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From Veterans To Rookies, Winterball’s A Grab-bag Of Talent

By Gabrielle Paese

November 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

He’s a 36-year-old free agent and given the current market, it’s hard to tell whether he’ll get a job in the major leagues for the 2005 season. None of that seems to pass through Carlos Baerga’s mind as he tells jokes and gently ribs fellow players during a recent batting practice for the Santurce Cangrejeros, the team he owns in the Puerto Rico Winter League.

On this evening, Baerga’s Cangrejeros are getting ready to face the Caguas Criollos, two teams with a long history of rivalry. But Baerga, a natural leader, keeps players from both teams laughing and joking. Were it not for the two different sets of uniforms, it would be hard to identify them as opponents. They’re just having too much fun out there. Baerga is laughing as he pops one deep into center field during batting practice alongside his power-hitting teammates Lou Lucca, Omar Garcia and Oreste Marrero.

Make no mistake. Baerga plays to win. But watch him for half an hour and you get a glimpse of a new kind of team owner, one who is rewriting the rules in hopes of boosting the league.

Even though he owns the team, Baerga’s not in charge on the field. That distinction belongs to his manager, Carmelo Martinez, veteran of nine major league seasons, most of them with the San Diego Padres. Baerga was just getting started in baseball when Martinez was a winter league star; the two played on Puerto Rico’s 1995 Dream Team that beat the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series.

Three weeks into this 2004-2005 season, Santurce is bent on recovering from a slow start. Whereas young stars have already begun to emerge on the other five teams, Santurce’s lineup is chock-full of veterans.

"It might be the oldest [average age in the lineup] in the history of the league," joked Martinez. "But that’s a good thing, too. We have a lot of experience."

Experience is a good thing in this league, says Manati pitching coach Lester Strode, the minor league pitching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs, who played for Arecibo in 1985-86. "It gives a challenge for the young players who are coming up."

"Last year I hardly played. I only had 10 at-bats and three hits all winter," said Chicago Cubs catching prospect Geovany Soto. "But just being in the dugout and at batting practice was a great opportunity for me. I got to see the veterans play at this level and I learned so much. I think that was the reason I was so well prepared in AA ball this season."

Winter ball serves different purposes for different players. For the Cruz family, it’s a chance to play baseball together, something Tampa Bay outfielder Jose "Cheito" Cruz, 30 and his younger brother, New York Yankees prospect Jose Enrique Cruz, 23, have never had a chance to do because of their age difference. Their father and Ponce Leones manager Jose "Cheo" Cruz has them both in his lineup, in the company also of their uncle, first-base coach Cirilo Cruz. The youngest Cruz was hitting .390 after 13 games with five RBI.

For Caguas infielder Alex Cintron, who joined the Criollos for the third week of action, winterball is a chance to learn a new position.

"The Diamondbacks put me at second base for the last month of the season and they liked the way I played there, so I’m here to make sure I learn everything about second base," said Cintron, who will do time both at his original shortstop post and his new spot for the rest of the winter. "To be honest, I really like playing shortstop, but I’m ready to do what the team needs."

Arizona is rumored to be seeking the services of free agent Royce Clayton at short.

Cintron also said he plans to spend the winner working on the mechanics of the pivot.

"That’s going to be my biggest challenge," said Cintron. "At shortstop you are always moving forward, but at second base you have to worry about moving out of the way of the running coming underneath you and turning and throwing the ball to first base."

In addition to winterball at night, Cintron is taking karate classes and working out with strength coach Freddy Rodriguez to improve his flexibility for turning the double play.

With a 40-game regular season and an All-Star game slated for Dec. 12 in Santo Domingo, there’s still plenty of baseball left, even before Christmas. While veterans like Santurce’s Lou Lucca, Carolina’s Vic Rodriguez and Manati’s Edwards Guzman are among the hitting leaders, other faces have already emerged, like Caguas first baseman Rob Crosby.

Crosby, a Blue Jays 10th-round draft pick in 1999, was hitting .333 after the second week of action. The third baseman spent most of the 2004 season out of commission after he tore ligaments in his knee at the beginning of the season in a collision during the fifth game of the season. He had ACL surgery and got the green light to play winter ball after finishing up rehab.

"I told [Caguas manager Jose Munoz] ‘Chepito’ I didn’t care where I played, first base, left field, what I wanted was a chance to play since I missed six months," said Crosby, who saw limited action with Caguas last season.

He attributes his strong start to his desire to play.

"I had a good spring training last year and I was hitting well until I got injured," said Crosby. "I started preparing for this season a month early as part of my rehab and I was hitting off the tee and front toss to try to build up my strength."

Crosby said his strength coach, Jose Cruz, has had him doing track work, which Crosby said has made him faster on the basepaths.

"My knee doesn’t bother me at all," said Crosby, who added that he hopes next season to follow his Blue Jays stablemate Alexis Rios to success. "I’ve been playing with him since Rookie ball and he jumped up and I just hope I can follow him. I don’t feel like I’m in his shadow at all. Baseball clubs need position players at different times for different reasons. He’s an outfielder, they have their reasons. The message they’ve given me is that I can count on them and I know that if I play well I’ll be playing on a major league team in my future. In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying hard and doing my work in the gym and on the track."

Crosby said the key to Caguas’ success was the young players and their willingness to do the little things.

"I think if we concentrate on moving the runners up, hitting the sacrifice fly when needed and keeping up our speed on the basepaths, we’ll keep winning," said Crosby. "We have guys like [Jorge] Padilla and Mickey [Negron], who can steal bases and that helps us too."

Ivan Calderon defends WBO minimum weight title easily

Minimum weight World Boxing Organization champion Ivan Calderon got an easy 12-round decision victory last weekend over challenger Carlos Fajardo in what was Calderon’s fourth defense of his belt on the undercard of the Morales-Barrera fight in Las Vegas.

Judges Adalaide Byrd scored it 120-107 in favor of Calderon while he was also ahead on the cards of Bill Graham (118-109) and John Stewart (119-108).

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

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

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