View Photo Gallery: The island is a key pipeline to the major league.
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.
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.
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 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.