Puerto Rico now America's Team in WBC

March 17, 2013

After Team USA was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, we heard the usual lines about the inability of Americans to meet expectations in the tournament.

That’s not entirely accurate.

Team Puerto Rico — comprised of U.S. citizens — is one victory away from stunning the baseball world.

After unexpectedly eliminating Venezuela in the first round and the U.S. in the second, the Puerto Ricans pulled off an even bigger upset Sunday night. Behind starting pitcher Mario Santiago, who spent last season with SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization, Puerto Rico stunned twice-defending champion Japan, 3-1, to earn a spot in Tuesday’s championship game.

The Puerto Ricans will meet the winner of Monday’s semifinal between the Dominican Republic and The Netherlands. Considering they were enormous underdogs when the tournament began, the Puerto Rican players could say that they don’t care which team they play.

But that would be a lie.

“Of course, we’d like to play the Dominican,” Puerto Rican shortstop Mike Aviles said of their Caribbean rivals, who won the teams’ first two meetings in this WBC. “Everybody knows that.”

The Dutch have had most-charming-story status in this WBC, but it might be time to reevaluate. While The Netherlands claimed the IBAF World Cup as recently as 2011, Puerto Rico hasn’t won an international baseball championship since the 2000 Caribbean World Series — a yearly event to which its winter league champion has an automatic bid.

Last week, the Puerto Ricans were five outs from elimination against Team Italy before rallying to win. Sunday, they beat the WBC’s preeminent team even though three of their first four pitchers — Santiago, Jose De La Torre and Randy Fontanez — have never thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

Sounds like a story America could love.

“I hope they root for us in the championship game,” Aviles said. “We’re the underdogs. No one picked us to leave the Puerto Rico (first-round) pool. Everybody thought the Dominican and Venezuela were going to leave. Throughout the whole thing, we believed in ourselves.”

Aviles, who was born and raised in New York, is a U.S. citizen. So are his teammates who were born on the island, by virtue of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. Debate persists in Puerto Rico over how seriously the commonwealth should pursue statehood. No one knows how a divided U.S. Congress would handle the matter if it reached Washington.

In sports, though, Puerto Rico operates as a nation unto itself. Puerto Rico has its own baseball federation and, thus, its own team in the WBC. Aviles and manager Edwin Rodriguez each referred to Puerto Rico as a “country” during interviews Sunday. After such an historic win, that was appropriate. The “small little place of about 4 million people,” as Aviles described it, is the first team to eliminate Japan in WBC play.

U.S. fans in search of a rooting interest should note that every Puerto Rican run in Sunday’s game was driven in by a player born on the mainland: Aviles delivered a tone-setting RBI single in the first inning, and Alex Rios — the native of Coffee, Ala. — struck the clinching two-run homer in the seventh.

“My mom and dad were born in Puerto Rico, my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico,” Aviles said. “I’ve always said, if I had an opportunity to play for the USA or Puerto Rico, I’d always pick Puerto Rico. It’s my heritage. It’s who I am. It’s what I’ve been my whole life. I’ve been Puerto Rican. Regardless of whether I was born and raised there, it’s my identity.”

Amid hopes that the WBC will grow the sport in non-traditional baseball countries — Brazil, China, Italy, The Netherlands — Puerto Rico needs this tournament, too, and will benefit immensely from what has occurred over the past week. Major League Baseball already treats Puerto Rico as a state for the purposes of the amateur draft — which generally works against young players on the island. Rather than enjoy (lucrative) free-agent rights like their peers in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, signing bonuses for Puerto Ricans are more tightly controlled through the draft system.

The appeal of other sports, such as basketball, also has limited the number of Puerto Rican players arriving to the big leagues. The end result is that just five Puerto Rican-born pitchers — starter Jonathan Sanchez and relievers Javier Lopez, J.C. Romero, Xavier Cedeño and Jonathan Albaladejo — appeared in the majors last year. Of that group, only Romero and Cedeño are pitching in the WBC.

(That said, it’s not as if the Puerto Ricans have deployed a semipro lineup in the WBC. Leadoff man Angel Pagan just signed a $40 million contract, Carlos Beltran is one of the elite switch-hitters of his time, and Yadier Molina is, in the words of Rodriguez and Santiago, “the best catcher in the world.”)

Rodriguez said he addressed the state of baseball in Puerto Rico during his first team meeting. “The last 10 or 15 years, Puerto Rican baseball had been a little bit down,” Rodriguez said. “I think that a good performance from the team in this tournament will put Puerto Rican baseball back on the map — and I think we already accomplished that.

“Everybody talks about the draft, which started in 1989 in Puerto Rico. If you had told me five, seven years ago — right after the draft started in Puerto Rico — that that was part of not having more big leaguers, I would say yes. But that was more than 20 years ago. We haven’t been able to make adjustments. I don’t blame the draft. I have to blame the system in Puerto Rico. We have to take responsibility. We have to make adjustments. This game is about adjustments. We have to make that happen.”

Winning has a way of doing that. The young eyes in San Juan, Carolina and Ponce must be mesmerized by the sight of their countrymen humbling the world’s biggest baseball stars.

“What we’re doing here is starting to give the little kids more hope that good things can happen, good players can come out of that small little area,” Aviles said. “It’s a small little island, but that doesn’t mean it has to be forgotten about.”

One more win, and they’ll be telling stories about this team for generations. And if it’s against the Dominican … well, that will make the fairytale better. Only in America, indeed.