SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Major League Baseball and the players' union said Thursday they are teaming to launch a new summer league in Puerto Rico to give island teenagers more chances to stay on the field during the school break.
The Puerto Rico Summer League is the latest move in efforts by the MLB and the players' union to support youth baseball on the U.S. Caribbean island that has produced a long line of greats including Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.
But the numbers of local players making it to the big leagues has steadily diminished in recent years. There were 11 Puerto Rican players on opening day rosters this season. In 2005, there were 34.
That's why the summer league for youngsters aged 14-17 can make a big difference, according to MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred.
"We all know that Puerto Rico has a great baseball tradition. We also know that great traditions need to be tended or else they deteriorate," he said at a press conference at a San Juan hotel.
The league will have two four-team divisions and will run for eight weeks in June and July in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo and the western city of Mayaguez. Players were selected through tryouts throughout the Caribbean island.
The MLB has stepped up its drive to stop a slide in Puerto Rico's production of major leaguers through a range of initiatives including player showcases and an intensive after-school training program. It has also been a long supporter of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, whose graduates include slugging shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 draft pick in 2012.
The MLB and union officials acknowledged that the summer league and other programs won't send the number of Puerto Rican in the big leagues surging overnight.
"Development takes time. We believe we have laid a solid foundation," said Kim Ng, MLB's vice president of baseball operations.
For Tony Clark, executive director of the players' union, the key is keeping young Puerto Rican players on the field, a goal that the new summer league can achieve.
Among the retired Puerto Rican baseball players on hand for Thursday's announcement were slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado, infielder Alex Cora, and outfielder Candy Maldonado. Also present were Bronx-born Puerto Rican Bobby Bonilla and Javier Vazquez, both former major leaguers now working with the players' union.
Manfred stressed that the MLB and players' union are committed to strengthening the sport in Puerto Rico. "There is no place outside of the States that we have spent more time and effort than Puerto Rico. It has really been at the top of our list in terms of developing a program to reinvigorate the development of players," he said.
For Ivan Arce, a 15-year-old player from baseball legend Roberto Clemente's hometown of Carolina, that's welcome news.
"There's a lot of talent in Puerto Rico," he said. "There's opportunity for people willing to work hard."