SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tuesday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the generational nature of Puerto Rican baseball was on vivid display.In a stirring pregame ceremony to honor heroes of the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, the island's baseball icons -- Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Baerga and Juan
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tuesday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the generational nature of Puerto Rican baseball was on vivid display.
In a stirring pregame ceremony to honor heroes of the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, the island's baseball icons -- Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Baerga and Juan Gonzalez among them -- walked alongside fellow Puerto Ricans amid appreciative applause.
When those luminaries are in the company of one another, especially at the venerable Bithorn, the conversation invariably returns to one of the proudest periods in the lineage of Puerto Rican baseball: the 1995 Caribbean Series, and the Dream Team assembled for it.
:: Puerto Rico Series coverage ::
Three historical factors created a team for the ages: a collection of Puerto Rican stars dotted Major League rosters in the early-to-mid 1990s; an increased percentage of Major Leaguers played in the 1994-95 winter season because of the players' strike; and Puerto Rico was determined to field its best team with the '95 Caribbean Series held at Hiram Bithorn.
The result? Once the Senadores de San Juan won the Puerto Rican Winter League title and added reinforcements before the Caribbean Series -- a practice still allowed under tournament rules -- their everyday lineup looked like this: Delgado behind the plate; an infield of Alomar, Baerga, Carmelo Martinez and Rey Sanchez; Williams, Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra in the outfield; and Edgar Martinez at designated hitter.
"We just wanted to play together," Alomar said before Tuesday's Puerto Rico Series opener between the Indians and Twins. "At that time, we didn't have baseball going on in the States. We wanted to do something special for the fans here."
These days, MLB-affiliated players on winter ball rosters typically are those only beginning their careers. The Dream Team was different. By the winter of 1994-95, Alomar had made five consecutive All-Star appearances and won four Gold Glove Awards. Gonzalez would win two American League MVP Awards over the next four Major League seasons. Martinez hit the double that won the 1995 AL Division Series against the Yankees and is credited with saving baseball in Seattle.
"At that time, I was a rookie," Delgado said. "I was the youngest guy on that team. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I'd walk into the clubhouse and see Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Carlos Baerga, Roberto Alomar, Carmelo Martinez, Rey Sanchez. ... It was a dream come true."
Amid extraordinarily high expectations, the Senadores delivered. They finished the tournament 6-0, including victories over the Dominican Republic in games started by Pedro Martinez and Jose Rijo.
"Everybody decided, 'There's going to be the Caribbean World Series in Puerto Rico, let's play together,' but we never thought it was going to be so huge," Baerga said this week. "This ballpark was packed. I remember it to this day. We were facing Pedro Martinez. We were facing Jose Rijo, too. It was unbelievable. I'm never going to forget it."
Baerga confirmed one detail of the story, as first reported by ESPN: The veteran Major Leaguers on the team did not accept paychecks from the Senadores.
"We just played for the fun of it, and to be ready for the big league season," Baerga said. "When you play winter ball, it's a different atmosphere. I work for the Indians now. I say, 'Bring these guys to play winter ball, because they're going to feel like they're playing in the playoffs. They're going to feel like they're playing in the World Series.'"
In sports, we love to compare generations. Well, Puerto Rico has its own version of the Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate: Who would win in a seven-game series between the '95 Dream Team and the 2017 World Baseball Classic team, which featured Yadier Molina, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and went undefeated until the gold medal game?
When asked to cast his vote before Tuesday's game, two-time All-Star outfielder Alex Rios said, "I'm going vintage. I'm going with the '95 team. We have a lot of talent in Puerto Rico now. In the long run, those players on the WBC team might be even better. But I've got to go vintage."
Delgado, who was on Puerto Rico's coaching staff in the 2017 Classic, agreed that the Dream Team would win, adding, "The 2017 team might be more exciting. You see the up-and-coming prospects. Lindor, Correa -- those guys are really, really good, and they're only three years into the league. The '95 team was a different story. It's hard to compare. I don't want to be unfair. But I think in a seven-game series, it's hard to beat that '95 team."
Even Red Sox manager Alex Cora -- who built the 2017 roster as general manager of the national team -- declined to put his team of young stars ahead of the legends.
"That's a tough one," Cora said recently, before listing the Dream Team's lineup by memory in a matter of seconds. "You had all those guys. That's pretty impressive. The pitching was OK, but that [everyday] team was amazing.
"Last year was great, but that '95 team in the Caribbean Series ... that was awesome."
Alomar sees one legacy of the 1995 Caribbean Series in the Majors now: Today's emerging Puerto Rican stars are old enough -- barely -- to have been inspired by players on the '95 team, at least later in their careers.
Alomar said before Tuesday's game that he's "honored" by Lindor's choice to wear the number (12) he once donned for the Indians. Later that night, Lindor struck an indelible home run before an exuberant crowd that recalled all those roars heard at Hiram Bithorn more than two decades ago.
"Twenty-three years later, we still remember," Delgado said. "They made a promotional picture, just of the nine hitters. It's very well-liked and well-preserved. You can walk into a little bar somewhere in the mountains, in Utuado, and there's that picture. It's great. People recognize that team. We greatly appreciate that. We feel fortunate we were part of that team, in that tournament. Once again, it's baseball and sports bringing together our country."
Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.