Alex Cora knows baseball in Puerto Rico inside and out. The Red Sox skipper was born and raised in Caguas — he still lives there in the offseason — and he’s served as the general manager of Team Puerto Rico. He knows the talent, the culture, the history. Ditto the challenges. From the 1989 decision to subject players from the U.S. territory to the amateur draft, to the ravages of Hurricane Maria — those are just two examples — the road to MLB success is often anything but smooth.
The talent speaks for itself. Rich history aside — there are four Hall of Famers, including Roberto Clemente — two dozen Puerto Rico-born players are now in the big leagues, and five of them saw action in last night’s All-Star Game. Cora himself is notable. Not only did he play 14 seasons (and earn a World Series ring), the team he’s leading boasts baseball’s best record in his first season as an MLB manager.
Alex Cora: “We’re in a great place right now, as far as talent and impact players. I’m obviously managing, too, which is something different. I’m the second one from Puerto Rico in the history of the game [after Edwin Rodriguez].
“People point at the draft as a huge ‘game changer,’ saying that Puerto Rico got affected negatively because of it. I’ve always said that it was just a matter of time for us to adjust and get back to the heydays of the 1990s when we had seven or eight All-Stars. We had a lot of impact players back then.
“Now you take a look and you have Francisco [Lindor], you have Carlos [Correa], you have Javy [Baez], you have Enrique Hernandez. There’s Eddie [Rosario]. We have a few pitchers now with Edwin [Diaz] and Jose [Berrios] and Joe [Jimenez]. Obviously, the catching position has always been solid. We have one guy that is great, in a debate for the Hall of Fame. Yadi [Molina].
“Again, we’re in a great place. People keep playing back home. We always have a great amount of kids that get drafted. I think the best is yet to come.
“The draft… before, we were just like any country — any place outside the United States and Canada — where you could go down there and sign as many players as possible for X amount of dollars. Opportunities were high. For a lot of us, Luis Rosa was probably the best scout that ever lived. He worked for the Padres and the Rangers, and he signed the Alomars, Benito Santiago, and a lot of other guys who were very impactful. All of a sudden the draft came in and you’re competing with the kids from the United States and also Canada.
“To evaluate our players can be very hard. First of all, there aren’t too many organized high-school leagues down there. There are only a handful of schools that play baseball. It’s not like in the states. And although we play a lot of baseball, sometimes to compare our kids to the ones in the states isn’t fair. Physically, they’re not close to the ones here because of the sports they play in high school here, like football and basketball. As far as the weight-lifting and all that stuff, these kids are way ahead of our kids.
“At the same time, people never felt the competition was as good as in the United States and Canada. Little by little we have made adjustments. We have a lot of kids that travel to showcases now. They go to Perfect Games and all these tournaments in the states, so scouts are able to judge these kids against ‘better competition.’ That’s where things have started changing.
“Compared to [the Dominican Republic] it’s a lot different because of the rules. Structure-wise it’s completely different. We don’t have baseball academies. Not ones run by teams. We have a few, but it’s still a high school. While we can say it’s a baseball academy, at the end it’s not. It’s not like it’s baseball the whole time.
“With the adjustments that MLB has done, as far as the international rules, you have X amount of dollars to spend. For us, the debate is, ‘Do we fall into the international class, or do we stay with the draft?’ I feel we’re going to stay with the draft. I’m 100% towards the draft. I’m a draft kid [out of the University of Miami].
“The only thing that I’ve never understood is that if you don’t sign out of high school and decide to stay in school in Puerto Rico — not too many kids get that second chance to sign. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s just a matter of time if you have the talent. Let’s say you’re drafted in the 18th round and you decide to go to the University of Puerto Rico, because you feel that money-wise it doesn’t make sense for you or your family, and you want to go to school. You’re still playing Connie Mack at 18. You can play in some other league, but people don’t follow those guys anymore. They want them to sign right away. The only kids who get a second chance are those who go to juco, or some university in the United States.
“You don’t have a chance to play professional baseball if you stay. They play what we call ‘baseball d’olier.’ That’s how they keep playing. They don’t make a living out of it, they play because they have a passion for the game.
“For a lot of kids in Puerto Rico, if you’re good at sports you play volleyball in high school. That’s the biggest thing back home. Everybody plays. Probably every school has a program. Basketball, too. But at the end of the day, the No. 1 sport — and I know people hate when I say this — is baseball. At the end of the day, our best athletes are baseball players.
“I had a conversation with a guy. J.J. Barea has done an outstanding job in the NBA. He’s been great. Long career. He won a ring with the Dallas Mavericks. Nothing against J.J., but — this was the conversation — ‘Do you know who J.J. Barea is for us, in baseball? He’s a utility guy. We have a lot of guys.
“If you follow [MLB] back home, you’re usually either a fan of the Yankees, the Red Sox, or the Mets. Those are the teams with the biggest followings. There are also a lot of Astros fans now, because of Carlos.
“Do the kids know the history? My dad, who passed away when I was 13, used to work for a winter-ball team, so we had a pretty good idea of the history of the game. The first [Puerto Rican player in MLB] was Hiram Bithorn [in 1942]. I think most kids only know that there’s a stadium named after him, but some people know. Everything is Clemente. I don’t blame them. We probably don’t do enough to recognize him, honestly.
“Clemente wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He said a message in Spanish in the middle of the celebration of the  World Series. It was tough for him, especially in the era he was playing. At the same time, he wasn’t afraid. He represented us with a lot of pride. And obviously, the things he did off the field. This was a guy who would give his time to our national team back home. He managed the national team. He played winter ball. Then there was all the charity work he did. It really sucks that he died the way he did. I guess it was meant to be.
“My favorite, growing up, was Roberto Alomar. Complete player. He could hit. He could run. He could play defense. He was clutch. His baseball IQ was off the charts. Yeah, that was my guy. People ask me about my brother [Joey Cora]. I was probably his biggest fan, but Roberto Alomar… they came up together in the [Padres] organization, and Robbie actually took his job in San Diego. I didn’t care.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.