Cleveland Indians Have Strong Ties to Puerto Rico
Bob Toth | On 17, Apr 2018
Some big names to suit up for the Cleveland Indians during the last three decades have hailed from the island of Puerto Rico. The Indians’ two-game road trip to San Juan as the visiting club against the “home” Twins on Tuesday and Wednesday will mark the team’s first regular season games in Puerto Rico and will serve as a homecoming of sorts for star shortstop Francisco Lindor and catcher Roberto Perez, who both spent a portion of their lives there.
According to the historical archives known as Baseball Reference, 242 Puerto Rican-born players have stepped into the batter’s box in Major League history.
Vic Power, born in Arecibo in 1927, became just the second player from Puerto Rico to play in the American League when he debuted on April 13, 1954, for Philadelphia. He was already a two-time All-Star before his career brought him to Cleveland during the 1958 season (although the cost of acquiring him would prove high, as the Athletics acquired Roger Maris as part of the five-player deal).
Power would win his first of seven straight Gold Glove Awards that season, but he brought plenty on the offensive side of things too. He was an All-Star for the Indians in 1959 and 1960 and during his four years with the club, he hit .288 with 115 doubles, 19 triples, 37 homers, and 260 RBI in 534 games.
One of the all-time greats at his position and from his homeland was Roberto Alomar, who spent the 1998 to 2000 seasons in Cleveland with the Indians. One of four players born in Puerto Rico to be named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame (joining Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda at the time of his induction), Alomar was reunited with his brother Sandy Alomar in Cleveland in 1999 after the younger Alomar spent years with San Diego, Toronto, and Baltimore.
At the time, the switch-hitter was at the top of his game. He had made nine straight All-Star teams, had just won his seventh Gold Glove, and was a two-time Silver Slugger winner. He put up some of the best numbers of his career with the Indians, hitting .323 in 1999 with 40 doubles, 37 stolen bases, and career-bests with 24 homers, 120 RBI, 138 runs scored, and 99 walks. His production led to a third place finish in the AL Most Valuable Player voting. He hit .310 in 2000 and .336 in 2001, finishing in fourth place in the MVP vote with the second 100-RBI season of his career and his 12th and final trip to the Midsummer Classic. He spent 2002 through 2004 with the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks.
That brother, Sandy Jr., logged the second-most seasons in the Majors of any player born in Puerto Rico. The island has churned out a few notable catchers over the years, including Alomar, Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez (the all-time leader for seasons played by a Puerto Rican), Alomar’s former teammate Benito Santiago, the Molina brothers Yadier, Bengie, and Jose, and Jorge Posada to name a few. The Salinas-born Alomar spent eleven seasons in Cleveland as a player and 20 on the field in his Major League career, one that really started with an American League Rookie of the Year nod in 1990 and six All-Star trips during a career slowed by injuries.
When the Indians acquired Alomar from the Padres in December of 1989, they brought with him another one of his fellow countrymen and a native of Santurce. When Carlos Baerga arrived in Cleveland, he was a man without a position, at least at first. He spent his rookie season with the club in 1990 on the left side of the infield, working in 50 games at third and 48 games at short. He was locked in to 89 games at third in 1991 and 75 more at second base that season before transitioning to second base permanently for the 1992 season.
The switch-hitter became one of the top bats in the game during his time in Cleveland, one that ended in 1996 with his trade to the New York Mets. Before leaving, he totaled a pair of 200+ hit seasons, two Silver Slugger Awards, and three All-Star nods before leaving town. He would hang around the game through the 2005 season, briefly returning to Cleveland, but he never was able to fully replicate the success that he had in the early years of his career with the Indians.
Right fielder Juan Gonzalez put up arguably the loudest offensive season by a Puerto Rican player on the Indians until Lindor’s explosive numbers of a season ago. Gonzalez signed with the Indians ahead of the 2001 season and provided plenty of right-handed pop to the lineup. The two-time All-Star and two-time AL MVP appeared in 140 games, slashing .325/.370/.590 with 34 doubles, 35 homers, and 140 RBI while leading the Majors with 16 sacrifice flies. He finished fifth in the MVP voting and made the final All-Star team of his career while winning his fourth Silver Slugger Award.
