9:16 PM CDT, March 18, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO — Roberto Clemente was baseball royalty long before dying on a relief mission at the height of his Hall of Fame career.
Ernie Banks knew the kid had something as soon as he saw the young Puerto Rican play right field for the Pirates. Banks still feels voters jobbed Clemente when they gave the 1960 MVP award to Clemente's teammate Dick Groat, and Banks treasures a visit he made one offseason to Clemente's home on the top of a hill in Rio Piedras, outside San Juan.
From Clemente's front door, he could survey the Caribbean in the same style Willie Mays commanded the Pacific from his home near Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco. Clemente roasted a pig for Banks, and the two men and their wives raised a glass to opportunity.
"He was an amazing person,'' Banks said. "A very smart guy … I wanted to help him a lot. He was a right fielder and didn't get a lot of publicity. We had Hank Aaron playing right field ... Willie Mays playing center. They didn't give him a lot of credit for what he could do and the way he could play. He was a tremendous baseball player.''
Latin Americans continue to push for Major League Baseball to retire Clemente's No. 21, as it did Jackie Robinson's No. 42. With scouts such as Howie Haak and Luis Rosa roaming the island, there was a long time when no place in the Caribbean produced more talented players than Puerto Rico.
But sometime in the last 20 years, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela shot past the little island in terms of baseball dominance. Now Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios, Angel Pagan and their countrymen have struck a blow for the ghost of Clemente.
Most analysts viewed Puerto Rico as an afterthought when the third World Baseball Classic began. But its players have come through under pressure time and time again, advancing to Tuesday night's championship game.
"The boys feel that, as a team, we have been able to accomplish a mission,'' manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "It's a huge thrill. It's euphoria.''
Puerto Rico eliminated Venezuela in the first round, the United States in the second round and Japan in Sunday night's semifinal. It plays the winner of Monday's Dominican Republic-Netherlands semifinal, with a chance for bragging rights that last four years.
There were only 11 Puerto Ricans in the big leagues on opening day a year ago — fewer than there were Canadians and 84 fewer than there were Dominicans — but seven answered the call for the WBC. Molina, Pagan, Rios (two-run homer in the semifinal), Beltran and shortstop Mike Aviles have helped a pitching staff built around non-prospects and journeymen to create the biggest baseball celebration in Puerto Rico since Roberto Alomar helped the Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series titles.
The Padres signed Alomar and his brother Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1985 and '83, respectively, when the infamous Rosa worked for scouting director Sandy Johnson. That was a five-year period in which baseball talent flowed out of Puerto Rico, with Bernie Williams, Carlos Baerga, Jose Valentin, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado, Javy Lopez and Jose Hernandez among the Puerto Rican players who entered professional baseball.
But in an attempt to lower the cost of acquiring that talent, MLB made Puerto Rican players subject to the draft in 1989. It gained that right because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory but never followed up by making other spots in Latin America subject to the draft.
With the free market in effect, and hundreds of motivated Dominican teenagers willing to sign for tip money every year, Puerto Rico has mattered less in terms of player acquisition over time. That finally might be changing.
Academies in Puerto Rico — baseball-driven high schools, not unlike some American schools that cater to sports — are developing talented prospects such as shortstop Carlos Correa, whom the Astros drafted first overall in 2012 at 16.
"I don't blame the draft,'' said Rodriguez, who managed the Marlins in 2010-11. "I have to blame the system in Puerto Rico. We have to take responsibility and we have to make adjustments. This game is about adjustments. So we have to make it happen.''
They've done that the last couple of weeks. Clemente would have been proud.
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