In Puerto Rico, winter baseball has deep roots

Written by Bill Thomas Photos by Ricky Carioti

Autumn has arrived in Washington, and with it shorter days, falling leaves and, for area sports fans, the annual attention shift from baseball to football. But in lush, sunny Puerto Rico, winter baseball season is just beginning.

“Baseball is a year-round thing with us,” says Jorge Colon Delgado, a walking encyclopedia of the game’s colorful local history. Delgado and I are enjoying a late breakfast in San Juan’s Café Mallorca, discussing what kind of team this year’s Santurce Cangrejeros will have. No one takes the fortunes of the Cangrejeros (a.k.a. the Crabbers) more seriously than Delgado, who has written a book about the 1954-55 club that featured future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente playing in the same outfield.

Jorge Colon Delgado. Jorge Colon Delgado. (Washington Post)

I’ve been to Puerto Rico before, but never during the November-through-January baseball season. I still think of winter ball in the tropics as some strange phenomenon, and it’s especially difficult to explain to my wife, Irina, who’s Russian and can’t stand baseball. I tried to convince her it’s like ballet for guys ... then chess with beer. Nothing has worked. She absolutely refuses to see games in the States, so there’s no way she’ll be watching the Crabbers play on our Thanksgiving week trip to Puerto Rico.

“Go to all the baseball games you want,” she said on the flight from Baltimore. “I’ll be at the beach.”

“My wife doesn’t like baseball either,” Delgado tells me.

There are many baseball fans in Puerto Rico, including Edwin Pagan of Carolina. There are many baseball fans in Puerto Rico, including Edwin Pagan of Carolina.

Most Puerto Ricans like baseball, but for many, talking about it is an obsession. As breakfast turns into lunch, Delgado and I are well into our second hour of nonstop stories and statistics.

“Did you know the oldest surviving Brooklyn Dodger lives in San Juan?” he asks.

I had no idea.

“Luis Olmo. He played for Brooklyn in the late ’40s, and in 1949 was the first Puerto Rican to hit a World Series home run.”

Dozens of Puerto Ricans have made it to the big leagues. Many became stars, and one — Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American inducted into the Hall of Fame — has been elevated to virtual sainthood. Clemente died at age 38 in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 while taking relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Pictures of him in his Pirates uniform are everywhere on the island. Streets and playgrounds are named after him, and schoolchildren can recite his life story.

When I was in school, each summer my parents would put me on a train bound for Pittsburgh, where I spent my vacations visiting relatives and, whenever I could, watching Clemente and the Pirates play in old Forbes Field. Coming to Puerto Rico to see his original team is starting to feel like a pilgrimage.

Delgado, a retired accountant, admits he’s less interested in baseball’s present than its past, especially the 1950s and ’60s, a time frame that happens to coincide with the first wave of great Puerto Rican players — Ruben Gomez, Orlando Cepeda and Clemente — to enter the majors.

“They really changed the whole style of the game,” Delgado says, telling me how Mays and Clemente, during practice, would charge ground balls in the outfield and come up throwing like infielders. Nobody signed more big names than the Crabbers. Roy Campanella, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson and many others played ball for Santurce.

“The Crabbers had some of the most talented teams ever to take the field,” Delgado says. He recalls something Clemente once said. When his Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, he was asked if he had ever played for a better ball team than Pittsburgh.

“Sí,” Clemente replied, “los Cangrejeros de Santurce.”

The Crabbers’ batboy,  Jose Martinez, during warm-ups at  Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina. The Crabbers’ batboy, Jose Martinez, during warm-ups at Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina. (Washington Post)

The Crabbers play a day game tomorrow in Juncos, an hour’s drive south of San Juan. Delgado suggests getting an early start since the road to Juncos goes by a rain forest, and I could run into a downpour. But tonight Irina and I are meeting friends for drinks and tapas at El Convento hotel in Old San Juan. Anastasia Kitsul and her husband, Kaleb Rodriguez, live around the corner. The stylish El Convento used to be a Catholic convent, and with a soft breeze wafting the aroma of tropical flowers through the open-air bar, it’s hard to tell if we’re inside or outside.

