Fans of international baseball–especially the brand played in the Caribbean during winter off-season months–had to be saddened and even deeply disturbed by this week’s unsettling news that the 69-year-old Puerto Rico winter circuit has finally folded operations after years of worsening financial struggle. The league’s demise ironically comes on the heels of a largely successful Caribbean Series staged this past February in the island’s showcase Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium (pictured here); it also is the latest blow to international baseball which is still reeling from the 2006 decision of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to remove baseball and softball as official sports for the 2012 Olympic competitions scheduled for London.
Numerous explanations might be offered for the demise of the most troubled and most venerable winter circuit. The decline of baseball interest in Puerto Rico has been attributed to such factors as the lack of participation in the October-January league by recognizable Puerto Rican big leaguers; the fact that the island is now subject to the First-Year Player Draft (which drains away most of the top young local talent); and the rise in popularity of rival sports like soccer and basketball. But the establishment of MLB’s Arizona Fall League as a major focus of off-season player development certainly has not helped. That Puerto Rican fans will still turn out in droves to see top-level native pro stars was proven by the 2006 World Baseball Classic’s opening two rounds in San Juan, which witnessed packed grandstands at 20,000-seat Hi Bithorn Stadium (especially for battles between the host team and Caribbean rivals Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic). Winter league baseball throughout the Caribbean has been dealt a near-fatal blow over the past three decades by a professional baseball structure which prevents high-salaried MLB superstars native to the region from desiring (or even being allowed by their agents) to participate in off-season competitions in their homelands. But in the broader view, the death knell for winter Caribbean baseball seems only the latest chapter of an ongoing saga which has seen Jorge Pasquel’s rebel Mexican League (1940s), the Negro leagues (1950s), and the North American minor leagues (1950s and 1960s) all crumble as viable alternatives to MLB’s televised baseball entertainment enterprise. Recent MLB raids of top players from the Japanese pro circuits might well suggest that the top rival Asian baseball empire will be the next to fall; the Cuban League appears today to be the only healthy surviving alternative baseball universe, and its days are also likely numbered (given the tenuous hold on the island nation of an aging and sagging socialist government system that has long kept the encroachments of MLB recruiting at bay). Political strife in Venezuela also suggests that the Venezuelan Winter League circuit (which had its own 2003 season cancelled in midstream due to renewed civil unrest involving the increasingly unpopular government of ballplayer-turned-socialist politico Hugo Chavez) may also be on the verge of an inevitable meltdown.
I have written at some length about the plight of the winter league cicuits (as well as the MLB monoply which undermines international baseball movements) in my 2005 book Diamonds around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball (Greenwood Press) and readers are welcome to pursue these arguments in that original source. For the moment one can only speculate on what the immediate impact will be–for winter baseball as a whole–of this suspension of play in Puerto Rico. For one thing, an immediate crisis now faces the traditional February Caribbean Series, the annual championship playoff between the four winter circuit champions, which is scheduled this year for Santo Domingo. The event will now seemingly be reduced to an impractical three-team affair, not at all a promising prospect. There is talk of a replacement league based in Puerto Rico, one involving an expansion of the island’s popular amateur league (Liga Double A) into a six-team and 20-game circuit that would be called the Liga Invernal Boricua. It would run throughout November and December with playoffs in January; each 25-man roster would have 16 native amateur players and nine "imported professional players" with major league affiliations. But such a circuit would not likely produce sufficient talent to be competitive in the annual Caribbean round-robin. Some have speculated that the new winter league in Nicaragua would be the big beneficiary of these developments and an appropriate substitute for Puerto Rico. But this is also a "developmental" rookie league with a considerably limited talent pool. Maybe it is time for a radical departure on the part of the Alianza Latina de Beisbol and the Confederacion de Beisbol del Caribe (administrative bodies governing the winter circuits) and an overture to officials of the Cuban League. The presence of the Cuban champion (this year Santiago de Cuba, pictured) in this mix would certainly do much to stimulate fan interest and elevate the quality of play. But the Alianza has already gone on record on this matter when Confederation Commissioner Juan Francisco Puello remarked at last year’s event (in San Juan) that Cuba would be welcome only if it "fulfilled all the requirements of professional baseball" (perhaps meaning that the Cuban government would have to release its players to MLB signings, not a very likely scenario). Puello commented further last February that the Caribbean Series was as healthy as ever, that it had gotten along just fine for decades without Cuba, and that it certainly didn’t need Cuba now. Such exaggerations of the tournament’s true health status seemed something of an idle boast a year ago, and they certainly seem like an even further stretching of the truth now.