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P.R. Hosts And Headlines Blockbuster Sports Year In 2003

By Gabrielle Paese

January 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Carlos Arroyo, Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez, Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Mark Watring, Quique Figueroa, Tommy Ramos, John Velazquez -- these are names of just a few of Puerto Rico's athletes who made headlines in 2003.

And what a blockbuster year for sports it was. Puerto Rico played host to 22 Montreal Expos games as well as one NBA exhibition contest, one Trans Am Grand Prix and the Americas Olympic basketball qualifier all during 2003. Top Rank staged two pay-per-view fight cards here and the island hosted the Caribbean Series as well as a first-ever winter league All-Star game against the Dominican Republic. Puerto Ricans had their best showing at a Pan Am Games since 1991, with three gold medals and a total of 16.

Puerto Ricans made their presence felt in boxing, baseball, basketball, horse racing and volleyball. Minimum weight (105 pounds) fighter Ivan Calderon earned a WBO title in 2003 while both John Ruiz and Eric Morel lost their WBA belts. Ivan Rodriguez won his first World Series in 13 attempts, this season with the Florida Marlins. Carlos Delgado finished runner-up in AL MVP voting after a stellar season. Point guard Carlos Arroyo established himself in the Utah Jazz lineup in 2003. Tennis players Kristina Brandi and Vilmarie Castellvi had banner years in 2003.

The Santurce Cangrejeros won their sixth Superior Basketball League title in 2003 paced by Jose Ortiz and Carlos Arroyo. And, while the Dominicans beat Puerto Rico to win the Caribbean Series in February, the island's winter league All-Stars exacted revenge in December by defeating the Dominicans in the first-ever inter-league All-Star game played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Speaking of Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the 42-year-old venue hosted an average of 14,223 fans per game this year when the Montreal Expos played 22 of their regular season games here as part of a San Juan timeshare. While Puerto Rico had previously played host to a major league exhibition game (2001), 2003 marked the first time in island history that regular season games were played in this part of the Caribbean. The MLB players association wasn't too thrilled about making the trip, but after getting an estimated $8 million from local promoter Antonio Munoz, MLB decided San Juan would do quite nicely again in 2004 as a temporary home for the ailing franchise.

After missing out in 2000, Puerto Rico's basketball team gave its fans something to cheer about again in 2003. In August, the island quintet earned the third and final qualifying spot to the Athens Olympics during the FIBA Olympic Qualifier held in San Juan's Roberto Clemente Coliseum. Puerto Rico beat out Canada, 79-66, thanks to the work of veteran big man Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, who played one of the finest games of his 20-year career. The 39-year-old, who will head to his fourth Olympics, had 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and seven blocked shots. He played 36 minutes and 11 seconds and never showed signs of tiring. One month earlier, Ortiz had paced his Superior Basketball League team, the Santurce Cangrejeros, to their sixth title in seven seasons. It was Ortiz's eighth title overall in 23 seasons of SBL play.

Playing alongside of Ortiz at both finals was point guard Carlos Arroyo, whose star continued to rise in 2003. The Fajardo native earned himself the starting point guard job with the Utah Jazz this season, a role he's sharing with Spain's Raul Lopez. Despite nursing a sprained ankle, Arroyo managed to score a career-best 30 points in one of his first regular-season games and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has said he has high hopes for Arroyo. Arroyo joins Danny Santiago, of the Milwaukee Bucks, as the only two Puerto Ricans to see action this season in the NBA.

In baseball, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Carlos Delgado stood above the rest in 2003.

The Vega Alta native won his first World Series wearing a Florida Marlins uniform after12 unfruitful seasons with the Texas Rangers. The 10-time Gold Glover and 10-time All-Star catcher, signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Marlins back in January, only after having been snubbed by several other teams. Florida was a perfect fit. Rodriguez served as mentor for a much younger team, earning the NLCS MVP title for his spectacular 16-RBI post-season performance. With Rodriguez behind the plate, the Marlins stunned George Steinbrenner's Yankees.

"Close, but no cigar" was how Toronto slugger Carlos Delgado described his bid for AL MVP honors this season. Delgado put up MVP numbers, but finished second in the voting to Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez also put up MVP numbers, but played on a last-place team.

Delgado got five first-place votes to Rodriguez's six and 32 fewer points. In what was a close race among three Latinos (Rodriguez is Dominican), New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada finished third with five first-place points and 194 points to Rodriguez's 242 and Delgado's 210.

Delgado did more for the Jays than Rodriguez did for the Rangers, but his critics said he trailed off after the All-Star break and slumped in September.

Rodriguez led the league in home runs and runs scored, but Delgado knocked in more runs, 145 to Rodriguez's 118. In fact, Delgado led the league in RBI for the better part of the season, with 97 at the All-Star break, the third-highest total in history. Rodriguez hit .298, Delgado's average was .302.

On Sept. 25, Delgado hit four home runs in four at-bats, the fourth being a grand-slam. He was just the sixth player in history to hit for that cycle.

In other baseball news of 2003, Alexis Rios, one of Puerto Rico's top baseball prospects, was named Most Valuable Player of the double A Eastern League this season, leading the league with a .352 batting average.

Puerto Rico debuted on the Trans Am series scene this year with Jorge Diaz Jr., who earned Rookie of the Year honors. But it was veteran pilot Wally Castro who stole the show in San Juan when the island played host to the Puerto Rico Grand Prix. Driving a car he hadn't seen until two days prior to the race and making just his second career Trans Am series start, Castro shocked auto racing fans by pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the year.

In boxing, Top Rank junior welterweight prospect Miguel Cotto continued his climb to a title fight. Cotto was the protagonist in two major fight cards held in Bayamon, defeating Mexican Rocky Martinez in July and Colombian Carlos Maussa in December. Cotto improved his record to 18-0, 15 KO.

John Ruiz and Eric Morel proved that staying on top is harder than getting there this year. Ruiz lost a big money match to Roy Jones Jr. The previously undefeated Morel (now 33-1, 18 KO) had defended his WBA belt six times prior to his fateful meeting with unheralded Lorenzo Parra, of Venezuela. Neither defeat spells the end for the boxers. Ruiz went on to beat Hasim Rahman this month while Morel plans to return to the ring at 115 pounds.

While the big-money sports like baseball, basketball and boxing captured most of Puerto Rico's attention in 2003, Puerto Ricans also proved their mettle on varied playing fields.

At the 2003 Pan Am Games held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, sailor Enrique Figueroa, showjumper Mark Watring and teenage gymnast Tommy Ramos all earned gold medals.

Figueroa won Hobie 16 gold in undefeated fashion and then successfully qualified for the Athens Olympics one month later at the World championships. Watring was nearly as perfect, missing only one rail in his gold-medal final. In the process, the 38-year-old also qualified for Athens. Ramos, a high school senior competing in his first big meet, performed with nerves of steel to win a gold medal in the high bar final.

Puerto Rican tennis players Kristina Brandi and Vilmarie Castellvi added silver (doubles) and bronze (singles, Brandi) medals to Puerto Rico's Pan Am tally in 2003 under the direction of Gigi Fernandez. Brandi won five USTA pro circuit titles and bumped her ranking back up into the top 90s, which should put her back on the WTA tour in 2004. Castellvi made her pro debut this year, following a second-place finish in the NCAA women's singles finals.

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

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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