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November 12, 2004
Ive said this before and Ill say it again: The Puerto Rico Winter Baseball League is a really good show in spite of itself.
The 2004-2005 season that gets underway Nov. 16 will be no different. The six-team league has an abundance of talent, from a smattering of big leaguers (Roberto Alomar and Tony Valentin will play from opening day in Santurce and Manati, respectively) to some of the hottest prospects in the game, including St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (Carolina), Wilbert Nieves (Mayaguez) and Luis Figueroa (Mayaguez).
The league opens season this year with two key changes. First the schedule is down from 58 games to 40. Second, the team limit on import players is down from nine to just five. The league, of course, has done little to promote its own spectacle, despite an influx of Dominican funding and younger and more energetic owners like major league players Carlos Baerga (Santurce) and Jose "Tony" Valentin (Manati). The fans flat-out refused to come to the ballpark in San Juan last season --- either for the Senadores or the Cangrejeros, resulting in Santurces subsequent move to Manati.
This year, however, Baerga is optimistic for a resurgence.
"Hopefully now that we are the Santurce Crabbers, the fans will show interest," said Baerga during a recent practice. "The mayor [San Juans Jorge Santini] is behind us and we have a lot of activities planned to attract the fans. Im optimistic."
The league features native managers exclusively for the first time since 1938. Jose "Chepito" Munoz and Juan "Porky" Lopez will be making their winter league managerial debuts this season with Caguas and Manati, respectively. Lopez has worked since 1984 as a coach with Chicago (Cubs) and San Francisco. Veteran manager Mako Oliveras will be in charge in Mayaguez. Carmelo Martinez will now manage the Santurce Cangrejeros, which were the San Juan Senadores last season. Houston coach Jose "Cheo" Cruz continues to lead in Ponce and Ramon Aviles is Carolinas manager.
Ponce, which beat Caguas in the final series last season, will defend its title without the services of Gabby Martinez, a former batting titleholder, who was released this week and picked up by Caguas. To add power to the lineup, the Leones have contracted import outfielder Bubba Crosby, who hit .276 in Triple A and was called up with the Yankees. Anaheim Angels catcher Jose Molina is in the lineup, as is Seattles Hiram Bocachica, Atlantas Luis Lopez and Pittsburghs Carlos Rivera.
Santurce will have Alomar in uniform from the start of the season, and also features team owner and former Arizona second baseman Carlos Baerga as well as Lou Lucca, Omar Garcia, Yamil Benitez, Jaime Navarro and Ramon Castro.
Caguas is still negotiating with Torontos Alexis Rios, but in the meantime, will start the season with Alex Cintron, Ramon Vazquez, Omar Olivares, Gabby Martinez and veterans Jose "Chepito" Munoz and Alex Diaz.
Mayaguez is banking on big seasons from Wilbert Nieves, Luis "Wicho" Figueroa, Luis Rivera and Andres Torres. Manati will have owner Jose "Tony" Valentin in uniform as well as Felipe Crespo, Edwards Guzman, Jesus "Motorita" Feliciano and Ben Candelaria. Carolina, in addition to the youngest of the Molina family catchers, also has Armando Rios, Edgar Clemente, Ruben Gotay, Vic Rodriguez and pitcher J.C. Romero as options.
Mets GM Minaya hires Bernazard
One week after hiring Willie Randolph as the New York Mets manager, GM Omar Minaya gave the nod to Latin talent with the naming of Puerto Rican Tony Bernazard as special assistant. Bernazard, of Caguas, who played with the Montreal Expos, previously worked in the Players Union as the Latin American players rep. He brings talent and experience to the job and he worked closely with Minaya, who was the Expos GM during the span of the teams two-season stay in San Juan. Minaya is reportedly interested in tapping Sandy Alomar Jr. for Randolphs coaching staff next.
WBA champs Siaca, Ruiz step into ring
Two Puerto Rican World Boxing Association belt holders will defend their titles this weekend on separate continents. WBA heavyweight champ John Ruiz (40-5-1, 28 KO) will take on Andrew Golota at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night as part of Don Kings heavyweight Rendezvous with Destiny: Battle for Supremacy, which features four heavyweight bouts. Meanwhile on Friday in Denmark, WBA super middleweight (168 pounds) champ Manuel Alejandro Siaca (18-4, 16 KO) will make his first title defense versus Dane Mikkel Kessler (34-0, 26 KO).
Siaca was originally scheduled to defend against the WBAs
No. 1 challenger Mads Larsen, Kesslers stablemate at Palle Management.
Larsen, however, pulled out with an injury and Kessler subsequently waved off a WBC mandatory fight versus Danny Green in Australia to take a shot at the WBA title on his home turf.
At 6-1, Siaca is an inch taller and three years older than Kessler. Siaca won the WBA title on his third attempt, having lost the first two times to Byron Mitchell. Kessler fought only once in his six-year career out of his home country, scoring a second-round knockout over Israel Ponce on March 4, 2000 in Las Vegas.
In New York, Polish strongman Golota challenges World Boxing Association heavyweight champion John "The Quietman" Ruiz while Chris Byrd will risk his International Boxing Federation crown opposing mandatory challenger Jameel McCline.
Two former world champions will make appearances in separate bouts when the first and only four-time world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield faces former North American Boxing Organization and World Boxing Council Americas heavyweight champion Larry Donald and former WBC and IBF heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman meets Australian surprise Kali Meehan.
Ruiz is still looking to earn respect, despite holding the WBA belt.
"The heavyweight division is in limbo. This card will be like reviving the division and the next step for me is to unify the titles," Ruiz said during a pre-fight press conference this week. "I would like to unify the titles in the future but the main thing is that I have to prove the world that I can be that undisputed champion. I need to do more on this one, so I can be above everybody on this card."
Meanwhile, Golota (38-4-1, 31 KO), said he has dropped down to 235 for this fight to be faster in the ring.
"Ruiz will try to make the fight a wrestling match. But I will try to keep him away with the jab. The upper cuts," said Golota. "I will try to move as much as possible so he can't hold me and lay on me. If I don't win this fight I retire. I'm getting too old to train this hard for this many weeks for nothing."
Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.