Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Puerto Rico

July 25, 1952: Puerto Rico adopts its current Constitution, making it a Commonwealth of the United States, but not a State.

Top 10 Athletes From Puerto Rico

Remember: To qualify for this list, the person in question has to have been trained to play his or her sport in Puerto Rico. Where he or she was born, or went on to play, does not necessarily have any bearing on it. Therefore, Héctor "Macho" Camacho, born in Bayamón, and Héctor Jr., born in San Juan, do not qualify, because both were raised in New York.

As you might expect, baseball players and boxers dominate this list. 

Honorable Mention to José "King" Roman of Vega Baja. He came closer than any Puerto Rican to winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World, but George Foreman wrecked him in the 1st round in Tokyo on September 1, 1973.

Honorable Mention to Carlos Arroyo of Fajardo. Probably the best basketball player from Puerto Rico, he was a career backup in the NBA from 2001 to 2011, playing with the Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.

He has had a considerably better career in European leagues, playing for such famous sports clubs as Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, and Besitkas and Galatasaray in Istanbul, Turkey. About to turn 38, the point guard now plays in his homeland, for his original professional team, Cariduros de Fajardo, of which he is now co-owner.

Dishonorable Mention to Iván Rodríguez. I don't care that he's now in the Hall of Fame, and considered the greatest catcher of his generation: He cheated, and does not make the Top 10. Nor, for the same reason, does Pudge's Texas Ranger teammate Juan Gonzalez. (For the same reason, another teammate, Rafael Palmeiro, wouldn't make the Florida team I will eventually do.)

10. Monica Puig of San Juan. At 23, an age by which many women's tennis players have already peaked, she has yet to even come close to winning a Grand Slam event. But she won the women's singles title at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

9. Wilfredo Gómez of San Juan. "Bazooka" (a great nickname for a boxer) was Super Bantamweight Champion of the World from 1977 to 1983. Featherweight Champion of the World for much of 1984. Junior Lightweight Champion of the World in 1985 and 1986.

8. Sixto Escobar of Santurce. The 1st Puerto Rican to win a boxing World Championship, he knocked Baby Casanova out in the 9th round at the Montreal Forum on June 26, 1934, to take the Bantamweight Championship. This was appropriate, since a batnam is a rooster, and his nickname was El Gallito, the Little Rooster. (Better than "the Little Chicken.")

He held the title until 1938. In 1939, he won a fight at a stadium named for him in San Juan. Upon his discharge from the U.S. Army after World War II, he found it too difficult to make weight, and opened a liquor store. Unfortunately, like so many men who ran liquor stores and bars, he sampled too much of his own product, and his drinking combined with diabetes killed him in 1979, only 64 years old. The stadium still stands, and a statue of him has been added.

7. Carlos Delgado of Aguadilla. A 2-time All-Star, the 1st baseman led the American League in RBIs in 2003, including those he drove in when he tied the major league record with 4 home runs in a game.

He was a bit unlucky, being called up as a rookie with the Toronto Blue Jays too late to make their 1993 World Series roster. He only made the postseason once more, with the 2006 Mets, and was part of their 2007 and '08 collapses. Nevertheless, he hit 473 career home runs, was named to the Blue Jays' Level of Excellence (their version of a team hall of fame), and should be seriously considered for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

6. Carlos Beltrán of Manatí. A 9-time All-Star, the center fielder has won 3 Gold Gloves, was AL Rookie of the Year in 1999, and is a member of the 30-30 Club (30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season).

After starting with the Kansas City Royals, he has reached the postseason with the 2004 Houston Astros, the 2006 Mets, the 2012 and 2013 St. Louis Cardinals, the 2015 Yankees, and the 2016 Rangers, and will do so again with the 2017 Astros.

He recently turned 40, but shows no signs of slowing down. Going into tonight's games, he has a .280 lifetime batting average, 2,690 hits including 433 home runs, and 312 stolen bases. Of all players with more career stolen bases, the only players with more career home runs are Willie Mays, Andre Dawson (in each case, barely), and 2 guys with asterisks, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

He should be headed for the Hall of Fame. In spite of his failure to swing on the final out of the 2006 National League Championship Series, Met fans voted him -- not Tommie Agee, Mookie Wilson or Lenny Dykstra -- the center fielder on their 50th Anniversary Team in 2012.

