Destination: Puerto Rico

 In Destination, Stories

From legends of the past to the stars of today, few countries can boast a roster of Major of League players as skilled, passionate and determined as those from Puerto Rico. Beginning with the iconic Roberto Clemente, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an official but unincorporated territory of the United States, has produced over 260 big leaguers, four of whom have made their way to Cooperstown – pretty impressive for an archipelago with a total population of 3.6 million, making it roughly equivalent to the size of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, many of Puerto Rico’s youth players have had to set their dreams of following in the footsteps of Clemente, Javier Baez, Yadier Molina and other Puerto Rican stars temporarily aside. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma wroughtdestruction across several Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, where 80,000 lost power. Two weeks later, another Category 4 storm, Hurricane Maria, battered the islands again, leaving nearly half of Puerto Rico’s 3.6 million residents without power.

For Angel Santiago, manager of the Puerto Rico Avengers travel team, the storm’s toll has been especially tough. “Two of my kids still don’t have power,” he said in March. Santiago helps as much as he can, taking players in at his residence in Miami, but dealing with such devastation at such a young age has left its mark on the players. “They were kids before the storm,” he said. “Now they’re forced to be men.”

While around 90% of those who lost power have had it restored, Avengers coach Fernando Rodriguez explained that the vast majority of sports facilities remain without power and continue to exist in varying states of disrepair. “Although players are eager to play and practice, the lack of power has limited them to practice as needed. We have also lost a lot of young players because a lot of families that lost everything to the hurricane have moved to the USA. Coaches like myself are struggling to retain players because of that.”

Baseball has served as an outlet for the Avengers and for youth players throughout Puerto Rico, providing an escape from the worries that accompany such a tragedy, and while the hurricanes may have damaged the land on which the kids play, they haven’t dampened their spirits. They love to play the game, and they do so with the determination and energy that has become synonymous with Puerto Rico’s sports history.

You needn’t look any further than last year’s World Baseball Classic to see an example of the passion and pride which so often epitomizes Puerto Rican players. Whether it was Yadier Molina’s fiery leadership behind the plate or Javier Baez’s no-look tags at second base, Puerto Rico, despite finishing as WBC runners-up, became the tournament’s story, inspiring a new generation of young players on the archipelago to become the next Javy Baez, Carlos Correa, or Francisco Lindor. “Team Puerto Rico was a transcendental experience that still gives us the chills,” said Rodriguez. “That team united our country. … Kids always try to play with the same passion as they did. They salute their teammates when they make a play by rubbing their hair just like the PR team did during the Classic.”

Head coach Angel Santiago and Team Puerto Rico at the Youth Baseball Nationals in Kentucky.

That drive is not limited to the diamond. Santiago has brought the Avengers to America for several tournaments in the past couple years, including Youth Nationals event in Kentucky. “The players come back,” Santiago said, “and they want to learn English. They want to be able to make friends and talk with the other kids at the tournaments.” To that end, several of the players have asked to join private schools, where they can learn English in the classroom. “Baseball has helped inspire them to want to become better students. They want to go to college.”

Assuming this generation of young Puerto Rican players is as fiercely determined as their predecessors – and every indication is that they are – then it will take more than a hurricane to stop them from chasing their dreams. “I think that Puerto Rico team is the goal of each kid playing baseball [in Puerto Rico],” said Rodriguez. “It’s a dream that can be true someday.”

So, next time you’re in a tournament and a team from Puerto Rico comes to town, take the initiative and say hello. You never know, you could be talking to the next Ivan Rodriguez!

 

Puerto Rico Fun Facts

 

Notable Puerto Rican Players in MLB

Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates* (show image of Clemente / Credit MLB on image)

Orlando Cepeda, San Frisco Giants*

Roberto Alomar, Toronto Blue Jays*

Ivan Rodriguez, Texas Rangers*

Juan Gonzalez, Texas Rangers

Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

*Member of the MLB Hall of Fame

Did you know?

  • Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, one year after he discovered the Americas. He named it San Juan Bautista after St. John the Baptist.
  • Puerto Rico, which competes individually in the Olympics, has won six gold medals
  • Despite being residents of the U.S., Puerto Rico residents cannot vote in U.S. elections
  • Prior to the Spanish-American War, the U.S. tried to buy Puerto Rico from Spain for $160 million. Spain refused.
  • The U.S. Congress passed the Jones Act in 1917, granting U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898
  • Roberto Clemente was the first Latino-born player elected to the MLB Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Clemente was elected posthumously in 1973 after passing away in a plane crash the previous year. MLB still honors Clemente by each year awarding the Roberto Clemente Award to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
  • Puerto Rico is situated southeast of the Dominican Republic and is roughly 1,013 miles from Miami
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