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World Baseball Classic Success Drives Puerto Rico

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DENVER—In the aftermath of Puerto Rico advancing to the finals of the World Baseball Classic for the second tournament in a row, catcher Yadier Molina talked about his hope that the team’s success would help rekindle a focus on baseball in his homeland.

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

Though Puerto Rico once again was shut out in the championship game—they fell 8-0 to the United States after losing 3-0 to the Dominican Republic in 2013—many see the nation’s success in the past two tournaments as a path to restoring passion for the game to a place that was once a hotbed of baseball talent.

"Our goal is not to give them joy for (just) two weeks,” Puerto Rico general manager Alex Cora, the former big league shortstop, 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 stirred by the WBC. It has, however, lost its magic touch, at least in terms of producing big league players.

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

Puerto Rico’s big league impact has slowly eroded since native players were folded into the pool of draft-eligible players in 1989. The move 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 signing Nieves for what was then a record-setting bonus of $175,000 for an international free agent back in 1988.

That in turn came on the heels of the so-called Juan Nieves factor, a reference to the Puerto Rican lefthander who signed with the Brewers in 1983 for what was then a record bonus of $150,000. He was attending Avon Old Farms High, a boarding school in Connecticut, at the time. As a response to the signing, Major League Baseball adopted a rule that any foreign student attending school in the U.S. would be draft-eligible.

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Decades Of Decline

Since the rule change that made Puerto Rican players eligible for the draft, fewer of the nation’s players have reached the majors. Puerto Rico had produced more big league players than any country other than the U.S. prior to that.

Since outfielder Ricky Otero, who was drafted in 1990 and made his debut on April 25, 1995, became the first drafted player from Puerto Rico to reach the big leagues, just 63 Puerto Rican players have made it to the majors.

Compare that to 283 players from Venezuela and 278 from the Dominican Republic since 1995. 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 organizations run their own academies to house and work out teenagers in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since the advent of the draft, Puerto Rico has been treated more like the U.S., 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 American countries, a player may sign after turning 16.

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa was the first player from Puerto Rico to be taken with the first overall pick 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 just 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.

Just seven of the 64 drafted players have appeared in as many as 1,000 games, led by Carlos Beltran (2,457), Alex Rios (1,691) and Molina (1,611).

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.

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