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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Interleague All-Star Game Breathes Some Life Into Dying P.R. Winter League, Other Notes
By Gabrielle Paese
December 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Puerto Rico winter baseball came alive again this past Sunday, Dec. 14 when the Dominican and Puerto Rican league All-Stars met at Hiram Bithorn Stadium for a historic All-Star interleague game. The two most significant statistics Sunday? The score (Puerto Rico won, 14-7) and the attendance (officially, 6,000).
Puerto Rican Raul Gonzalez provided the home team's offense, going 3-for-4 with two home runs, six RBI and three runs scored while ace Dicky Gonzalez fanned five batters over three innings of work. The Puerto Ricans beat out a Dominican squad that included AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, David Ortiz and Rafael Furcal.
With 6,000 fans, many of them Dominicans living in Puerto Rico, the All-Star game was the biggest draw of the season. Both San Juan and Santurce have struggled to put more than 200 fans in the ballpark on any given night, even though both teams are playing spectacularly this season.
Puerto Rico winter league players union president Michael Perez called the game the first step in a new direction for the league. It's true. The Dominican vs. Puerto Rican rivalry is a good selling point for the league. In fact, it might be the only marketable straw left to grasp. It's sad to see Dominican Republic fans back their winter league while Puerto Rico's fans don't.
The prevailing opinion here is that the Dominican stars play while the Puerto Ricans don't and that's the reason Puerto Ricans don't go to the park. But it's an argument that doesn't hold water because the big Dominican stars, like Sammy Sosa, don't play winterball just as Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez don't play winterball for Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico winter league is not without big leaguers on its rosters -- Caguas has Alex Cora (Los Angeles), Ramon Vazquez (San Diego) and Luis Matos (Baltimore) in its lineup and Mayaguez has Tony Valentin (Chicago White Sox) just to name a few.
It's hard to predict a bright future for the winter league, especially having personally witnessed its demise. Last year, Dominican owners Julio Hazim and Daniel Aquino bought the Santurce Cangrejeros and the Mayaguez Indios, respectively. This year, four teams (Santurce, Mayaguez, Caguas and San Juan) entered into a collective marketing agreement with Hazim. Carolina Gigantes owner Benjamin Rivera is reportedly in conversations to become the fifth team in that commercialization alliance. Yet even by consolidating the effort, none of the four teams have been able to increase attendance over last year. Sunday's attendance was encouraging, until you realize that most of the fans were Dominicans who turned out to watch the Dominican All-Stars play against Puerto Rico.
There's no easy solution to restore the winter league to its past glory. The league is now paying the price for nearly a decade of neglect and for its own failure to capitalize on the good years. Finally, don't blame the Expos for the winter league's current situation. The league was already in dire straits before Ponce Leones owner Antonio Munoz decided to bring Montreal's ailing franchise here for 22 games in 2003.
And speaking of 22 games, Munoz and Major League Baseball on Wednesday finally made it official: The Expos will play 22 games in San Juan again in 2004, this time all of them before the All-Star break. The Expos' presence in San Juan in 2004 had been previously confirmed by Munoz. However, the official announcement didn't come until last week and MLB officials finally held a press conference announcing schedule dates Wednesday in San Juan.
Montreal opens its 2004 season in San Juan versus the New York Mets April 9 for a three-game series immediately followed by another three-game series versus the Florida Marlins concluding on April 15. Montreal again plays six games in San Juan May 18-23 against Milwaukee and then San Francisco. A final 10-game "homestand" starts July 2 versus Toronto, then Atlanta and finally Pittsburgh. At Wednesday's press conference, Munoz said he'd like to average 15,000 fans per game over the 22 games. Last season, the Expos averaged 14,223 fans per game and sold out Bithorn (19,000) five times. Without Javier Vazquez and Vladimir Guerrero this time around, it might be harder for the Expos to win over the local fans. Nor are teams like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh likely to pack em in. City of San Juan Sports and Recreation director Mari Batista confirmed that the outfield fences have been moved back. For game day the stadium will measure 375 feet in the power alleys and 404 feet at dead center field.
OK, raise your hands everyone who thought the John Ruiz unanimous decision victory over Hasim Rahman this past Saturday night was one of the ugliest fights they've ever watched. Not since Hector "Macho" Camacho's later years has a boxer punched and then grabbed so much. Better boxing skills will be on display this weekend for the "Battle in the Mountains" in Aibonito where Miguel Cotto's older brother, Jose Miguel, will fight Nicaragua's Anthony Martinez at super featherweight and welterweight Henry Bruseles will take on Jerome Elder to headline a fight card chock full of young boxers. Best Boxing's Peter and Ivan Rivera will thus close out the year with a bang and with the Boxing Commissions Promoter of the Year honors all but sewn up for the second straight year.
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.