1875-1879: Best of the Inaugurales (114-Game Era)

Seasons came and went, as different in length as in import. Players signed with teams and, in due time, made their debuts; some of them secured comfortable starting positions, others comfortable seats on the team’s bench; in time, they got hurt, got replaced, or both, and retired, hopefully with some dignity left.

In time, there would be games in February and March, and thanks to the league’s desire to spread talent out as widely as possible, many more players would wear different uniforms for each season than in previous decades. Later still, the vagaries of the twentieth century would bring still more changes, even to the point of fundamentally altering the league’s structure.

Through all of that, the inaugurales—the first game of the season for each team—lost none of their allure for fans of the Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña, who had usually waited months to fill the ballpark, grab a cone of gofio, and see their favorite teams play again.

Whether the first of 38 games or a hundred-plus, they were always special.

We present here, perhaps, the most special among them.

1875
Inaugurales: april 5th

Game 1: Bucaneros at Cotorras

When Luis Quintana takes the mound for the ninth, it’s a mere formality.

Río Grande is ahead 10-2, and he’s looked quite sharp all evening, striking out three and hitting 100 pitches right before getting Oceguera to fly out over shallow right to strand a runner on second.

There is no way for him to know that this is will be the best year he’s had so far.

The logo of the Cotorras de Río Grande: a bright red "R" in quirky type bordered in black and yellow on a green circle bordered in orange-yellow-orange.

1875 Luis Quintana:

317.0 IP, 19-15.
Career high for innings pitched, and the first winning record he’s posted.
44 strikeouts, 14 walks.
Coincidentally, Quintana will retire at the age of 44 with (rounded up) 14 years of major league service, having been famously walk-averse that entire time.
2.44 ERA / 2.39 FIP / 1.12 WHIP.
All significantly better than previous years, though he would have better seasons—including the next one.
2 shutouts.
The first two he’s ever thrown.

You can probably guess what’s about to happen, especially if you’ve already read our last article involving the Bucaneros.

Sure enough: Esparza, Velasco and de los Santos loaded the bases with successive singles, and a passed ball by Francisco Vilá—normally a very skilled defensive catcher—got the circus going.

By the time Francisco Ortiz, one of the 1870’s few true elite relievers, entered the game and promptly got Sergio Martínez to ground out to first, the damage was well and truly done.

The rest of the inning looked like a shopping list of baseball incompetence.

The logo of the Bucaneros de Arroyo: a navy "A" in fancy font, bordered in gold and brown, on top of a light blue circle studded with brown, bordered in brown-white-brown.

Bucaneros de Arroyo, top of the 9th:

Fourteen batters. Six hits. Five reaches on errors.
Two flyouts. One groundout.

Ten runs.

The Bucas’ own excellent closer, Omar García, allowed a leadoff single before forcing a flyout, striking out a pinch hitter, and grounding out future Chupacabra Iván Serrano. It was over.

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The logo of the Bucaneros de Arroyo: a navy "A" in fancy font, bordered in gold and brown, on top of a light blue circle studded with brown, bordered in brown-white-brown.10100000

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The logo of the Cotorras de Río Grande: a bright red "R" in quirky type bordered in black and yellow on a green circle bordered in orange-yellow-orange.13101301010159

Game 2: Jueyeros at Valencianos

As it turns out, both of the teams from La Paliza were involved in some outlandish inaugurales in 1875.

While the Maunabo-Juncos rivalry reached its apex in the 1880s, when the deities of postseason baseball seemingly did their utmost to push them into each other’s path in each year’s torneo, we suspect it began with this game, in which the Valencianos, batting behind noted garbage arm Ángel de la Torre, hung four runs on Maunabo in the first inning, and completely failed to score as the Jueyeros patiently tied the game.

Both pitchers took their starts into extras, and while 1870s baseball was even more full of inherent randomness than its more modern successors, playing more than nine innings was the quickest way to ensure a game went from interesting to entirely luck-based, especially with the paucity of fresh arms available to most teams.

Playing thirteen innings, therefore, was a guarantee it would become an absolute crapshoot.

Against reliever Leonel Soto, who’d picked up his fair share of innings, the Vales, who came in 31st in Betances for runs scored, led off with a single and RBI triple, and Omar Loera’s dropped ball in left field brought home the tying run.

Doing his best to contain a Juncos offense that looked entirely unlike itself, Soto got pinch-hitter Miguel Velázquez to a 1-2 count . . . before his forkball failed to snap properly and was batted into left-center, allowing Héctor Garnica to run for the score.

