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Valentín And Manatí May Be Best Thing To Happen To Winter League Since Mays, Clemente

By Gabrielle Paese

March 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Shaken, not stirred. That’s what happened to the Puerto Rico winter baseball league this week after Santurce Cangrejeros owner Julio Hazim sold the league’s most storied franchise to Chicago White Sox shortstop José "Tony" Valentín. Valentín confirmed this week he’ll move the Cangrejeros to his native Manatí, about a 20-minute drive west from San Juan.

The island’s baseball community is still dumb-founded. It was no secret that Valentín wanted to buy a ballclub and move it to Manatí. He tried two years ago to wrestle the Mayaguez Indians from Iván Méndez and was shot down. Just last month he nearly brokered a deal to buy the Caguas Criollos from Enrique Hernández. The league, however, didn’t approve the sale and transfer.

So imagine the shock when Santurce owner Julio Hazim revealed that it was his Cangrejeros who were heading west. The news raised eyebrows and broke hearts. Santurce has played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium since the ballpark opened in the ‘60s , with the exception of a two-year stint in Bayamón in the ‘80s. The Cangrejeros were the league’s most solid franchise. The move would be the big league equivalent of sending the Yankees to play in East Rutherford, N.J.

But there’s no time to get sentimental or nostalgic about winter baseball. Hazim, a Dominican promoter who is extremely successful on his island, could not turn the Cangrejeros around, despite investing millions of dollars.

In his "resignation" speech, Hazim cited an eroded fan base and lack of support from San Juan mayor Jorge Santini as his main reasons for bailing on the team he purchased from Reinaldo "Poto" Paniagua for a reported $2 million. Hazim is ultimately a businessman and his bottom line read that he was losing his shirt on baseball in San Juan.

"It was a difficult operation, very tedious and forced by the situation. It was very hard to sell the franchise," Hazim said. "We sold the team because we were obligated to do so."

Winter ball hasn’t been successful in San Juan for nearly a decade. Fewer than 188 souls haunted Bithorn’s halls on any given night the Cangrejeros played last season.

The death knell sounded years ago, even if the league had its head so far buried in the sand that it couldn’t hear it.

Given the league’s current scenario, we’d all be crazy to sit around and mourn the loss of the Cangrejeros. San Juan clearly didn’t want them.

A move to Manatí and another big-league team owner is exactly the shake-up winterball needs. Just as his counterpart, Carlos Baerga, in San Juan hasn’t been afraid to try new strategies, Valentín is sure to bring innovation to the table. The league needs that.

"The winter league needs to explore its alternatives. Winter baseball is sinking and it can’t be blamed on the Expos. If this [moving a franchise to Manati] will help the winter league, then it should be considered," said City of San Juan sports and recreation director Mari Batista of the sale.

Manatí is a town with a rich amateur baseball tradition. Valentín, who was Mayaguez’s marquee player for more than a decade, is committed to winning over fans in his hometown. He’s already got the support of Manati mayor Juan Aubín Cruz Manzano, who is committed to refurbishing the city’s ballpark for the 40-game 2004-2005 season that starts in November.

Valentín paid $1.6 million for the Cangrejeros, who as yet do not have a new nickname.

"We want the people of Manatí to decide," said Valentín’s wife, Ilka Díaz, who will be the team’s new president until her husband finishes his major league season in the fall. "We’re going to ask people to call the radio station and make their suggestions."

Angelo Medina for Olympic Committee president?

In a move that surprised everyone and no one at the same time, promoter Angelo Medina was voted in as the new president of the P.R. table tennis federation after outgoing chief Ivan Santos stepped down. While it’s debatable whether Medina actually knows how to play table tennis, he surely knows better than to call it Ping-Pong.

Medina’s new job most definitely signals a healthier budget and better promotion for the sport, largely ignored in Puerto Rico. Who knows, maybe Medina’s sports TV venture, Channel 13, will begin broadcasting table tennis in addition to its current fare of volleyball, basketball and baseball.

Is there a method to Medina’s madness? You bet. P.R. Olympic Committee elections will be held this December and it’s rumored that Medina will challenge three-term president Hector Cardona for the job. In order to be a candidate, Medina needed to be a member of the PROC, that is to say a president of a federation. Track and Field federation president Jose Enrique Arraras is also rumored to be in the running.

P.R. amateur boxers attempt to qualify for Olympics

Ten of Puerto Rico’s amateur boxers are in Tijuana, Mexico, this weekend to compete in Olympic qualifiers for the Americas. Thus far, Puerto Rico has qualified just one boxer, Alexander "Pollo" De Jesus, for Athens. The boxers have a shot at the Games via this qualifier and one final event in Brazil in April.

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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