The Puerto Rican Winter League folded last week, canceling its 2007-08 season with hopes of being able to resume operations after a year regrouping and restructuring. This is not exactly an unexpected turn of events–the league has been suffering declining attendance since the 1994-95 season, and was known to be in dire straights, financially. There’d been signs recently that the league was in trouble when the league’s most high-profile owner, Mets infielder Jose Valentin, announced that he was trying to sell his stake in the Manati Athenians, a process that sparked a physical confrontation last month that left Valentin with a bruised hamate bone, and the league with a black eye.
On the most basic level, the league was poorly promoted and supported. As I reported in December, getting information about schedules or ticket prices for the league was daunting. None of the teams had a functional Internet presence, and neither did the league. Later, when I went to Puerto Rico for the Caribbean Series, I also found that there was no mass transit to the Stadium closest to San Juan (Carolina Stadium–Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which was remodeled at great expense for the Expos, hasn’t hosted a team in the winter league for a few years). Making it as hard as possible for fans to buy tickets to and attend your games is a recipe for financial disaster. If I hadn’t met so many people in Puerto Rico who were passionate about baseball and dedicated to the league, I’d have suspected the Winter League was a Bialystock and Bloom Production.
But the league’s larger problem might be talent drain. Moreso than the other Caribbean winter leagues, the LBPPR had trouble getting Puerto Rico’s established major leaguers to do even the minimum “two weeks and then the playoffs” winter league schedule. The Dominicans get appearances in their league from MVP-caliber players like Miguel Tejada and Vladimir Guerrero, the Venezuelans get Miguel Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez; Puerto Rico hasn’t gotten the likes of Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, or Ivan Rodriguez to play in the winter for a while. The quality of foreign players coming to the LBPPR has also fallen, in part due to competition from the Arizona Fall League and the Hawaiian Winter League, which gives U.S.-born prospects two more options if they want to get more playing time after the regular season without leaving the country.
One important aspect of the season’s cancellation is the effect that it has on the Caribbean Series. The Caribbean Baseball Confederation has announced that if the Puerto Ricans can’t field a team, the Dominicans, as the tournament’s hosts, will instead have two entries to the 2008 Series. There’s precedent for this: when the Venezuelans could not field a Caribbean Series team in 2003 due to a general strike in that country against President Hugo Chavez, Series host Puerto Rico fielded two teams in that year’s tournament.
The Puerto Rican league’s directors insist that, despite canceling the season, Puerto Rico could still put together a national team for next February’s tournament. But in order for the tournament to allow a country to field a team without holding a regular season and playoffs, it would take a unanimous vote of all four of the Series’ member countries. Given the potential draw of having two home teams in the tournament, that doesn’t seem likely.
At the eleventh hour, some are still hoping that the 2007-2008 season can be salvaged in Puerto Rico. There is talk of making it a mixed pro/am league, based on Puerto Rico’s amateur AA League; even more talk of MLB participating in some form of bailout to help keep winter baseball in Puerto Rico alive. With the LBPPR’s 69-year history of continuous operation at stake, everybody who loves baseball should be pulling for them to find a way to make this work.