Juan Ruiz, Maunabo’s rangy center fielder, picked the ball and gauged his chances properly. He knew he had no shot at getting the runner out at home himself, and went to the cutoff man.

The relay was not only not in time—but according to the box score submitted by the almanaquero, went to third base, where the trailing runner was perfectly safe, and more importantly, did not represent the game-winning run, which had just crossed the plate.

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The logo of the Jueyeros de Maunabo: a light blue "M" in script on a navy circle studded with light blue stars, bordered in white and light blue.10100011000026137
The logo of the Valencianos de Juncos: a brown "J" in flowery cursive on an orange circle, bordered in brown.400000000000

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1876
Inaugurales: april 3rd

Changos at Brujos

In the days before the league instituted the primaverales, both as a source of easy revenue during an otherwise completely-inactive month and an opportunity for teams to check prospects and knock the rust off their veterans, being the starter for your team’s first game was less a testament to your capabilities and more a reason for spending the night before in advanced intestinal distress.

Respectable pitching performances on Opening Day were few and far between in the 1870s. Even the shutouts, and there were a few on this same day, tended to be ugly affairs involving multiple walks and ugly numbers of hits by the team on the receiving end, or else low-scoring games in which neither side got much offense going.

This game, in which Darío Gómez proved he was one of the few reasons to watch the 1876 Changos, was one of the few times a team recurred to two different relievers. Guayama had to use both Jorge González, who had been inexplicably converted from a utility infielder despite barely knowing how to pitch, and Jorge Bustamante, who was a catcher for the other eighteen innings he played in a Brujos uniform.

This likely had to do with the seven unearned runs Brujos pitchers ended up wearing, likely because second baseman José Díaz had a completely uncharacteristic three-error game, and catcher Miguel Ramos had a completely characteristic five-error outing.

It also had to do with Naranjito centerfielder José Ríos putting together a 3-6 batting line in which he scored twice and drove in four, including a two-run triple that started the Changos’ big sixth inning, and a Changos squad that put up 21 hits and took advantage of Ramos’ bad arm to steal six bases.

Combined, it was a real rarity for that first day of 1876: a completely one-sided blowout.

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The logo of the Changos de Naranjito: an orange "N" in an italicized font bordered in white and black, on a purple circle bordered in black and orange.12110602215213
The logo of the Brujos de Guayama: a very light blue "G" in cursive on a dark purple circle, bordered in that very light blue.

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1877
Inaugurales: april 2nd

Before we get to the actual game, it’s worth pointing out that Darío Gómez, who did not pitch a single shutout between 1873 and 1875, and who was responsible for the game we’ve just finished discussing, had an even more dominant outing on Opening Day against the Toritos, allowing only two hits, striking out two and walking one.

It needed to be; his opponent, Miguel Mariche, was a far better pitcher, striking out four Changos in a six-hit, zero-earned-run outing.

It was the only shutout of Gómez’s season. He retired with six thrown in his career, meaning that fully one-third of his shutouts came on back-to-back inaugurales.

Ingenieros at Patrulleros

When Germán Gándara was drafted by the Picudos, he did not intend to play baseball for the rest of his life—a message indelibly reinforced by a baserunning mishap in his fifteenth game that left him in a heap of pain.

After the season, once he’d gotten better on Ceiba’s dime, the team had released him from his contract, and he’d gone back to work with his father, a longshoreman who had recently signed on with a dock crew for the Insular Navy. The pay was stable, if meager, and Gándara put the game out of his mind . . . for a time, anyway.

In the winter of 1874, the Insular Navy cut its operations in San Juan. Out of their jobs, Gándara and his father traveled to Aguadilla, where the younger man saw the invernales and—on a sudden inspiration—convinced a scout for Rincón to bring him aboard.

He quickly proved one of the better bats the Ingenieros, who notoriously underspent in every offseason, could get on the winter market, and by 1877 had been installed as their starting left fielder, which is why he was in position to sock three hits, scoring a run and driving another one in, against San Sebastián. Miguel Leal, in his first season as starting first baseman after fan favorite Mauricio “Noyo” Noyola had retired, added two hits. Longtime right fielder Víctor Nieves scored twice, and Édgar Vargas and Jorge Prado added two more.

For any other team, this would have been a perfectly normal inaugural, but as every Liga Nacional Puertorriqueña fan knows, the Ingenieros are not a normal team. Their 28-86 (.246) record was by far the worst in the entire league, and featured two separate nine-game losing streaks, although they had no idea what would happen to them next year.

