Classic success could spark Puerto Rico

Once known for producing MLB talent, nation hopes passion for game has returned

March 23rd, 2017

In the aftermath of Puerto Rico advancing to the finals of the World Baseball Classic, catcher talked about the hope that the team's success would help rekindle the baseball focus in his homeland.

There was definitely a special feeling on the island nation last weekend amid a celebration of national pride, and videos of children singing and holding Puerto Rican flags were commonplace.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

Though Puerto Rico once again was shut out in the championship game -- 8-0 on Wednesday night against Team USA at Dodger Stadium, following a 3-0 loss in the 2013 Classic finals to the Dominican Republic -- many see the nation's success in the past two tournaments as a path to restoring the passion for the game to a place that was once the hotbed of baseball talent outside of the United States.

"Our goal is not to give them joy for two weeks," Puerto Rico general manager , a former big league infielder, said after the championship game. "Our goal is to change the feeling of the country."

But can that happen?

The argument can be made that Puerto Rico never lost its love for baseball, which shows in the emotions created by the Classic. It has, however, lost its magic touch, at least in terms of producing big league players.

There have been 257 natives of Puerto Rico appear in the big leagues, which ranks behind the Dominican Republic (669) and Venezuela (358) and just ahead of Canada (246), according to

Puerto Rico's big league impact has eroded since native players found themselves included in baseball's annual Draft in 1989, a move that was supposed to be the first step toward creating an international draft.

Those inside the game, however, refer to it as the Melvin Nieves factor -- a response to the Braves giving Nieves what was then a record-setting bonus of $175,000 for a foreign-born free agent.

That came on the heels of the so-called Juan Nieves factor, a reference to the Puerto Rican left-hander who was signed to what was then a foreign-player record $150,000 by the Brewers in 1980. Juan Nieves was attending the Avon Old Farms boarding school in Connecticut at the time, and in '83, MLB adopted a rule that any foreign student attending school in the United States fell under the rules of the Draft.

Since the rule change in response to the signings of Juan and Melvin Nieves, there has been a decline in the influx of Puerto Rican players. Puerto Rico had produced more big league players than any country other than the United States prior to that.

Since Ricky Otero -- who made his debut on April 25, 1995, to become the first drafted player from Puerto Rico to get to the big leagues -- only 63 Puerto Rican players have made it to the Majors. Compare that to 283 players from Venezuela and 278 from the Dominican Republic since '95. There have been 63 players from Canada, which is subject to the same Draft rules as Puerto Rico.

One big difference is that Major League teams run their own academies to house and work out teenaged players in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since the advent of the Draft, Puerto Rico has been treated more like the United States, and it has fallen on Puerto Rico to create its own academies.

And a prospect from Puerto Rico must either be 18 or have graduated from high school to be Draft-eligible, while in other Latin countries, a player can be signed after turning 16.

Astros shortstop was the first player from Puerto Rico to be taken with the first pick overall in a Draft (2012), and he then earned the American League Rookie of the Year Award just three years later to become a national hero.

Correa, however, is the exception. There have been only 12 Puerto Rican players selected in the first round, including supplemental picks prior to the second round, in the 28 years they have been a part of the Draft. Correa is the only one taken among the first 15 selections of a Draft.

Only seven of the 64 drafted players have appeared in as many as 1,000 games -- (2,457), Alex Rios (1,691), Molina (1,611) and (1,513).

This summer, Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was signed by the Rangers as a 16-year-old in 1988 -- the last year before his native Puerto Rico was included in the Draft.