Roberto Alomar’s splendid Puerto Rico Winter League and Caribbean Series Career

Roberto Alomar

Twenty-seven years ago (March 1992) I spent a week in Florida spring training camps, doing research on a future (1995) Puerto Rico Winter League book. I visited Dunedin, where the Toronto Blue Jays trained/played home games. Roberto Alomar was relaxing with teammate Alfredo Griffin when I approached Alomar. My fluency in Spanish was quickly picked up by Alomar, like a grounder he smoothly handled. Our conversation was pleasant; Alfredo Griffin listened in, since—five years earlier—he played for the Aguilas Cibaeñas club from the Dominican Republic against Alomar’s Caguas Criollos, February 1987 Caribbean Series, hosted by Hermosillo, Mexico.

Many stateside and global baseball fans may not be familiar with Roberto Alomar’s splendid Puerto Rico Winter League/Caribbean Series career. This is an effort to share some highlights of talent he displayed in 13 Puerto Rico regular seasons plus four Caribbean Series events.

The Arecibo Wolves drafted a 17-year old Alomar in 1985, but he asked to be traded to a team closer to his Salinas home. Caguas, managed by Felipe Alou in 1985-86, acquired the young 2B. Al Newman, Caguas’ regular 2B, recalled: “I tell you, when I first got down there (Caguas), I was the 2B and he [Alomar] was young. Later in the season I moved over to SS so he could play 2B.” Alomar played in 22 games (.262 BA) for Alou’s Criollos. Roberto Alomar opined Felipe Alou’s managing style was similar to Cito Gaston’s approach with Toronto, stating: “Alou asks you to play hard, and if you’re hurt, let him know…I liked Alou. He’s a straightforward guy.”

Alomar hit .264, one HR, 10 RBIs for 31-23 Caguas in 1986-87, managed by Tim Foli, who Alomar called: “An aggressive type who taught me quite a bit.” Caguas qualified for the league finals by winning the 12-game round robin at 8-4, ahead of 7-5 Ponce. The Criollos bested Ponce in the finals, four games to two. Caguas reinforced itself for the February 1987 Caribbean Series with Arecibo’s Candy Maldonado and Mayagüez’s Bobby Bonilla, who replaced Van Snider and Ellis Burks. A trio of pitchers—Ponce’s David Cone, Mayagüez’s Mambo de León and San Juan’s Juan Nieves—were added to Caguas’ roster. Rookie Bernie Williams was a reserve OF.

On February 6, 1987, Roberto Alomar’s 19th birthday, Caguas lost a 14-13 game to the Aguilas Cibaeñas, where the Criollos hit eight homers, but committed eight errors. Coach Ramón Avilés replaced Foli, who was fired by team management the next morning. Alomar was not worried, stating “I like to play under pressure…after that [14-13] loss, we came back.” Caguas’ all-native starting line-up—catcher Orlando Mercado, 1B Carmelo Martínez, 2B Alomar, 3B Germán Rivera, SS Edgar Díaz, OF Henry Cotto-Bobby Bonilla-Candy Maldonado, DH Hedi Vargas—plus a fine pitching staff enabled the Criollos to win four straight, including a tie-breaker. This would be the first of two Caribbean Series titles for Roberto Alomar.

In 1987-88, prior to Alomar’s MLB debut with the 1988 San Diego Padres, Alomar finished fourth in Puerto Rico’s batting chase at .302; tied for third with 14 SB; led the league with 60 hits and was second in doubles with 13. Caguas ended in fifth place despite Roberto Kelly’s presence and Rob Dibble’s relief pitching. The next winter (1988-89), Alomar’s .314 BA was third-best, behind San Juan’s Lonnie Smith (.366) and Doug Dascenzo (.327), also of San Juan.
Caguas then traded Alomar to Ponce for untested Juan González prior to the 1989-90 season. Roberto wanted to play for his father, Santos (Sandy) Alomar Sr., the Ponce manager. Caguas felt González was ready to produce. Nagging injuries limited Roberto to 17 games, .247, one HR, seven RBIs in 1989-90. He played one game for the 1990-91 Ponce Lions before taking time off in 1991-92 and 1992-93, which preceded Toronto’s World Series titles in 1992/1993.

Roberto Alomar returned to Ponce in 1993-94 for two reasons: 1) Play for his father; and 2) Contribute to the league’s success. Roberto commented: “I hope fans realize this league is as good as any and better than most. We just need their support to make this season a great one.” In 16 games for last-place Ponce (14-34), Alomar hit .327 (17H/52AB) with five SB. He helped the Island All-Star team, with Arecibo, Mayagüez and Ponce players, defeat the Metro squad of Caguas-Santurce-San Juan players, in the League All-Star Game, December 26, 1993. The 8-2 Island win was helped by Alomar, Candy Maldonado (Arecibo) and Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez (Mayaguez).

Alomar was traded for the third time, this instance to the San Juan Senators for catcher Javy López, a native of Ponce. The trade paid dividends for San Juan following the 1994 MLB players’ strike. Puerto Rico League attendance increased from 432,212 in 1993-94 to 729,809 in 1994-95, or 68.9 percent. Island fans were excited to see their favorite native players in action.

The 33-21 Mayagüez Indios edged 32-22 San Juan for first place in the regular season. San Juan also finished to second to Mayagüez in the round robin after the 6-6 Senators outlasted Arecibo and Ponce, who won five and four games, respectively. Roberto Alomar, with a .299 BA in the regular season, four HR, 19 RBIs, eight SB in 46 games, was in the middle of the action at the end of game eight of the finals between San Juan-Mayagüez.