For La Máquina, this was simply the first time they had won on the first day of the season.

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The logo of the Ingenieros de Rincón: a black cursive "R" bordered in white and then red, on a green circle streaked with black lines, bordered in black and then white.100013000

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The logo of the Patrulleros de San Sebastián: narrow white "SS" bordered with red on a black circle dotted with navy, bordered in gold.000000100171

1878
Inaugurales: april 1st

Caciques at Marcianos

Here’s two numbers for you:

 4,448: The total number of games played by the 39 teams in Liga Betances in 1878.
• 419: The total number of home runs hit by those same 39 teams.

In other words, if you attended a Liga Betances game in 1878, your purely statistical chance of seeing someone score on the same ball they put into play was about 9.4%—about once every 10 or 11 games.

(If you’re a dedicated hostosiano, your numbers are 4,452 games and 432 home runs, which tips the scale a little in favor of 10 games.)

Your odds of seeing two home runs in one game, again purely statistically, were a much more unlikely 0.88%, which comes out to about once every 114 games, which, in those days, was the length of a team’s entire season.

Which brings us to our point: if you were an Orocovis or Lajas fan, and you showed up for this game, you got your money’s worth.

In the first inning, Carlos González—whom, like Gándara before him, the Picudos had cut after taking him in the 11th round of La Selección, and who, like Gándara before him, had worked a regular job for a few years before catching on with another team—blasted the tenth pitch of his at-bat 372 feet away, dropping it just over the left field wall, drawing first blood for the Caciques.

González added singles in the 2nd and 7th innings, flew out in the 4th, and knocked in a two-run triple in the eighth to knot the game at 7. He was apparently named the man of the match, despite the Marcianos’ three-hit rally against Luis Carrillo, who was one of the few elite relievers of the 1870s, to walk off the game.

His offensive performance did keep the Caciques in the game, but to be fair, his three errors—par for the course with González, who was considered an indifferent fielder on a good day—required him to put up that kind of line. That was the Carlos González experience: his two five-hit games the year before had similarly been required by his allergy to holding on to balls he’d caught.

Rafael Galarza was a completely different type of player. Selected three rounds later than González, he immediately established himself as a particularly effective gloveman, providing much-needed defensive skill on a Lajas infield that, somehow, rode a thoroughly-average season to the 1872 title.

Later, after a couple seasons of sharing the spot with noted butterfinger David Herrera, he was able to settle into a late-career role as a light-hitting, leather-flashing, occasional-base-pilfering defensive captain . . . except for this game, when his one hit, a screaming liner into deep left, scored not just him, but catcher Diego Cruz and second baseman Luis Arellano, neither one of whom was exactly blessed with foot speed.

No player in the 1870s was “a home run hitter,” in the way modern baseball fans might use the term, but González was about as close to it, and Galarza about as far from it, as it was possible then. Yet they combined for one of the most unlikely games of the entire 1878 season—and on its first day, no less.   

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The logo of the Caciques de Orocovis: a gold, wide O bordered in black and white on a dark green circle, which itself is bordered in gold and brown.

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The logo of the Marcianos de Lajas: a green "L" where the bottom is triangular, bordered in yellow, on a black circle bordered by a thin yellow line and a thicker green one.101

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1879
Inaugurales: april 7th

Game 1: Valerosos at Marcianos (yes, again)

First baseman Oscar Ruiz hit not just the only home run of his 1879 season, but the first (and only) home run of his career. The odds of a home run were just a little more favorable this time around—10.4% for Liga Betances games—but Ruiz did it with the sacks full, ensuring Ciales had a 7-run 1st inning, and since that was his last real season at the cold corner for Ciales, he retired with a 346-foot peek-over-the-wall grand slam as his only career round-tripper.

Ruiz was in the #8 spot for that game, so his feat of hitting prowess meant Roberto Castro, in his first game of professional baseball, got to hit in the first inning. After fouling off two balls backwards, he struck out swinging, which wasn’t very surprising. Even the weirdest managers of 1879 did not put great hitters at #9.

In fact, that spot was usually reserved for the pitcher, which is what Roberto Castro was, even if, in his very first game as a professional baseball player, he’d gone to the plate before going to the mound.

