Flying into Puerto Rico, you have to have a window seat. On the left are the turquoise sea and blue skies. On the right are the beautiful green mountains. But for the baseball fan, the night show is even more impressive, with the lights of baseball fields shining everywhere you look. It’s an immense archipelago of lit fields; the baseball chapels and cathedrals are open for business almost every night. In the enchanted island of my Puerto Rico, it’s “Friday Night Lights” every night.
Anticipating the warm spring weather, the smell of salty ocean breeze and the sound of soft waves, I dream of my childhood filled with little league games, “Empanadillas de Pizza” and ice cream treats.
As the wheels of the plane touch down, the clapping erupts. We’re home. We’re back in Puerto Rico.
Months after Puerto Rico advanced to the finals of the World Baseball Classic, there are still signs of how #TeamRubio’s passionate and skillful performance swept the island. Children and grown men alike sport blonde hair, more people are spending their free time playing baseball instead of dominoes or softball, and the heroes are named after Lindor, Baez, Molina, Correa and Beltran.
It’s something you can’t understand unless you are born or raised a Puerto Rican, but the pride of seeing our small island stand in the final game alongside one of the most powerful countries when it comes to baseball — it’s indescribable. It made the island and all Puerto Ricans around the world stand tall. The crime rate went down in ridiculous numbers, the front page of the newspaper was all WBC, and the island was still, unified and filled with hope.
It could not have come at a better moment, given the hardships Puerto Rico is facing: economic struggles that have been going on for decades. But Puerto Ricans are survivors. We persevere.
Walking down Loiza Street, where I grew up, there are businesses and restaurants that have shut down. Schools are closing, crime is high, and people are desperate to get jobs; some have left the island to better their family’s situation. But the ones still there are doing everything they can to fight for the spirit of Puerto Rico.
Urban art has sprung up, as community leaders paint the flag of Puerto Rico on abandoned buildings. Urban libraries — free book exchanges that allow people to swap a book for any other book — are in other abandoned storefronts to try to instill education, to fight for the spirit of new ideas, to inspire people to believe that we can overcome.
There is so much to the culture of Puerto Rico. It’s more than just baseball. But baseball is very important. It is built into us. We bleed it.
The Puerto Rican baseball community is still working to overcome the struggles created in 1990, when players from the island became part of the draft instead of being international free agents.
Previously, scouts worked to develop players both before and after they signed. Men such as Luis Rosa — the scout who discovered many greats such as Ozzie Guillen, the Alomars and Pudge Rodriguez — would foster players’ growth. Rosa taught his players how to call a game, he explained American culture, and he took them to tournaments in the United States so they would know what to expect. Then all those things were gone overnight.
With no guarantee of signing a player, scouts had no reason to invest time in a player’s development, and full-time jobs scouting in Puerto Rico soon disappeared. People started to think that there wasn’t any talent in Puerto Rico, but there just wasn’t a formula for success.
Puerto Rican players were at a disadvantage. They had to learn the language and a new culture. Yes, they were U.S. citizens, but getting dropped in Arizona or Florida for spring training was a completely different world.
Plus, they had no bargaining power in negotiations with teams after being drafted. Some schools in Puerto Rico do not prepare students for college entrance exams. Therefore, teams knew they could get a Puerto Rican player to sign for 50 percent of what he was worth — because he didn’t have another option.
This is why the baseball schools and academies were created.
At the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, there are more than 100 students in grades ninth through 12th. The academy not only teaches baseball but also prepares students to attend college; it’s a safe haven for many kids who otherwise wouldn’t be focused on education. Students come from all over the island. Some are picked up as early as 5:30 a.m. and don’t return home until after 8 p.m. But the kids and their parents make this commitment for a better chance to succeed in life.
It took time, but we didn’t give up. We found a way.
People such as Mako Oliveras, my manager in winter ball and triple-A who won seven championships in winter baseball, Ellie Rodriguez, who caught one of Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, and Jorge Posada Sr., who started a high school tournament to help players get discovered, are making a difference. It’s inspiring to see people who understand that the future of baseball is on those fields and who are doing whatever they can to make sure no player goes unnoticed on the island.
At a little league game in Tao Baja, Puerto Rico, players as young as 5 talk about their favorite players, their heroes, whom they watched in the WBC. They practice three nights a week and play games on both Saturday and Sunday. It requires dedication for parents, single mothers and father figures to get out to the ballpark. But that is what baseball is about in Puerto Rico: being able to spend that family, quality time together.
Watching the game, I spotted a young boy going crazy at the sight of an ice cream truck behind the dugout and shouting, “Payco! Payco! Payco!” It was just what I did when I was a boy, so much so that I had to get my own ice cream sandwich and treats for all the children playing.
Those who don’t understand it never will. It’s the same reason we held a parade after the WBC for #LosNuestros, our guys, even though they didn’t win it all. Puerto Ricans take a lot of pride in wearing their flag, letting people know where they are from. Even the people living in the U.S., you are still Puerto Rican at heart. You are still Boricua.