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Puerto Rico sees hints of baseball revival

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Puerto Rico sees hints of baseball revival

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) On an island where the name of Roberto Clemente is emblazoned on stadiums, streets and schools, baseball is making a rally.

In the past year, Major League Baseball reported the second-highest number of signings from Puerto Rico since 2000. The U.S. territory also has seen the opening of new baseball academies and an expansion of its winter league teams, whose tournament this year is dedicated to Clemente four decades after his death.

Clemente died in a plane crash off Puerto Rico's north coast on Dec. 31, 1972, while helping deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Thousands mourned the loss of the Hall of Famer who won 12 Gold Glove awards and whose name is on the yearly honor for the MLB player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and community involvement.

``I always think of Clemente because he did so much in so many ways to help the game, people of his country, everything,'' Commissioner Bud Selig said. ``How he died was a great testament to his desire to help other human beings. He was an amazing guy. Amazing on the field, better off the field.''

Puerto Rico has since been searching for its next Clemente ever since. Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran all debuted in the late 1980s and `90s, a period regarded as Puerto Rico's golden era. The nation's influence has waned since then.

There are only 18 Puerto Rican-born players in the major leagues, the lowest number since 1968, and down from 29 in 2011 and a record 53 in 2001. The number of regular-season MLB games played in Puerto Rico has dropped from 23 in 2003 to only three in 2010. The Puerto Rico Baseball League canceled play in 2007 for the first time, citing a drop in attendance and profits.

Local baseball officials have blamed the first-year player draft for the changes. Since 1990, Puerto Rican players are required to complete high school before competing with players from the U.S. and Canada for a professional contract. The rule does not apply to other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where players can sign as free agents and where recruiters have invested millions in baseball academies.

Officials call the draft unfair, saying the island has substandard training, facilities and programs compared with the mainland U.S.

``Our boys are at a disadvantage,'' baseball historian Humberto Charneco said. ``In the U.S., there is a great methodology in preparing players, providing them guidance and advanced training. In Puerto Rico, there are no facilities to do that.''

In 2007, Puerto Rico Sports Secretary David Bernier unsuccessfully asked for a 10-year moratorium on the draft to help the island adjust, arguing that recruiters were focusing on other Latin American countries.

Edwin Rodriguez, former manager of the Florida Marlins, said the rise in popularity of soccer and basketball is also to blame, along with a lack of good baseball coaches and training programs. He dismissed the idea that the draft had led to a drop in players.

``Puerto Ricans have always had to compete against the Americans, the Canadians, the Dominicans,'' he said. ``If one is a prospect at 16, one is a prospect at 18. No one can convince me that a Roberto Alomar at 16 was not going to have the same talent at 18. That for me is very hard to digest.''

There are signs of a baseball revival.

The Puerto Rico Baseball League has added two more teams for a total of six, and this year was renamed the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

``In a firm commitment to Puerto Rico baseball and its fans, we will turn the league into a stepping stone to promote the development and improvement of young talents,'' said Hector Rivera, the league's president.

There was also a surge of fresh interest in the sport after 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican to be the first overall pick in the draft, receiving a $4.8 million signing bonus with the Houston Astros in June. Previously, the highest-drafted player out of Puerto Rico was catcher Ramon Castro, who went No. 17 to Houston in 1994.

``Puerto Rico baseball is rising little by little,'' Correa said. ``A lot more young players began dedicating themselves to the sport and saw that it could be done.''

Correa is a graduate of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, which receives $400,000 each year from MLB and has produced athletes who have been drafted or awarded scholarships at Division I universities in recent years.

``The talent that we're seeing now, we will likely see it knock on the doors of the major leagues in the next four to six years,'' said Lucy Batista, the school's headmaster.

Correa's achievement also has stirred interest in recreational baseball players across Puerto Rico, with teams in some towns being forced to wait in line to play at public fields. Using Correa's popularity as a platform, MLB plans to start tournaments and after-school programs across the island to further stimulate interest in the sport, said Kim Ng, the organization's senior vice president for baseball operations.

``I think that we're on the upswing there,'' she said. ``Carlos Correa being the first pick in the draft this past year is more indicative of what's going on in Puerto Rico, and I think it has to a certain extent reinvigorated the game down there.''

The importance of local academies is key. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Hiram Burgos said he enrolled in the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in 10th grade and graduated in 2005.

``I developed immensely,'' he said of his time there. ``I added almost 10 miles to my speed as a pitcher.''

Rodriguez, the former Marlins manager, said he anticipates a spike in talented baseball players from Puerto Rico in the next 10 to 15 years, thanks to the academies. And while he believes that another Clemente could be in the works, he warned against expectations that Puerto Rico would see a second golden era.

``It's not fair to compare what's happening now to the time of the Roberto Alomars, Carlos Baergas,'' he said. ``That was a cycle. It is very, very rare for that to happen, not only in Puerto Rico, but in any state in the United States.''

