Legion Baseball flashback: Puerto Rico’s back-to-back champions
Puerto Rico sent teams to national American Legion Baseball competition 42 times from 1969 to 2011.
It won 10 regional titles, including five straight from 1972 to 1976, and three American Legion World Series titles.
The first Puerto Rican ALWS champion, Rio Piedras, followed up its 1973 championship by becoming only the fourth back-to-back winner by winning again in 1974.
In truth, Rio Piedras’ title run actually was shaped with a sixth-place finish in 1972 as Puerto Rico’s first ALWS team.
Many of those same players returned the next year to lead Rio Piedras to a 24-6 overall record that was capped by an unbeaten ALWS run in Lewiston, Idaho, that included a 10-6, 10-inning victory over perennial power Memphis in the championship game.
Alfredo Carlo Toro coached both championship teams, with five players on both the 1973 and ’74 teams: Santiago Aldrey, Edwin Lopez, Jose Montalvo, Carlos Negron and Carlos Rodriguez.
Winning three straight elimination games in the 1972 Southeast Regional in West Palm Beach, Fla., probably prepared the 1973 and 1974 teams for the adversity they would face.
In the 1972 ALWS in Memphis, Tenn., Rio Piedras lost to North Haven, Conn., in the opening round; beat Norfolk, Va.; then was eliminated by Findlay, Ohio.
In 1973, Rio Piedras had to again come through the loser’s bracket in the Southeast Regional. This time, the Puerto Rican team had to do so by winning three straight — the last two over Rocky Mount, N.C. — to win another regional title.
In the regional final, Rio Piedras fell behind 2-0 after 4 1/2 innings in a regional final played in Salisbury, N.C., in front of a partisan Rocky Mount crowd.
In the eighth inning, reliever Ramon Rosario survived a bases-loaded, none-out Rocky Mount rally in the eighth inning. Then Rodriguez hit a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth for a walkoff 4-3 victory to give Rosario his third pitching victory in the regional.
The ALWS was much easier as Rio Piedras beat San Fernando, Calif., 7-0; West Hartford, Conn., 10-3; and Portland, Ore., 8-4 before the extra-inning win in the finale.
The top of the 10th inning rally was fueled by Luis Ferrer’s three-run inside-the-park home run and Rodriguez’s RBI double. Negron picked up the win in relief.
Off that 1973 team, Rosario had a 12-1 pitching record before pitching at Florida State alongside teammate Carlos Lezcano, who was a cousin of major leaguer Sixto Lezcano; Carlos Lezcano would also play in the major leagues (for two years) and spent seven seasons in the minor leagues. Ferrer (two years) and Negron (one year) also played in the minor leagues.
In 1974, Rio Piedras finished 34-8 overall and repeated as ALWS champions while advancing through the loser’s bracket in the regionals and the ALWS.
In the Southeast Regional at St. Petersburg, Fla., Rio Piedras won three straight games to advance to a third straight ALWS; Rio Piedras avenged an 8-7 loss to Birmingham, Ala., with an 11-3 victory before edging host St. Petersburg 2-1 in the championship game.
In the ALWS at Roseburg, Ore., Rio Piedras won its first three games comfortably — 11-5 over Rockport, Ind., 8-0 over Campbell, Calif., and 6-3 over Metairie, La.
Lake Oswego, Ore., then advanced through the loser’s bracket but had to beat Rio Piedras twice for a title. Lake Oswego won 9-3 in the first game and were ahead 3-0 after the first inning. But winning pitcher Arnulfo Camacho recovered by yielding only one hit after the first and Rio Piedras took the title with a 4-3 victory in the second game as Alexis Firpi hit a game-winning, two-run single in the eighth inning.
Lopez hit .433 and earned tournament MVP honors and Jesus Vega (three years major leagues, nine years minor leagues), Camacho (two years minor leagues) and Jose Oppenheimer (two years minor leagues) earned all-tournament honors.