Los Mini-Rubios

How a group of 11- and 12-year-olds energized hurricane-ravaged Guayama, Puerto Rico

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – All 4-foot-9 of Devin Ortiz stood on the first base line and took in every bit of the applause from the crowd at Volunteer Stadium. Just 11 months earlier, he had stood at the foot of his destroyed home.

Hurricane Maria smashed Puerto Rico in September 2017, including Guayama, a coastal town of around 40,000. The local Little League team was hit as hard as anyone else.

The Ortiz family suddenly had no place to call home. Star catcher John Lopez had to scramble to rebuild his family’s fritter business. Because the island’s entire power grid was knocked out, pitcher Yadiel Delgado couldn’t contact his father in Florida for weeks. Other families, meanwhile, had to scavenge for basic necessities like food, water and gas.

Catcher John Lopez works from behind the plate. Like many on the team he is still suffering the aftershocks of Hurricane Maria.

So after the Puerto Rican team from Guayama advanced in the Little League World Series, Ortiz and his 11- and 12-year-old teammates stared in amazement as fans cheered and Puerto Rican flags waved in tandem with Fatheads of each player. The Puerto Rico faithful consisted of no more than 60 or 70 people, yet their passion could have made fans at a venue of any size turn their heads.

At the front of the crowd stood Pedro Ortiz, Devin’s father. Ortiz had watched this Radames Lopez Little League team win championships together at every age level since they were 5.

But even he struggled to picture this scene after the storm hit.

“It’s been a really really really tough year,” Ortiz said.

“It’s been a really tough year,” he repeated. “For us to be here after Hurricane Maria, we really didn’t know whether or not we were going to play baseball.”

“It’s been a really really really tough year,” ~ Pedro Ortiz

Storm Strikes

Before the boys from Guayama could live out their dream in Williamsport, they had to endure a nightmare back home.

The United States government has estimated that Hurricane Maria claimed 2,975 lives in Puerto Rico, while others closer to the situation suspect that the death toll is significantly higher. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina, widely considered to be the most destructive storm of the 21st century, is thought to have taken anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 lives when it devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Those in Puerto Rico who were fortunate enough to survive were left to deal with historically bad living conditions.

As of October 2017,  just 45 percent of the island had access to telecommunications and, in Guayama, residents could only communicate through a phone located inside of a pharmacy. And after 80 percent of its crops were wiped out, only 64 percent of residents had clean drinking water after a month.

The U.S. territory endured the longest blackout in the nation’s history, as more than 43 percent of Puerto Ricans remained without power until January. Electricity didn’t return to some homes until the week in August that the Little League World Series began.

And even though just about every baseball diamond across Puerto Rico was rendered unplayable for nearly a month after the storm, that’s exactly where the boys went in search of a return to normalcy.

“The first goal was to bring some recreation to the kids,” manager Carlos Texidor said through an interpreter. “Not to think about what happened at their houses.”

“It was a tough experience for them,” he continued. “They’ve never seen anything in their lives like that with the disaster we had there.”

Communicating without a functioning power grid and traveling through debris proved to be difficult, and once they arrived at practice, they had to cope with fields that were in anything but pristine condition. To make matters worse, they could only play during the day — which is generally avoided in the hot Caribbean climate — and had to share the fields with many neighboring communities.

Yet practice after practice, the determined group of 11- and 12-year-olds kept showing up, and almost a year later, they became the first team in Radames Lopez Little League’s rich history to make it to the Little League World Series.

“Everything was devastated,” Ortiz said. “[Baseball] was something that kept our mind off what was going on.”

Added Delgado through an interpreter: “I learned, ‘Don’t stop, just go ahead. Every time.’”

The team lost just three times all summer and went undefeated throughout the Caribbean Regional, scoring 51 runs in eight games. Texidor said the team couldn’t have made it to Williamsport without its strong pitching staff, but he was quick to point out that they couldn’t do it alone.

“God gave them the opportunity to play and with that opportunity they were able to get here to Williamsport,” Texidor said.

“I learned, 'Don’t stop, just go ahead.'” ~ Yadiel Delgado

Blond Bombers

If Dos Equis is ever looking for a new “most interesting man in the world,” the beer maker would be wise to give Carlos Texidor a call.

