WASHINGTON -- The 1997 All-Star Game took place in Cleveland, but it was a Puerto Rican party. The tiny island in the Caribbean had an outsized impact on the American League and National League rosters that year, with a record-high eight Puerto Rican representatives between the two squads. Each of
WASHINGTON -- The 1997 All-Star Game took place in Cleveland, but it was a Puerto Rican party. The tiny island in the Caribbean had an outsized impact on the American League and National League rosters that year, with a record-high eight Puerto Rican representatives between the two squads. Each of the game's four runs was driven in by a player of Puerto Rican descent, with the winning home run hit by MVP Sandy Alomar Jr.
You would not have known it in that moment, but the 1997 game was Puerto Rico at its big league peak. Soon after, the sport began to see a steep decline in the impact of Puerto Rican players. Whether that decline could be traced back, as some argue, to the 1989 change in which Puerto Ricans became subject to the MLB Draft (giving teams less financial incentive to develop players in the country) or, as others argue, to a simple decline in interest in baseball among children on the island, the bottom line was that a league that is always looking to widen its reach had a bit of a Puerto Rico problem -- one MLB has spent recent years attempting to address with its international operations.
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It's notable, then, to look up and down the rosters for tonight's 89th All-Star Game presented by Mastercard and see six Puerto Rican players on hand. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, Cubs second baseman Javier Baez, Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez, Mariners closer Edwin Diaz, Twins starter Jose Berrios and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina represent more than just their clubs.
"We are here to play for our team," said Baez, "and for Puerto Rico."
Puerto Rico is still crawling its way back from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, with the slow work of bringing electricity back to the island's most remote areas ongoing. There are, in other words, bigger issues than baseball taking place.
But as we saw in the emotion-packed Puerto Rico Series between the Indians and Twins at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in April, the sport can be a wonderful diversion. And this All-Star showcase is evidence of what can happen when Puerto Rican kids chase their Major League dreams.
"It's great news for the island," Molina said. "I think we are on the stairs, going up."
Molina and his brothers Jose and Bengie are the only sibling trio to catch in the Majors. They helped bridge the gap between the old guard of Puerto Rican players we saw in 1997 and a new wave in which Lindor and Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who in 2012 became the first Puerto Rican player to be taken No. 1 overall in the Draft, are widely considered two of the game's best young players (alas, there were only so many AL shortstop slots to go around this year).
"I think with these generational players that we have, it's really, really intriguing," Alomar said. "Kids want to wear their jerseys and be like them. That's how it was in the past, and that's what tells you the interest is there."
The sport has sown the seeds for increased interest. In August 2016, MLB and the MLB Players Association jointly announced a $5 million commitment toward the support and creation of baseball development programs in Puerto Rico. And during the Puerto Rico Series, MLB held a Play Ball event in which more than 450 young kids took part in hitting, fielding and agility drills.
As the pipeline improves, there will be more incentive for teams to invest their time and economic resources in Puerto Rico.
"Carlos Beltran and a few others are focused on developing Major League players with their academies," Alomar said. "My brother [Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar] is involved in some academies, too. So the interest is there. It's just a matter of time for that wave to come back."
Perhaps this 2018 All-Star Game, in which Puerto Rico natives Alex Cintron and Joe Espada are serving on AJ Hinch's AL coaching staff, merely represents the beginning of a larger wave. For now, it serves as an extension of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where all six of these Puerto Rican All-Stars, as well as AL Final Vote candidate Eddie Rosario, played together on the squad that lost to the U.S. in the Finals.
The bonds formed from that experience have lingered in the form of constant group texting, with the players supporting each other throughout the long season.
So when the All-Star rosters were announced last week, the texts turned congratulatory.
"The WBC kind of set a standard to all the guys," Lindor said. "It was, 'All right, we can play at this high level. We can do this.'"
These rosters are proof they were right.
"For our country, this is the best thing that can happen," Jimenez said. "Everybody over there loves baseball. They would love to see everybody out there [in the All-Star Game]. We are going to enjoy the moment and have fun."
Maybe another Puerto Rican party -- the likes of which we saw in 1997 -- will break out.
"How many did we have in '97? Eight?" Alomar asked. "We're getting close."
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.