“Outside!” announces Anastasia, pointing up at the stars.

San Juan, one of the oldest colonial cities in the Western Hemisphere, has so many forts and cobblestone streets it could easily be on the Mediterranean coast instead of on the Atlantic.

Wherever you go in Puerto Rico, there’s music, in the streets, in homes and in bars like the one we’re in now, where the waiter is swaying to a Latin beat as he delivers our drinks.

“Puerto Ricans do everything with passion,” Anastasia says.

Baseball included, adds Kaleb, explaining that going to a game in Puerto Rico isn’t like going to one in the States. “It’s more like a party. Between innings there’s salsa music and dancing in the stands.” Sounds like more fun than watching a game at Nationals Park surrounded by lawyers and lobbyists.

The seaside neighborhood of La Perla overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Old San Juan. The seaside neighborhood of La Perla overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Old San Juan.

The drive to Juncos takes me past several small towns, some high in the rain clouds, and in nearly every one there’s a ballpark with stands, lights, a scoreboard, the works.

Baseball was introduced here in the late 19th century, when the island became a U.S. possession after the Spanish-American War. It was played as an amateur sport up to 1938, the year the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League began with six teams: the San Juan Senators, the Mayaguez Indians, the Caguas Criollos, the Ponce Lions, the Humacao Oriental Grays and the Guayama Witch Doctors.

During the first year, rosters were made up mainly of Puerto Rican and Cuban players. That changed in the 1939-40 season when the Auguadilla Sharks and the Santurce Crabbers were formed, and several teams signed players from the American Negro League, among them Hall of Fame greats Josh Gibson, who played for Santurce, and Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who played for Guayama.

Paige, one of the craftiest pitchers in the game, compiled a 1.93 ERA with 208 strikeouts in his only season in Puerto Rico. Despite his success, the legendary hurler was never that comfortable playing for the Witch Doctors. In Guayama, Santeria and voodoo are practiced, and Paige, it’s said, once walked off the mound in the middle of a Witch Doctors’ game, claiming he had seen a ghost standing next to him.

In those days major league baseball was segregated. It stayed that way until 1947, when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers. In the postwar years, Puerto Rican teams continued to attract Negro League players, drawn by the island’s relaxed racial customs, but increasingly white and black big leaguers played winter ball in Puerto Rico.

Scouts soon began to see the Caribbean as a place to find new talent. The Dodgers, Pirates and Washington Senators took a particular interest in Cuban players. In what could be one of the great what-if scenarios in the annals of the game, the story goes that a young Cuban pitching prospect named Fidel Castro was courted by several teams, and in 1951 was offered $5,000 to sign with the New York Giants. Another version of events has it that Castro got a tryout with the Senators. Washington coaches apparently weren’t impressed with the future dictator, and he eventually turned his attention to politics.

With Cuba out of the baseball business, the Puerto Rican league flourished. By the mid-1960s, Santurce practically became an off-season extension of the Baltimore Orioles. Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and retiring Nationals manager Davey Johnson played for the Crabbers. In the Nats’ combined history with the Montreal Expos, there’s also a Puerto Rican connection. Montreal, looking for a new home, played 22 games in San Juan during the 2003 and 2004 seasons; the next year the franchise moved to Washington.

The Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a fortress built in the 16th century to guard the Spanish colonial city of San Juan. The Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a fortress built in the 16th century to guard the Spanish colonial city of San Juan.

Faced with financial setbacks, the Crabbers have had trouble finding a place to play this season. When Santurce’s ballpark, just outside San Juan, was closed for repairs, the team made a deal to play its home games 25 miles away.

By the time I get to Juncos, the stadium parking lot is almost full.

“Glad you made it,” says Javier Castellano, the Crabbers’ media director. “Let’s go see Carlos.”

That would be Carlos Baerga, Santurce’s manager, who’s in the clubhouse getting ready for today’s game with the first-place Caguas Criollos. A win over Ponce last night has everyone in a good mood. Baerga began his major league career playing third base for the Cleveland Indians in 1990; his last season was 15 years later with Washington.

