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Ponce vs. Caguas For 2003-2004 Winter League Title

By Gabrielle Paese

January 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It's the Ponce Leones versus the Caguas Criollos for the 2003-2004 Puerto Rican winter league title and the right to represent the island at the Caribbean Series Feb. 1-8 in neighboring Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The matchup is great news for the Puerto Rico Winter League, because Ponce and Caguas are two ballparks with a loyal fan base in a league suffering one of its worst moments of fan apathy in a decade. The Leones drew a league-best average of 2,915 fans per home game in the regular season while the Criollos were second with a 2,332 average.

Ponce's bid for a championship took on special meaning this week with the unexpected death of Ponce Mayor Rafael "Churumba" Cordero. Cordero, who died of a brain hemorrhage, was a loyal sports fan at heart and the Leones subsequently dedicated their play in this final series to the town's fallen "lion."

Ponce last won the league title in 1981-82 and has nine championships to its credit. The Leones haven't been to a final series since 1998-99.

Caguas last won three years ago (2000-2001) and has 14 trophies in its collection. The Criollos have made it to the finals three times in the last four years, losing to Mayaguez in last season's final.

The series pits veteran manager Caguas' Mako Oliveras versus another making his WL finals debut, Jose "Cheo" Cruz. Oliveras is trying to win his sixth title -- in the 19 years he has managed in the Puerto Rico winter league, this is only his second time with the Criollos. Oliveras has been working for the past five years in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization. He managed the Class A Charleston River Dogs this past summer and has been managing in organized baseball stateside since 1987 when he took over with the California Angels' double A affiliate in the Texas League.

Cruz, a first base coach for the Houston Astros during the summer, has managed the Leones before, but never in a final series. During his playing days, Cruz won three championships with Ponce and three with Caguas.

The best-of-nine series, should it go the distance, will finish up Jan. 28, just in time for the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic.

Stars? Both teams have plenty of talent. Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Alexis Rios, voted MVP in double A this past season, headlines a power-hitting Caguas lineup that includes Alex Cora (Dodgers), Ramon Vazquez (Padres), Alex Cintron (Diamondbacks), Luis Matos (Orioles) and Jose "Chepito" Munoz, Hector "Boliche" Ortiz, Miguel Negron and import Juan Carlos Diaz.

The Criollos' aces are veterans Omar Olivares, Cuban Carlos Reyes, import Donovan Osborne and Panamanian Lenin Picota.

Ponce, meanwhile, has a talented lineup that includes the manager's son, Jose Enrique Cruz, a Class A Yankees prospect, who saw action last season with Staten Island. The team gets its power from Hiram Bocachica, Raul Casanova, Robinson Cancel, Jose "Cheo" Molina, Gaby Martinez and import Valentin Pascucci. The rotation features Cuban Osvaldo Fernandez, imports Chris Enochs and Adrian Burnside as well as Giancarlo Alvarado.

Cotto versus Sosa

I could speculate for the next week about when Felix "Tito" Trinidad will return to the ring to face Oscar De La Hoya and it will still be all just talk. Don King has made Trinidad and offer: $15 million to fight "Golden Boy" before the year is up. Now it's up to De La Hoya to consider King's offer.

In the meantime, here's something tangible: The much heralded matchup between Top Rank lightweight prospect Miguel Cotto and Dominican Victoriano Sosa was assigned a meeting time and place. It will be Feb. 28 to be precise, at the Las Vegas MGM Grand. You want to watch boxing or talk about boxers who may or may not fight before the year is out?

Cotto is 18-0 with 15 KO and the No. 1 ranked boxer in both the WBA and WBO rankings. He holds the WBC's International title. Sosa, a Dominican who last fought last week in Santo Domingo, is 37-2-2, 26 KO. The two will fight a 12-rounder on the undercard of the WBC superfeatherweight title fight between beltholder Jesus Chavez (40-2, 28 KO) versus Erik Morales (45-1, 34 KO) . The bout will be broadcast live on HBO.

Sosa's reputation as a serious and hard-hitting boxer preceded him during a promotional visit to Puerto Rico this week. WIth neither boxer inclined to talk trash about his rival, the two passed the hour discussing each others' merits.

"Between Cotto and Victoriano the fight will be pretty good," said Sosa. "Cotto is a good boxer but Victoriano is not far behind. The fans are going to be the real winners at this fight because I am going to fight the fight of my life to beat Cotto."

Sosa is a cousin of Chicago Cubs hitter Sammy Sosa who traded his baseball bat for boxing gloves after he was kicked off Santiago's youth league team for fighting with a rival player.

"We know that Miguel has a strong left hook and we have made some adjustments to our training now that we know he is our opponent," said Sosa's trainer, Pedro Guzman. "We haven't started sparring yet. We'll probably move to Houston to begin and we'll look for sparring partners there who more or less have the physique Miguel has. We generally do 80-100 rounds for a fight like this."

Both New York and Puerto Rico had been considered for the fight venue, and Top Rank ended up including the bout on one of its already established TV dates

"The only sad thing about this fight is that it couldn't be held in Puerto Rico, but there will be many more here and we [the Boxing Commission] will be in Las Vegas to support Miguel," said P.R. Boxing Commissioner Jose "Toto" Penagaricano.

Best Boxing promoter Peter Rivera, who organizes Top Rank's activities on the island, denied that Sosa was an easy opponent scheduled to puff up the 23-year-old boxer's ranking.

"This is not a preparatory fight. This is one more fight in Miguel's path to greatness," said Rivera. "Sosa is a good boxer who is respected on his own merits. He's won 37 of his last 40 fights and his record is extraordinary. This is going to be a very difficult fight."

Sosa, a 1992 Olympian, has fought 37 of his last 41 fights in the Dominican Republic. He is 1-2-1 in his only four fights stateside, and was impressive even in his losses to Paul Spadafora (2000) and Floyd Mayweather (2003). Sosa lost a controversial decision to Spadadora for the IBF lightweight title two years ago, knocking the Pittsburgh native down twice in the same round before Spadafora rallied in the second half of the fight to earn the decision. Against Mayweather, Sosa lost by unanimous decision, falling to Mayweather's devastating jab. The hard-pressing Sosa was not able to get in the kind of punches that worked against Spadafora. He might encounter similar difficulty versus Cotto.

"They're about the same size but Miguel is stronger," said Cotto's trainer and uncle, Evangelista. "Even though Miguel is bigger, he has the endurance he needs for 12 rounds. He's weighing about 152-154 right now but his weight is not a problem. I think [Miguel's strength] is going to be a problem for Victoriano."

Sosa said his normal weight is around 145 and added that he's lifting weight to "gain about five pounds and gain more volume.

"I don't have any trouble doing the endurance work. Right now we're running hills and swimming underwater," said Sosa. "This is my chance to get a title shot again and I'm going to give it my all. Miguel is a disciplined boxer but so am I."

Sosa said he'll be ready to go the distance, but won't rule out the knockout punch.

"I consider myself more of a boxer than a knockout puncher," said Sosa. "I have my technique."

Cotto, meanwhile, is in the gym sparring against Bruseles, Ramon Cruz and Daniel "Azuquita" Jimenez.

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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