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AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

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Crowder, Richardson headline long list of injury questions for Redskins during Dallas week

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USA Today Sports

Crowder, Richardson headline long list of injury questions for Redskins during Dallas week

Redskins head coach Jay Gruden joked about optimism when going over the team's injury report, but that might be the coach's only way to deal with the current situation. 

Receivers Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson did not practice on Thursday, and their status for Sunday seems murky at best. Crowder was spotted at Redskins Park using a scooter to keep his weight off his injured ankle, and while Richardson was seen walking around, his knee remains an issue. 

There was some good news, however, that Chris Thompson and Shawn Lauvao practiced, albeit in a limited role. 

Getting Thompson back on the field would be a big help for the Redskins offense, and alleviate some pressure off Adrian Peterson. The future Hall of Famer did not practice Wednesday as he is dealing with a host of injuries, including his shoulder and knee. 

The one player Gruden said he did not have optimisim in a return this week was rookie safety Troy Apke. There has been some conversation about possibly moving him to the injured reserve, but that has not happened yet. 

The Redskins currently have one open roster spot as the team released veteran defensive lineman Ziggy Hood earlier this week. With all the concerns at wideout, maybe Washington uses that spot to bring up a practice squad player to support the unit. 

More Redskins news

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Capitals prospect report: The chocolate and white is feeling a bit black and blue

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USA Today

Capitals prospect report: The chocolate and white is feeling a bit black and blue

The Hershey Bears won their first game of the season on Tuesday, beating rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 3-2. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Hershey is now 1-5 on the season and sits in last place in the Atlantic Division.

The Bears missed the playoffs last season meaning a 1-5 start to this season is not sitting well for fans of the storied AHL franchise.

The roster in Hershey looks much improved compared to last season. So why are they struggling and how do they turn things around?

The biggest issue to me is cohesion. Head coach Spencer Carbery is in his first season with the team. In addition, this roster has had a lot of turnover. Caps prospects Shane Gersich, Juuso Ikonen, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Max Kammerer, Beck Malenstyn, Garrett Pilon, Brian Pinho, Tobias Geisser and Ilya Samsonov are all making their AHL debuts this season. Other additions such as Michael Sgarbossa, Jayson Megna and Sergei Shumakov makes this roster largely a collection of players who have not played together before. There were going to be growing pains, but the Bears are going to get better as the season goes along.

    Another issue has been injuries.

    Samsonov became just the latest in a long list of players on the shelf due to injury. It was announced on Wednesday that he suffered a lower-body injury and is considered day-to-day. He did not dress for the team’s game that night and Hershey was forced to sign a local goalie, Padraig Carey, to an amateur tryout agreement to serve as the backup to Vitek Vanecek.

    Hershey recalled goalie Parker Milner from the ECHL on Thursday.

    In addition to Samsonov’s injury, Kris Bindulis, Colby Williams, Riley Barber, Ikonen and Shumakov are all dealing with upper-body injuries while Mason Mitchell has a lower-body ailment.

    Other prospect notes:

    • With so many new players, several have reached early career milestones. Pilon (2 assists), Kammerer (3 assists), Malenstyn (1 assist) and Jonsson-Fjallby (1 goal) all recorded their first AHL points over the week. Here’s a look at Jonsson-Fjallby’s goal:
       

    • Jonsson-Fjallby remains in Hershey despite rumors last week of a return to Sweden. Those rumors seem to have originated from Sweden and now it looks like any speculation of Jonsson-Fjallby leaving for his home country have been put to bed. Swedish outlet Expressen spoke with Joakim Eriksson, sports director of Jonsson-Fjallby’s Swedish team Djurgarden. In that report published Monday, Eriksson said (as translated by Google translate), “Axel has a contract with Washington and no other team. It's Axel's decision altogether, but we have said that we have a place available and that's how the situation has been. Everything else has just been media speculation.”
       
    • The blog Russian Machine Never Breaks made a trek out to Hershey and spoke with Ilya Samsonov about his transition to North America and his start in the AHL. “For so long, as you understand, I spent my whole life speaking a different language,” Samsonov said. “So, for now, it’s hard for me to hear what my teammates are saying on the ice. Some things I don’t understand, but I’m trying, and I think I’ve made a step forward in that regard.” Check out the full interview and article here.
       
    • I spoke with Capitals coach Scott Murray recently on Samsonov and the language barrier. “He actually did a really good job this summer,” Murray said. “He stayed in the US and did a really good job bridging that gap and then obviously we’ve made it a point and he’s made it a point that he wants to continually get better at the English language so that we can communicate because when you can communicate it’s way easier to teach, it’s way easier for him to learn and be engaged.”
       
    • Vanecek got his first win of the season on Wednesday and the Penguins made him earn it. He turned aside 40 shots in the effort, a new career-high for him.
       
    • Defenseman Tyler Lewington scored on Sunday against Rockford. It was his first goal since Nov. 11, 2017. You can see the replay of it here:  

    • Riley Sutter was named first star of the game on Saturday in Everett’s win over Kamloops in the WHL. He scored two goals and an assist to help lead Everett to the 7-2 victory.
       

    MORE CAPITALS NEWS: