By Nick Brown
SAN JUAN (Reuters) - When the ball cracked off Cariduros shortstop Luis Mateo's bat, driving in the eventual winning run in a crucial June 4 play-off game, Angel Mulero and his family didn't just cheer.
They broke out panderetas, tambourine-like percussion instruments, rapping out synchronized beats that sent Fajardo's Concepcion Perez Alberto Stadium into frenzied dance.
Cariduros players receive no salaries, they're not famous, and most have day-jobs. Yet the 43-year-old Mulero attends every game — home and away. "Baseball is therapy," he said in Spanish, hoarse from cheering.
He's not alone: Puerto Rico's so-called Double-A amateur baseball league, where Fajardo Cariduros play, drew some 400,000 fans last year, notable on a mostly rural island of 3.5 million. The league has 42 teams, while a government-run Single-A league has another 89 teams — all crammed into a market about the size of Connecticut.
But for an island where baseball borders on religion, Puerto Rico, the birthplace of hall of fame outfielder Roberto Clemente, is struggling to maintain relevance at the sport's professional level, which is increasingly dominated by Latin American talent.
Fewer Puerto Rican prospects are reaching the top tier U.S. teams, and the island's own pro league is a shell of its once-vibrant self.
Part of the reason for the stagnation: the island's relationship with U.S.-based Major League Baseball (MLB), a complex link in some ways reflective of the identity struggle at the heart of Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. territory.
A policy change in 1990 forced Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, to enter a draft that requires them to graduate high school and compete for attention with top prospects trained at the best U.S. schools.
The highly-indebted island's high poverty rate, poor infrastructure and lack of robust school sports programs puts younger players behind in the count right from the start against players from the continental U.S. and foreign markets such as the Dominican Republic, where MLB invests heavily in player development.
"We work with the system," said Ramon Orta, Puerto Rico's sports and recreation director. "But we need MLB to work with us to create more opportunities for our players."
Last week's MLB 2016 draft saw 17-year-old Delvin Perez, of San Juan suburb Loiza, picked 23rd by the St. Louis Cardinals. He follows fellow Puerto Rican shortstops Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor as recent MLB draftees.
But with MLB rosters featuring just 13 Puerto Rican players in 2015 - down from 29 in 2007, and a fraction of the Dominican's 83 - Puerto Rico's inclusion in MLB's draft is a touchy issue locally.
A generation ago, prospects such as Perez could sign at any time with any Major League team, just like players from the Dominican, Venezuela and other countries.
Edwin Rodriguez, whose MLB career included a two-year stint as manager of the Florida Marlins, remembers being signed outright by the Yankees in 1980. "It was just like free agency," said Rodriguez, now an MLB scout who runs a baseball academy in Puerto Rico.
MLB policies are not the sole drivers of pro baseball's decline in Puerto Rico. Baseball experts criticize weak marketing efforts by local baseball leagues, the rise of cable TV and increasing popularity of other sports. But the policies are resonate with Puerto Ricans who see them as reflective of the long struggle over their political status.
On an island close to economic collapse and where political parties identify solely according to their stance on U.S. statehood, MLB's flexibility to change its draft policy is a frustrating reminder that Puerto Rico is caught between sovereignty and statehood.
"We're a political colony," says Double-A league director Carlos Maysonet, "but we're also a baseball colony."
In the Dominican Republic, each MLB team has an academy dedicated to recruiting, cultivating and then signing fresh talent. But teams have no incentive to invest in Puerto Rican players who are forced into MLB's first-year player draft and likely to wind up on a competitor, Orta said.
Michael Teevan, an MLB spokesman, said the league spends "a significant amount of money" in Puerto Rico, including contributions to a government-run player development program and to private baseball schools.
One such school is the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, founded in 2002 and run by Rodriguez. It has produced major leaguers including the Astros' Correa and Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez.
"The first several years of the draft were a disaster because we weren't prepared," Rodriguez said. "It's still a struggle, but we're adjusting.”
The academy's 234 students spend half their days in class and the other half playing ball, with some 80 percent landing scholarships to U.S. colleges. The school stresses academics, Rodriguez said.
'THEY HAVE THEIR TVS'
Pro ball is a struggle within Puerto Rico, too, where the island's professional Liga de Beisbol de Roberto Clemente has just four clubs, down from six in 2012. Its attendance levels continue to slump even after the league canceled its 2007 season to restructure operations.
The problem, says Carlos Guilbe, a sociology expert at the University of Puerto Rico, is that the league has lost its niche in the marketplace.
The Double-A league provides a combination of affordability and familiarity that the pro league cannot, selling tickets for $5.25 and staying in business by sponsoring everything from outfield walls to player introductions.
"Now batting, presented by Mr. Pollo, second baseman Josue Colon," boomed Fajardo's PA announcer at last week's game. Mulero said he knew many of the Cariduros players and routinely sees local politicians at games.
The Clemente league, which declined several interview requests, once attracted fans by offering top talent, luring pros from MLB, whose offseason coincides with Puerto Rico's baseball season.
Tom Van Hyning, a Puerto Rico baseball historian who grew up on the island, remembers watching MLB stars Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, and Clemente himself. "Baseball was the only game in town in the 1960s," Van Hyning said.
But such players became rarer in the 1980s as the advent of MLB free agency raised salaries, leaving players less financially dependent on playing Puerto Rican winter ball, and MLB teams less likely to let them. "If I'm paying you $10 million, I want to regulate you, keep you close to me," Guilbe said.
That all adds up to a league without a compelling draw. "If Puerto Ricans want to see great baseball now, they have their TVs," he said.
(Reporting By Nick Brown; Editing by Daniel Bases and Alan Crosby)