The New York Times has a great story up on the decline of Puerto Rican baseball:
SAN JUAN, P.R. — This used to be the climax of baseball’s peak season in Puerto Rico. The storied winter league lured many of Major League Baseball’s biggest Puerto Rican stars back to the island — from Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda to Roberto Alomar and Bernie Williams — and they would regularly play before tens of thousands of fans during what was otherwise their off-season.
But that scene no longer exists. Four years after being forced to cancel an entire season, the league has only four teams. And for the first time in its history, which dates to 1938, the Puerto Rican Baseball League does not have a team based in San Juan, the capital.
The article repeats the standard baseball explanation for this decline – the draft – but goes on to say things that I find more interesting:
“From a socioeconomic standpoint, things have changed quite a bit in Puerto Rico,” he said. “There are lots of other ways to spend your time. In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, unfortunately, poor kids who are playing ball and who are from the lowest economic strata in that country, baseball is a way to escape, so there’s a greater concentration of players and effort. I think they’re just very different dynamics than Puerto Rico.”
Like Alderson, Cora, a 13-year veteran of the major leagues who became a free agent in October, says the draft is only part of the problem. Cora said more needed to be done to develop Puerto Rican talent: better coaching, more structure in leagues across the island and more government aid, for example. He conceded that the system had hurt Puerto Ricans’ exposure to major league clubs.
“It’s an excuse,” Cora said of blaming the draft. “This is the situation we’re in, and we have to deal with it. We need to make adjustments and prepare our prospects.”
I’ve never bought that draft inclusion was responsible for the decline of big-time Puerto Rican baseball. Although baseball academies get a lot of attention, most prospects who are signed out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela did not attend any kind of full-time baseball academy. It’s true that there are more scouts in the two countries than there used to be, and that organized leagues are starting to emerge from their embryonic stages, but none of this really explains why most MLB talent wouldn’t come to the surface in Puerto Rico like it used to.
If we put Puerto Rico in context, the Commonwealth actually looks pretty good. According to Baseball Almanac, 32 Puerto Rico-born players suited up for at least one game in the majors in 2011. That sum ranked third-most behind the United States (1,013) and the Dominican Republic (137). Furthermore, despite having a population of just over 3 million people, Puerto Rico would rank only behind California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia in total number of MLB players. Even going back to 1997, Puerto Rico only boasted 47 MLB players. That’s a significant decrease, but by no means a collapse. The New York Times article states that all but one (Ivan Rodriguez) of current Puerto Rican-born players have come in through the draft. The drop in talent could very well just be sagging interest in baseball among a people quickly becoming wealthier.
With a potential international draft in the works, I wouldn’t fret too much over what it could potentially do to baseball talent. The new CBA’s caps on amateur spending are much more dangerous, but there isn’t anything uniquely talent-destroying about an international draft.
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