, Armando Rios, Alexis Rios, Angel Pagan, Andres Torres and Hiram Bocachica. The infielders are Luis Lopez (Ponce) and Luis Lopez (Caguas), Luis "Wicho" Figueroa, Omar Garcia, Jose "Chepito" Munoz, Jose Flores, Raul Nieves, Gaby Martinez, Donny Leon and Josue Espada. The potential catchers are Wilbert Nieves, Michael Rivera, Robinson Cancel and Hector Ortiz.
Rios was the Double A Eastern League MVP this past summer. Feliciano is trying to follow in his father's footsteps 15 years later. Jesus "Motora" Feliciano was on the mound in Puerto Rico's bronze medal victory in Seoul, South Korea during the 1988 Games when baseball made its Olympic debut as an exhibition sport.
"For me it would be a source of great pride to follow in my father's footsteps," said Feliciano, who plays for Santurce in the winter league. "We've talked a lot about it and the differences now with the pros playing. Dad thinks we can do a good job."
This is the first time in the island's history that the local federation has approved the use of professional ballplayers for international play, despite the fact that the pros have been cleared to participate since 1996. This past September, Major League Baseball gave minor leaguers the green light to play in the Olympics. Players not on the 25-man roster of a major league team as of Aug. 31 were cleared for this regional qualifier. Israel Roldan, who replaced Osvaldo Gil as federation president, opened the door for the change and negotiated with MLB for the use of Puerto Rico's top Triple and Double A players.
"You could see it coming," said veteran "Cano" Velez, who was one of the players displaced by the decision to add the pros. "It's sad and regrettable but you can't go up against MLB and the International Baseball Association. We were the only amateur team [in the region] left."
First-base coach Carradero, who is trying for his fourth Olympics berth, said tournament favorites are going to be tough to predict.
"It's really hard to analyze a tournament like this one because we've never seen any of these teams," he said. "The United States is going with all of its power, but we'll have to wait to see the rest of the teams. The team can look one way on paper and on the field play an entirely different game."