Throughout the Little League World Series, the middle-aged manager sported a blond goatee while neon blue sunglasses that matched his team’s jerseys rested atop the brim of his hat. Texidor, who has coached Little Leaguers in Guayama for decades, is both wise and calculated, but neither trait got in the way of his desire to have fun in Williamsport.

While Staten Island’s manager called the LLWS a “business trip” for his 12-year-old players, Texidor danced with his players, waved mini Puerto Rican flags whenever he got the chance and could often be found laughing. He was loud, enthusiastic and always talking with his hands, no matter whether he was with his players, reporters or even fans in the concourse. And, at all times, a toothpick stayed glued to his bottom lip.

Texidor’s personality rubbed off on his players, who were similarly vibrant in terms of both demeanor and appearance. The entire team followed in the footsteps of the big league Puerto Rican club from the 2017 World Baseball Classic and dyed its hair blond ahead of the trip to Williamsport.

A year after superstars like Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Correa went blond and earned the nickname “Los Rubios,” the boys from Guayama became known as “Los Mini-Rubios,” or in English, “the mini-blondes.”

The connections between Los Mini Rubios and Los Rubios extended beyond hair color, though.

Not only did Baez, Lindor and other players send messages of support to the boys, Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario along with 10-year MLB veteran and current Mets bullpen coach Ricky Bones both played for Texidor when they were kids. Rosario video chatted with the team on a near-daily basis during the summer and was on hand when Major League Baseball donated $75,000 to Little League International in April.

“I feel really proud for my guys and for Puerto Rico, and my city,” Rosario told MLB beat reporters. “I’m so happy for them.

“The coaches are my friends,” he added. “Everybody over there is good people. They’re very close to me.”

Bones, meanwhile, actually had the chance to meet up with the team in Williamsport thanks to the MLB Little League Classic, which showcased his Mets against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Texidor stated with confidence that John Lopez, who is already enrolled in a Major League Baseball development academy, has what it takes to be in Rosario and Bones’ shoes one day.

Lopez — the boy whose family fritter business was damaged by Maria — played catcher and pitched for the squad over the summer, but he’s made it a priority to master every position on the diamond thanks to some advice from Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar.

“You’re going to be seeing more about John Lopez,” Texidor told reporters upon the tournament’s conclusion.

A Good Run

From a results standpoint, the Little League World Series got off to a tough start for Los Mini-Rubios. The boys treated fans to a nine-inning thriller — regulation for Little League is six innings — on the first day of the tournament, but eventually fell 4-2 to South Korea.

From there, however, Puerto Rico rattled off four consecutive victories to advance to the international semifinals. Over the team’s five games, Carlos De Jesus blasted two towering home runs, Eric Rodriguez conceded just one earned run in 9 ⅔ innings and after a shaky outing by Luis D. Rivera in an elimination game against Panama, Roberto Joubert came on in relief and tossed five no-hit innings with 14 strikeouts.

Finally, the boys fell to defending LLWS champion Japan in an elimination game, and Japan lost to the only team to defeat the boys, South Korea, in the international championship. In all, Puerto Rico was just a handful of outs away from playing Hawaii for the title of best Little League team on the planet.

“I have no words to describe what I feel right now,” Texidor said at the end of the tournament. “This experience is going to be in my heart forever.”

Given their prowess in regards to fundamentals, you never could’ve guessed that their only option in practice a year earlier was to field ground balls on concrete, a tradition they continued even on Williamsport’s pristine campus.

Given the smiles on their faces, you never could’ve guessed that some of them didn’t have a place to call home.

And given the noise each fan made, you never would’ve guessed that a hurricane nearly ruptured Guayama’s spirit.

When all was said and done, only four teams in the entire world made it further than “los hijos de Maria.” But the journey never revolved around how far the team advanced, and a shiny trophy was never the goal.

In fact, when asked about their favorite part of the entire journey, Lopez, Delgado and pitcher/shortstop Eric Rodriguez reached a consensus. It wasn’t a particular game, play, or interaction with a major leaguer that stood out.

Rather: “Jugar,” they said in unison. Or, in English: “To play.”

~ 12/11/2018

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