I had the good fortune of spending two winter baseball seasons playing for the Mayaguez Indios. The numbers worked out well for me. I won an MVP award, I made two all-star teams, I was part of a championship team, I was on a team that beat the Dream Team, I even won a fastest man trophy. It no doubt was the key turning point for my career. I arrived as a fading prospect. I came home from Puerto Rico seen as an everyday major league player.
But the numbers were not what counted.
I have been concerned about the criticism of the Puerto Rican team in the World Baseball Classic with accusations of excessive or even premature celebration. More concerning is the idea that young baseball players should not model themselves after these players. So allow me to share a few thoughts as someone who gratefully played two years in Puerto Rico as an American invite.
It is an oversimplification to boil down emotion to a set of rules, especially without walking in someone’s shoes. I had a nice major league career and I support having boundaries of respect for your opponent and the game. I understand that. No matter how flamboyant a culture, there are lines within that culture that circle back to respect and honor. Major League Baseball is supposed to be a fusion of culture and the WBC is an event where each culture has its own flavor to unapologetically share with the world. After all, they are playing for their countries, their homes.
When star player representing the Netherlands, Wladimir Ballantien had a ball thrown near his head by Puerto Rico’s closer, Edwin Diaz, he was visibly upset. Most likely seeing that pitch as retaliation for all the damage he had done to their team offensively, but it was Puerto Rico’s Yadier Molina who calmed him down, making sure he understood that it was not intentional. Molina had rules, he had honor, he had respect. And when it came time to express joy for the many amazing throws Molina made or the big plays executed by Puerto Rico in the tournament, he was jumping up and down in youthful exuberance. He wore his emotion on his sleeve in good times and in bad.
When you play for a team that is truly a family, one that is bound not just by contract or a stadium address or even an organizational history, but by culture, by childhood friendships, by legacy, by neighborhood (no matter if you are wearing a different uniform abroad or not,) the stakes are higher and the meaning is different. I learned very quickly that I was not just playing for the Mayaguez Indios but I was playing for everyone in the country that loved the game and wanted it to be celebrated. I even felt like I had to represent my opponents since everyone seemed to know each other well, regardless of team. It was like playing against your brother. You want to win, you wanted bragging rights, but in the end, you hug, you have dinner, and you go home, together.
My performance was at its peak in Puerto Rico. I came back with a lot of hardware. But the awards were not the greatest gift. Some of the trophies are buried in a box, put aside because now it is about my four children, my family that take up the most important shelves. The true gift came through the sense of belonging I felt from the people. I was validated in a way I did not even know I needed. I was welcomed as a son, a relationship not framed simply by my race or color. Connections that endure to this day. I remember returning years after our championship and seeing the same fans at the game, greeting me like time sat still. It is something we all desire, to be remembered, to be able to find a space where you feel like was frozen during the best of times.
The band played, my name was announced, the fans cheered, the hugs came from the same families that I saw years before at the games. Sure, I played well in my time there, I accomplished a lot to celebrate, but I still hear from people I met because of what was created off the field. My seasons there have never left me and thankfully, never left the people of Puerto Rico.
I have always loved the game of baseball from the moment my brother introduced it to me. It is a game that gave me so much. The realization of a dream, the honor of competing with the best, the power of joining history, the financial rewards of playing for long enough, the list goes on. But my time in Puerto Rico was singular. I felt truly loved there beyond the numbers, beyond the uniform, beyond my identity, maybe the people can explain why better than I can, but I imagine it has to do with giving your all to represent their team, their city, their country and being one with the Puerto Rican family. I walked the streets of Joyuda, I danced to the sounds of la Puerto Rican Power and Jailene Cintron during the championship celebration, I bounced to the music of Johnny Rivera to Marc Anthony to El Topo, I loved the food and of course the Coquito, I shed a tear when Mayaguez’s amazing inspiration, El Indio retired. I was home. It was a lesson in selflessness, and for that, I owe them everything.
It has been over 20 years since I first arrived in Puerto Rico. My friendships remain. On my last visit a couple of years ago I ran into three people I had not seen in years and yet we did not talk about MVP trophies, we talked about families, we talked about moments off the field, we talked about riding in the car to the games listening to Grupo Mania, we worried about the mortgage crisis, we asked about our parents, or how baseball needs a boost in Puerto Rico.
During my time there, I was adopted by families, I was invited into homes of strangers, I made lasting friendships, I even gained a wonderful family whose grandmother I called “abuelita.”
So let Team Puerto Rico celebrate. Times are tough right now in Puerto Rico. It was great to see the United States come together for the World Baseball Classic. They earned their victory with a talented team of players that may never play together again. It is a magic moment, no doubt, but to understand Puerto Rico, we must remember that their team was always together long before the WBC and will be long afterwards. There intimacy is not seasonal, the interpersonal relationships remain after the results are in. They have lifetimes of family interconnected by this sport in their homeland and when your family competes, you don’t just pour champagne, you dance and you have to dance with everyone who made it possible. Win or lose.
That is a wonderful lesson for our children, so I am thankful to let Puerto Rico teach my kids how to dance, not just alone in a room, but with their entire family and maybe one day, with an entire country.
No matter what the outcome.