“I’m from Santurce,” he says. “And being back in Puerto Rico managing this team is a dream come true.”

His lineup this afternoon is a mix of young players hoping to get to the big leagues and veterans who’ve been there. Felipe Lopez, another former Nat, is playing second base. Since leaving Washington in 2008, Lopez has toured the majors with five clubs and says he’s weighing offers from a couple more.

Before the game, which will be starting late, I strike up a conversation (through their interpreter) with a couple of Japanese pitchers for Santurce. It’s the first time in Puerto Rico for both, and I ask one of them, Yoshi Sakahara, what has been the biggest surprise.

“Punctuality,” he says. “In Japan, if something is supposed to happen at 1 o’clock, it means 1 o’clock. Here it could mean anytime.”

Javier and I have seats behind the Crabbers’ dugout, which gives us a great view of the field and, in the distance, the cloud-covered mountains in El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rain forest. “We get a lot of rainouts,” says Javier, who orders a round of Medallas, the island’s favorite beer, and we settle in to watch the game.

Santurce scores first, then Caguas jumps in front. The lead swings back and forth until the Crabbers get two late-inning runs and manage a dramatic pickoff in the top of the ninth for their second win in a row.

With salsa music blaring over the PA system, Santurce players file into the cramped clubhouse to celebrate with black beans and rice. The postgame menu isn’t exactly major league, but nobody’s complaining.

One of the Crabbers’ promising young pitchers is Edwin Diaz Jr., a lanky 18-year-old from nearby Humacao, who recently signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the Seattle Mariners. His father, Edwin Sr., says the Mariners want his son to bulk up. Hearing this, one of Diaz’s teammates suggests extra helpings of mofongo, a popular Puerto Rican dish. Picture a super-size matzoh ball made of mashed plantains filled with pork, crab or shrimp and served in bowl of spicy soup. A couple of months on mofongo, his father agrees, and the Mariners will be sending young Diaz to Weight Watchers.

The author was told some of the best beaches were to be found on Culebra, an island off the coast. This is Flamenco Beach. The author was told some of the best beaches were to be found on Culebra, an island off the coast. This is Flamenco Beach.

The Crabbers’ next home game is in three days. That leaves plenty of time for a trip to Culebra, says Irina. According to a couple we talked to at dinner last night, the tiny island has the best beaches in Puerto Rico.

“I’ve already found a place for us to stay,” Irina says. “Right on the water.”

Unlike my wife, I am not a beach person. But it’s easy to see why she is. She comes from a town in Russia some 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where a day at the beach might have meant risking a polar bear attack. Anything less life-threatening would be an improvement. And the pictures she’s showing me of Culebra make it look like something Gauguin painted.

By noon we’re on the high-speed catamaran ferry from Fajardo that makes the trip east in less than an hour.

Culebra is a little bigger than an 18-hole golf course, with a handful of bars, restaurants and a dozen guesthouses. The main attraction, though, is its pristine beaches. The one everybody on the boat recommends is Flamenco. We check in at Villa Boheme and, despite my vote for a siesta, head straight to the beach.

Centuries ago, Culebra was a favorite hideout for Caribbean pirates who plied their trade in these waters. Today, the island could be the ultimate getaway, with Flamenco the closest thing to a deserted beach I’ve ever seen. When we arrive, the only other living creatures in sight are two chickens nesting under a palm tree.

Rico Rossy. Rico Rossy.

Roberto Clemente and  Vera Cristina Zabala were married in Carolina in 1964. Roberto Clemente and Vera Cristina Zabala were married in Carolina in 1964. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It turns out that our host at Villa Boheme, Rico Rossy, is a retired big league ballplayer, which isn’t that unusual in Puerto Rico. Rossy, however, measures his time in the majors not in years but innings. He was a utility infielder who bounced from the Atlanta Braves to the Kansas City Royals to the Seattle Mariners. In 1999, his last pro season, he played for Santurce.

“Good defense, but I never had a chance to prove myself at the plate” is how he accounts for his .211 lifetime batting average.

