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THE MIAMI HERALD
A Vanishing League
A quarter-century ago, a Triple A-level league, designed to feed off the Caribbean's baseball fever, went bust halfway through its inaugural season.
BY SAM JACOBS
July 4, 2004
Twenty five years ago, one of the strangest leagues in baseball history played its only season -- just half a season, really -- in Miami and five Caribbean cities.
The Inter-American Baseball League was supposed to tap into the love of baseball in South Florida, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela with Triple A-caliber baseball played by former major-leaguers and up-and-coming young players.
The managers were all former major-league players, including the recently retired Davey Johnson, who would lead the Miami Amigos before going on to manage the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers.
''It was quirky, fun and exciting in an international way,'' recalled Michael Janofsky, a New York Times Washington Bureau reporter who covered the league for The Herald in 1979.
Organizers expected success. They thought the league might even evolve into a rival of the majors.
But things didn't work out that way. The league, which began play in mid-April, was gone by the end of June, a victim of high costs, shaky financing, visa problems, unreliable plane schedules and incessant rain. A total of 70 games were washed out.
''The idea was good, but the planning should have taken another year,'' said Bernardo Benes, a Cuban exile banker in Miami who was part owner of the Panama franchise.
The Inter-American League was the dream of Bobby Maduro, who had owned a minor-league team in pre-Castro Cuba and, after moving to Miami, became assistant to the baseball commissioner for Latin American affairs.
Maduro acquired outside financing -- not nearly enough, as it turned out -- and signed up owners for franchises in Miami, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Panama, Caracas and Maracaibo. The Miami team was owned by real estate developer Ronald Fine, who also owned the Class A Miami Marlins of the Florida State League.
There was a portent of things to come even before the season started, recalled Orlando Peña, a longtime major-league pitcher who was the pitching coach of the Amigos. ''We got these beautiful new uniforms and somebody stole them out of Miami Stadium,'' he said. ``So for the first few games we had to wear uniforms that said Miami Marlins.''
More weird stuff followed. At an afternoon game in Panama, the scoreboard stayed off -- because the scoreboard keeper only worked at night.
At a night game in Venezuela, the lights went out and never came back on, Janofsky said. The game had to be called.
Attendance was horrible, partly because the teams did little promotion and most were unable to make broadcasting arrangements. In Miami, only one game was broadcast -- on the radio.
The average attendance at Miami Stadium, which had a capacity of almost 10,000, was 1,350. In Panama, Benes said, the first game sold out the 14,000-seat stadium. The next game drew 800.
As for the players, ''Let's face it. We wouldn't be here if we didn't stink,'' Amigos pitcher Hank Webb, a former New York Met, said half-facetiously in an early-season interview. Like many of his teammates, he was hoping to make it back to the major leagues. He never did.
Few others in the league played in the majors afterward. The only Amigo who did was Porfirio Altamirano, a Nicaraguan who pitched briefly with the Phillies and Cubs in the early 1980s.
By early June, the new league was in financial trouble and soon the Panama and San Juan teams folded. Maduro declared the first half of the season over with Miami the winner and vowed to play the second half with only four teams. But a few weeks later, it became clear that Caracas and Santo Domingo couldn't go on either. The final games were played June 30.
''Naturally we're all disappointed,'' Maduro said at the time. ``I thought the rivalry between countries would have stirred up more fan interest than it did.''
Fine, the Miami owner, predicted that ``the league will be back. Now we'll have more time to plan for 1980.''
But nothing ever came of it.
Maduro died at the age of 70 in 1986. Miami Stadium, where various minor-league teams played for decades and the Miami Amigos played for 2 1Ú2 months, was later named for him. Fine died at 58 in 1988.
And the Inter-American League disappeared into history, little-remembered but the closest that South Florida got to the major leagues until the Marlins arrived in 1993.