Castro, identified as a top prospect before the 1879 season began, would end the campaign with a lackluster 14-13 record (plus a save in June) and 3.22 ERA, but he was talented enough that everyone saw the promise. He was chosen as the Gaceta‘s Novato Ilustre for Liga Betances in both April and June, receiving the latter honor just a few days before a sore shoulder shut him down and forced Ciales to bring up Miguel Lara.

You know, the Miguel Lara who won the first Lanzador Excelentísimo.

At any rate, Castro pitched a sensational first game: he went the distance, of course, throwing 118 pitches over which he allowed two hits, exactly one run, striking out five and allowing no walks.

He also led off the fourth inning, and after fouling off another first pitch from Jesús Vázquez, absolutely torched the next ball he saw into the deepest part of left field and took off running, making it back to home plate way ahead of José Cataño’s throw from the track.

That round trip ensured Vázquez would tie for the lead in home runs allowed (8), but that’s the least of it.

The Marcianos, who had been on the field for the first inaugural featuring two home runs, had now been on the receiving end in the first inaugural to feature two home runs by the same team.

Worse yet, not only were both home runs exceedingly unlikely—a grand slam and an inside-the-park round-trip by a pitcher—they were also the only home runs those two players hit in their entire careers.

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The logo of the Valerosos de Ciales: a cursive purple "V" on a gold circle with black diagonal lines, bordered in black and purple.

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The logo of the Marcianos de Lajas: a green "L" where the bottom is triangular, bordered in yellow, on a black circle bordered by a thin yellow line and a thicker green one.010000000

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Game 2: Cariduros at Tortugas

This game, on the other hand, is just a good old-fashioned blowout of the kind the 1870s loved to provide.

Andrés Fuentes, a third baseman for Fajardo coming off one of his two best seasons, who put up five hits and was directly responsible for six runs: three scored and three more batted in.

As the box score shows, he was far from alone.

First baseman Pedro Arciniegas, who held the career home run record between 1876 and 1882, added a single, double, and triple of his own, scoring three more runs and driving in one on a 

Catcher José Nieto, who had been such a disappointment in his five games of 1872 that he hadn’t played again until 1878, and who would end the season with a rather upsetting .249/.292/.281 slash line, put three hits across and scored another three runs. When Roberto López pinch-hit for him in the ninth and flew out, he was the only substitution the Cariduros made that didn’t result in a hit.

(López, by the way, was the first catcher to use a face mask—possibly because he was a good hitter for a catcher, but an unskilled blocker who got tired of getting hit in the face by pitches bouncing up from the dirt. You can probably imagine how this went over in 1879.)

In fact, had shortstop José González, whose flagging offense had been allowed to slide because he’d reinvented himself as a superior fielder, managed even one measly bloop single, every member of the Fajardo lineup, starter or not, would’ve made it onto the bases off their own bat.

He instead had to settle for being the instigator of the three double plays the Cariduros managed, in one of the few years where their defense held up relative to the league.

Collectively, the Cariduros forced Culebra starter Jaime Dueñas, who would end the season with a 3.49 ERA and a 22-14 record because baseball is stupid, off the mound by the fifth, after incurring ten runs on 113 pitches. Bullpen man Rubén Rodríguez did his best for 3 innings, incurring 7 more scores, before Fernando Ayala pitched 1.1 scoreless innings to finish the game.

It was the only pitching Ayala did in 1879, probably because he was a first baseman.

The Fajardo side of the pitching equation held up quite well: Alberto Esquivel, who would go on to set a short-lived record for strikeouts in a no-hitter when he fanned 11 Ingenieros in 1881, allowed only one extra-base hit and no earned runs as he struck out four in his first inaugural start.

Most importantly, though, it was the Esqueletos who won the Archipiélago division that year with a 63-51 record—barely better than the Cariduros or the Tortugas, who tied at 61-53 . . . but this game, which gave Fajardo a 2-1 record against Culebra, also secured them second place over the Tortugas.

It was a small victory. The Tortugas, on the back of hitters like Gilberto Carrillo, Heliodoro Ferrer, Armando Mena and Abrám Arévalo, were about to become the presumptive dominant team of the division, and the Cariduros and Esqueletos would spend most of the next decade trading second and third.

But for today, at least, the Cariduros got their win, and in plenty of style. 

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The logo of the Cariduros de Fajardo: a saffron "F" on a steel circle bordered in black-saffron-steel.211152050

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The logo of the Tortugas de Culebra: a light aquamarine "C" on a gold circle with a shell pattern in black, bordered in black and aquamarine.000020000277

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