Baseball was fun while it lasted, he says, as he steers his boat east toward an even smaller island, Culebrita, for a morning of swimming with sea turtles. Culebrita, population zero until the three of us drop anchor, is a mini jungle. The surrounding coral reefs, Irina reports between dives, are full of colorful marine life. I stay in the boat talking baseball with Rossy and imagining what a temptation Puerto Rico must have been for Columbus and his crew when they discovered these islands in 1493. The urge to jump ship and stay must have been hard to resist.

Back at Villa Boheme for lunch, there’s a message from Jorge Delgado. If I want to reach Roberto Clemente’s widow, he has her number. Vera Clemente, who lives in the same house in San Juan she and her husband bought years ago, is one of the most respected women in Puerto Rico. When I call, she invites us to stop by. But the day she has in mind is Thanksgiving. Won’t she want to be with her family?

“That doesn’t matter,” she says. “You come, too.”

Pittsburg Pirates slugger Roberto Clemente, seen in 1967, is considered a hero in his home town, where the stadium is named after him. Pittsburg Pirates slugger Roberto Clemente, seen in 1967, is considered a hero in his home town, where the stadium is named after him. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Bad news on the baseball front: It’s raining in Juncos, and the Crabbers’ night game with Mayaguez has been postponed.

“What can I say?” Castellano says, laughing. “That’s what happens when you play next to a rain forest.”

On the way back to San Juan the following day, we stop by Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina, Clemente’s home town and the scene two months earlier of a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the day he reached 3,000 major league hits. A life-size statue outside the ballpark depicts the Pirates slugger in mid-swing on his momentous final trip to the plate in 1972. The image captures all the grace and dignity Clemente brought to the game.

We have no trouble finding his house. It’s not only on Roberto Clemente Street, but, on a side terrace, there’s a big “21,” the number he wore, fashioned in white stones.

Judging by the many cars, most of the Thanksgiving guests are already here. Suddenly we’re feeling like intruders. “We can’t just show up at somebody’s house on Thanksgiving,” Irina says. I agree, but we’re invited. Do we just turn around and leave?

Instead, I lightly tap on the door, and a grandson appears, looking just like his famed grandfather when he broke into the majors.

“Abuela!” he calls.

As is typical at Puerto Rican get-togethers, the Clemente clan greets us as if we’re part of the family. First stop is the living room for a look at what amounts to a Roberto Clemente museum, with Vera serving as our guide. There are paintings of her late husband, a bronzed outfielder’s glove and, among his many awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed posthumously in 2003.

Fans from Pittsburgh occasionally stop by the house. Sometimes it can get pretty emotional, Vera says, but she understands what her husband’s memory means to people.

Clemente died helping others, and every fall during the World Series, Major League Baseball gives the Roberto Clemente Award to a player who best exemplifies his humanitarian spirit. This year, the Puerto Rican Baseball League added Clemente’s name and image to its official logo.

It would be a tough act to follow. Which is why, Vera tells us, she never remarried.

“Roberto and I had so many things we dreamed of doing together. I couldn’t expect someone else to be a part of that.”

One project she was determined to complete was the Roberto Clemente Sports City in Carolina. The 300-acre complex is dedicated to providing athletic opportunities in baseball and other sports for children throughout Puerto Rico, the kind of opportunities Clemente never had as a boy working in the sugar cane fields.

Luis Clemente, one of his father’s three sons and president of the foundation that runs the facility, says his dad never forgot where he came from.

While Vera keeps motioning us toward the dining room table, Irina is eyeing the door. We should wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, she whispers, and let the Clementes enjoy their dinner. She’s right, but before I can figure out what to do next, she and Vera are hugging like two old friends saying good-bye.

There are more hugs and kisses, and an invitation to come back the next time we’re in Puerto Rico.

“What an amazing afternoon,” Irina says on our way to the car. Meeting the Clemente family was the highlight of our trip. And she finally admits it was baseball that made the whole thing possible.

Which doesn’t mean she’ll be going to a game anytime soon, but we will be coming back to Puerto Rico. And baseball season starts up again in six weeks.

Bill Thomas, a regular contributor to the Magazine, is an author and journalist in Washington. His last article was about the Vietnam Unknown Soldier. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com.

 
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