5. Roberto Alomar of Salinas. There are reasons to not like him, but his career is loaded. He was a 12-time All-Star and a 10-time Gold Glove. He had a .300 lifetime batting average, and 2,724 career hits, including 210 home runs, and 474 stolen bases.

He won back-to-back World Series with the 1992 and '93 Toronto Blue Jays, and also reached the postseason with the 1996 and '97 Baltimore Orioles, and the 1999 and 2001 Cleveland Indians. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and his Number 12 is the 1st number retired by the Jays, who also elected him to their aforementioned Level of Excellence. His brother Sandy Alomar Jr., and their father Sandy Alomar Sr., can be considered Honorable Mentions.

4. Félix Trinidad of Fajardo. Welterweight Champion of the World from 1993 to 2000, Middleweight Champion of the World briefly in 2001.

3. Orlando Cepeda of Ponce. His father Pedro Cepeda was a great player, known as Perucho, The Bull, but was kept out of North American pro ball for being black. His son, known in Puerto Rico as Peruchin or the Baby Bull, was fortunate enough to debut after integration.

An 11-time All-Star, the Baby Bull was the 1958 NL Rookie of the Year and the 1967 NL Most Valuable Player. He led the NL in home runs with 46 and RBIs with 142 in 1961, and led it in RBIs again with 111 in 1967.

He won Pennants with the 1962 San Francisco Giants and the 1967 and '68 St. Louis Cardinals, winning the World Series in '67. He also reached the NLCS with the 1969 Atlanta Braves and won another Series with the 1972 Oakland Athletics, although injuries kept him off the World Series roster. He batted .297 for his career, and hit 379 home runs. The Giants retired his Number 30, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

2. Miguel Cotto of Caguas. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, but raised in Caguas from age 2, he has held titles ranging from Light Welterweight to Middleweight from 2004 to 2015. An 11-year run as a top contender is impressive enough, but that's 11 years as a World Champion, regardless of how much boxing's titles have been fragmented the last half-century.

1. Roberto Clemente of Santurce. Was there ever going to be a doubt that The Great One -- a nickname he had after actor Jackie Gleason, but before hockey player Wayne Gretzky -- would be this list's numero uno? He was a 15-time All-Star, a 12-time Gold Glove, a 4-time NL batting champion, and the 1966 NL MVP.

He played in 14 World Series games, and got a hit in every one of them, helping the Pittsburgh Pirates win the 1960 World Series, and being named the MVP of the Pirates' win in the 1971 World Series, which raised him from Caribbean icon to American icon.

Although he played most of his home games at Forbes Field, whose dimensions were similar to the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium, limiting him to 240 career home runs, his lifetime batting average was .317, his OPS+ 130, and he collected an even 3,000 hits.

We know how the story ends, on New Year's Eve 1972. It's worth noting that, in that season, at age 38, he batted .312, and had 10 home runs and 60 RBIs, despite missing most of July with an injury, and helped the Pirates reach their 3rd straight NLCS. He got hits in 21 of his last 31 games that season. He batted .341 the season before.

This was, at most, a first step toward age-related decline. He was selected for the All-Star Team in 1972, and it wasn't a gift to an aging player from a public unwilling to disappoint a proud man: He earned it. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were both still legitimate All-Stars at age 40, and playing at 42. There's no reason to suspect that Clemente, barring the tragedy, wouldn't have matched them.

The Pirates retired his Number 21, erected a statue of him outside Three Rivers Stadium, moved it to PNC Park, and made the right field wall at that park 21 feet high in his honor. The 6th Street Bridge, connecting downtown Pittsburgh with the ballpark and the Steelers' Heinz Field, is named for him. He was the 1st Caribbean-born player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and was the highest-ranking Hispanic player, Number 20, on The Sporting News' 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. In 2003, George W. Bush posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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