San Juan was ahead, four games to three, when it appeared that Mayagüez would win game eight at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey—San Juan’s home field—to force a game nine in Mayagüez. The Indios were two outs away from a game-eight win when Edgar Martínez, the future Cooperstown Hall of Famer, singled, followed by another hit from the bat of his cousin, Carmelo Martínez. Trent Hubbard cracked a single to tie the game at four. Edwin Alicea walked to bring up Roberto Alomar. Roberto Hernández, the Indios reliever, got two quick strikes on Alomar before throwing a low pitch which catcher Chad Kreuter could not stop. This 5-4 win propelled San Juan to the February 4-9, 1995 Caribbean Series, held at Bithorn.

Team Puerto Rico reinforced itself with a new OF: Caguas’ Juan González (LF), Arecibo’s Bernie Williams (CF) and Santurce’s Rubén Sierra (RF). Manager Luis Meléndez opted not to replace catcher Carlos Delgado with Caguas’ Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez. The San Juan IF of Carmelo Martínez (1B), Roberto Alomar (2B), Carlos Baerga (3B) and SS Rey Sánchez, stayed intact. Pitching reinforcements included Ponce’s Ricky Bones and Eric Gunderson; Arecibo’s José Alberro plus Mayagüez’s Doug Brocail and Chris Haney.

The February 1995 Caribbean Series was the first one where the Puerto Rico team wore Puerto Rico on their uniforms, instead of the league champion’s name. It was also a special series in that Puerto Rico’s MLB stars opted not to take salary/compensation for playing in this six-game series versus the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela. When the dust settled at Bithorn the night of February 9, 1995, Puerto Rico was undefeated (6-0), followed by the Dominican team (4-2), with Mexico (1-5) and Venezuela (1-5) in the rear.

Roberto Alomar, voted series MVP, led all series hitters with a .560 BA, .633 OBP, 840 SLG and 1,473 OPS. His nine runs-10 RBIs also were tops. Alomar’s 14 hits tied an all-time Caribbean Series record held by Cuba’s Pedro Formental (1953) and Mayagüez’s Randy Ready (1986). Team Puerto Rico outscored their opponents, 49-15. Bernie Williams, .417 BA, three HR, four RBIs; Juan González, .375, two HR, six RBIs; Edgar Martínez, .370, nine RBIs; Rey Sánchez (regular season batting champ, but ninth place hitter in the series) had a .333 BA, below Puerto Rico’s .346 team BA.

Alomar was not finished yet. The switch-hitter returned to play for San Juan in 1995-96 and 1996-97, winning league batting crowns both seasons! On January 8, 1996, Santurce’s Rey Ordoñez went hitless to finish the season at .351. Roberto Alomar clinched the batting crown against Ponce three days later, to finish at .362. He hit four HR with 21 RBIs and tied for the league lead with 14 doubles.

Arecibo won the 1995-96 league title. Team officials and Pat Kelly—the Arecibo manager—chose Roberto Alomar to reinforce the team for the February 1996 Caribbean Series. Alomar hit .261 with six runs scored and four RBIs, but the Culiacán Tomato Growers from Mexico (5-1) took series laurels over the 4-2 Arecibo Wolves. Aguilas Cibaeñas (2-4), managed by Terry Francona, and Magallanes Navigators from Venezuela (1-5). Pudge Rodríguez also reinforced Arecibo, replacing Mike Matheny on the team’s roster. Bernie Williams was Arecibo’s star OF.

Russ Johnson, Santurce’s 1996-97 shortstop, was honored to be Roberto Alomar’s double play partner in the 1996-97 League All-Star Game. Russ told me it was one of the highlights of his career. Santurce LHP Billy Wagner also credited Roberto Alomar for helping him develop into a better pitcher after being able to get Roberto out during the San Juan-Santurce rivalry games. Wagner became more confident transitioning from a starter to a reliever in Puerto Rico.

Alomar (.347 BA, 1996-97) edged Mayagüez’s Wilfredo Cordero (.344 BA) for his second straight Puerto Rico batting title, a feat previously accomplished by Guayama’s Perucho Cepeda in 1938-39 and 1939-40; Santurce’s Willard Brown, 1946-47 and 1947-48; Caguas’s Félix Millán, 1968-69 and 1969-70; and Bayamon’s Dickie Thon, 1980-81 and 1981-82.

Alomar reinforced Mayagüez in the February 1997 Caribbean Series, Hermosillo, Mexico. His four stolen bases led all players, but the Aguilas Cibaeñas (4-2) won it over Culiacán (3-3), Magallanes (3-3) and Mayagüez (2-4). He played three more seasons in Puerto Rico with San Juan (1999-2000), Caguas (2000-01) and Santurce (2004-05).

Roberto Alomar finished his 13-year Puerto Rico regular season career hitting .303, 76 doubles, 10 triples, 21 HR, 119 RBIs. He scored 208 runs with 353 hits; stole 56 bases; struck out 112 times in 1,165 AB and walked 169 times. His .391 OBP and .439 SLG resulted in a .830 OPS.

Alomar and others deserve credit for the league surpassing the one million mark in tickets sold in 1995-96: 1,002,459; and 1996-97: 1,149,870.

The February 2-7, 2011 Caribbean Series, hosted by Mayagüez’s Isidoro García Stadium, was dedicated to Roberto Alomar, the recently elected Cooperstown Hall of Famer. The organizing committee of the 2011 Caribbean Series announced that Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Luis de León and Candy Maldonado would be inducted into the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, in 2011. Roberto Alomar is an all-time Puerto Rico and Caribbean Series baseball legend.

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