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The Globe and Mail

Puerto Rico’s promise could pay dividends for game on island

Mike Aviles, second from right, celebrates with teammates after hitting a two run home run against the Dominican Republic last Sunday.

Andres Leighton/AP

Puerto Rico fielded a team for the 2013 World Baseball Classic that included players from the likes of the Savannah Sand Gnats, Akron Aeros and Brevard County Manatees. Such is the state of baseball in Puerto Rico, where major-league talent has been in sharp decline.

Manager Edwin Rodriguez went so far as to describe it as a "crisis," though things might be looking up.

Much to the delight of fans who flocked to Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the Puerto Rican team surprised the baseball-watching world by defeating Spain and Venezuela in quick succession to secure a spot in the second round, starting Tuesday in Miami.

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Last Sunday's game against the Dominican Republic was a bonus, with both teams already assured of advancing. The game meant little aside from seeding and pride.

For Puerto Rico, the hope is the team's performance here – in front of adoring crowds, no less – will help revive the commonwealth's baseball culture. Participation numbers are down across the board. Joe Espada, the team's third-base coach, said the event could be an agent of change.

"You can see all these kids being inspired," Espada said. "Who knows? In the future, we could have 20, 50, 100 players in the big leagues."

That would take some work. There are fewer Puerto Rican players in the major leagues now than at any point since 1960s, when 24 players made their debuts, according to Baseball Reference. That total steadily increased decade by decade, from 39 in the 1970s, to 46 in the 1980s, to 63 in the 1990s. Then, things went south.

From 2001 to 2010, just 42 players made their debuts. Last season, 17 Puerto Ricans played in the major leagues, compared with 128 from the Dominican Republic.

Edgar Martinez, a former designated hitter and third baseman who spent his 18-year major-league career with the Seattle Mariners, pointed to a possible cause that might sound familiar to fans who have lamented baseball's decline in the United States. "Kids have more options for entertainment and other sports in Puerto Rico," he said. "In the years I was growing up, baseball was the No.1 sport."

Martinez also recalled how he would return home during the major-league off-season to play in the Puerto Rican Winter League. (In 1990, he sharpened his skills by hitting .424.)

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He said the league was important to his development and helped spur growth of the game around San Juan. He was joined by stars such as Bernie Williams, Ruben Sierra and Juan Gonzalez. It was once considered an honour to spend the winter here in Liga de Beisbol Profesional.

Not as many players do that any more, Martinez said, and the depth of the league has been diluted as a result. Poor attendance became such an issue that officials cancelled the 2007-08 season. The league has since returned, but not to the level that once lured droves of fans to ballparks in Mayaguez and Caguas.

"It's not the same as it used to be," said Espada, a coach with the Miami Marlins. "It's a shame."

Rodriguez said he was optimistic. The quantity of players might not be what it once was, he said, but the quality of baseball being played is still high – his team being the most obvious example.

"I believe this kind of tournament motivates players," Rodriguez said. "They know what it means not only for baseball but for Puerto Rican society."

Carlos Beltran, an outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, has been part of all three Puerto Rico WBC teams. The previous two had more star power, but it can be more difficult to predict how that type of team will jell, he said.

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Puerto Rico's most important at-bat against Venezuela last Saturday was provided by the little-known Luis Figueroa, a 39-year-old infielder currently looking for work. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Figueroa ripped a two-run double into the right-field corner. Venezuela, its roster packed with 11 all-stars, could not recover, not against a team of journeymen and prospects.

"The kids who are coming up," San Francisco Giants outfielder Angel Pagan said, "have to learn from this example."

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