He re-signed with Texas in the offseason and spent two years there and a season in Kansas City in 2004 before returning to Cleveland in 2005. His season, and career, ended with a significant injury of his right hamstring while running out a grounder in his first at bat of the season. He would play briefly in independent leagues and winter leagues and got a spring training invitation with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, but he never returned to the pro game.
Honorable mentions go out to the likes of Tony Bernazard (infielder), Wil Cordero (first baseman/outfielder), Candy Maldonado (outfielder), and Junior Ortiz (catcher), all parts of the ever-growing list of Puerto Ricans to suit up for Cleveland. Maldonado was a 2011 Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2011, joined by R. Alomar and Baerga in election.
For Lindor and Perez, the series in San Juan will be a homecoming. The 24-year-old Lindor grew up in Caguas, leaving during the middle school years for Montverde, Florida, where he attended high school. He has adapted well to the spotlight of the Major League game, serving as a cover athlete on this year’s edition of the video game, RBI Baseball. In just his fourth season in the Majors, he has already been on the biggest stage in baseball in the World Series, is a two-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner, a Gold Glove winner, and a Platinum Glove winner.
Perez finished his high school time at Eugenio Maria De Hostos in his hometown of Mayaguez. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school in the 29th round of the 2006 draft, but he continued on with his education and baseball development in Florida at Lake City’s Florida Gateway College. The Indians came calling two years later, selecting him in the 33rd round of the 2008 draft. He is in his fifth season with the Indians.
Seventy-six Puerto Rican players have also stood on the big league mound at some point, although not all have been pitchers (here’s looking at you, Jose Oquendo, super utility man who logged six innings pitched during his 12-year career). The pitching side of the island’s contributions to Major League Baseball in general lacks the star power and the success that the offensive side can boast. A total of just eight different Puerto Rican pitchers have made All-Star teams and none have been named Hall of Famers after their careers.
The Indians employed two of the first three Puerto Rican pitchers to pitch stateside (both after Hi Bithorn, whose contributions to the game and tragic death were remembered by the building and naming of San Juan’s stadium in his honor).
Ruben Gomez pitched for Cleveland in 1962 (1-2, 4.37 ERA in 15 games with one save), many years after dealing the Indians a loss while with the New York Giants during the 1954 World Series. Jose Santiago, who pitched in three big league seasons from 1954 to 1956, debuted with the Indians in ’54 in one game (becoming the third Puerto Rican player in the AL just four days after Power’s debut) and appeared in 17 games the following season. He was inducted into the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. He is one of three Jose Santiagos to pitch in the Majors, and the first and most recent both spent time in Cleveland.
In the last few years, the Indians have used Puerto Rican pitchers Joe Colon and Giovanni Soto to minimal success. Colon worked in eleven games in relief in 2016, posting a 1-3 record and a 7.20 ERA. His career had been slowed first by injuries and second by several drug suspensions. Soto got a scoreless six-game trial with the Indians in 2015 and has since bounced around the minors after being lost by Cleveland on a waiver claim the following year. Fernando Cabrera saw time in the Indians bullpen nearly a decade before them.
Alomar Jr. gets a second mention in this list as one of three Puerto Rican born managers in Major League history. When he stepped in for the fired Manny Acta in 2012, he became the second Puerto Rican to manage (after Edwin Rodriguez, who himself has spent a portion of his coaching career in the Indians organization).
Alomar’s time at the helm was a short six games, winning three and losing three, and his opportunity to lead the Indians into the future was redirected with the hiring of Terry Francona for the 2013 season, but Alomar has remained loyal to the city that he called home longer than any other stop of his 20-year playing career.
All three managers of Puerto Rican descent have ties to the Indians organization – current Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, born in Caguas in 1975, spent time with the Indians as a player in 2005 during his 14-year career.
Photo: Omar Torres/Getty Images