Carlos Delgado was a 23-year-old budding Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect when San Juan Senadores manager Luis "Torito" Melendez made one of the most difficult decisions of the 1994-1995 Puerto Rico winter baseball season.
As Melendez sat down to add his reinforcements for the 1995 Caribbean Series team, he chose Delgado, his own team's catcher and MVP of that winter season, over Texas Rangers rising star Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez.
And that is just one example of how deep the talent pool was for the tiny Caribbean island heading into a golden era in Puerto Rico's baseball history. Five of the top 10 Puerto Rican players who ultimately finished with the most hits in MLB history were on that team, including Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, who was just coming off back-to-back World Series wins with the Blue Jays, as well as Edgar Martinez, Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Ruben Sierra, Carlos Baerga and Carmelo Martinez.
While front office executives geek out on statistical projections, scouts try to second-guess player development. But in the end, timing is the great outlier with legendary teams. And so it was with Puerto Rico's 1995 Caribbean Series team.
Maybe in the end, it was the season-shortening baseball strike in 1994 or the fact that MLB added Puerto Rico to the draft in 1990, making this the last class of a free-agent pipeline. Whatever the reason, the stars not only lined up that winter, setting the stage for a crop of stars who would go on to have memorable careers not seen since by a group of Puerto Ricans in the major leagues.
The batting order spoke for itself. Alomar was the leadoff hitter, followed by Edgar Martinez and then Baerga. Delgado hit fourth followed by sluggers Gonzalez and Sierra. Williams, Martinez's cousin, Carmelo Martinez, and Rey Sanchez rounded out the batting order.
Twenty years have now officially passed, but Melendez still remembers how he wrangled with his decision to use Delgado, who had earned the right with his winter season performance, over Rodriguez, who was already an established star.
"Look, Rey Sanchez won the league's batting title that season and he had to hit ninth in that lineup," Melendez said. "Carlos had been our catcher all season. I couldn't in all fairness come in and put Ivan in there and take his job away.
"I sat my entire staff down in the clubhouse for more than an hour," Melendez said of Jerry Morales, Luis Isaac, Ruben Escalera and Juan Nieves. "We took into consideration every angle. It was impossible to decide."
The 1994 MLB strike inspired most of Puerto Rico's major leaguers to play over the winter, and Nieves, a former pitcher with the Brewers in the late '80s who was Melendez's pitching coach in 1995 and is currently the Boston Red Sox's pitching coach, remembers the dilemma.
"What a nice problem to have because usually in baseball all your lineups are set except the eighth and the ninth hole," Nieves said. "This one was top to bottom rock solid."
If the batting order weren't enough of a problem, Melendez had to figure out the defense.
He was staring down two of the best second basemen in the game at the time in Alomar and Baerga.
Baerga had had a historic 1993 season, becoming the first switch-hitter to homer from both sides of the plate in the same inning. The Cleveland Indians star finished the 1993 season with a .321 batting average, 200 hits, 21 home runs and 114 RBIs.
But Alomar was a two-time World Series winner with Toronto, already a five-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner. He had a .298 career batting average to that point and averaged 38 steals in seven seasons. He would go on to make the All-Star team another seven times in a row, beginning in 1995.
"Roberto was the same player everyone had come to expect from the 1992-93 World Series," Melendez said. "He took advantage of any situation. When you need a base stolen, there he was. He was so versatile. But the whole team was amazing. I remember before the series started, I sat them all down and said: 'Guys we have a great team. I am just going to sit on this bench and enjoy. You all know what to do.'"
Melendez ended up putting Baerga at third and kept Sanchez at shortstop. Sierra, who had previously been a teammate of Gonzalez with the Rangers, kept his spot at right field while Gonzalez got moved over to left.
At the time, Sierra was 29 and was already a four-time All-Star with 201 homers over nine seasons. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was 25 and had had his breakout season in 1993. He had already twice led the American League in home runs with the Rangers (1992 and '93). He went on to win the AL MVP twice in the following four seasons.
Williams was just 26 that winter. He had a .351 on-base percentage in four seasons to that point in his career, but he had never batted over .300. Beginning in 1995, he went on to bat over .300 for eight straight seasons and become a five-time All-Star with the New York Yankees. That February, he batted .417 with a tournament-high three home runs.
Edgar Martinez, then 32, had had a career .303 average and .391 OBP in parts of eight seasons to that point. He went on to become a six-time All-Star with a .430 career OBP from 1995 on. He was third in MVP voting in 1995.
Delgado was the youngest player on the team at just 23. He had only 161 plate appearances in the majors to that point in his career. Over the next 15 seasons, he went on to hit 464 home runs, batting .281 with a .384 OBP while averaging just under 100 RBIs per season.
Delgado's father, Cao, said the trust Melendez put in his son that February was the spark that helped begin his career.
"Carlos was the only one on the team who wasn't established in the major leagues yet," he said. "And he was hitting fourth."
In 1993, Delgado had just one at-bat for Toronto, and in 1994, despite a solid start, he got sent down early in the season. In fact, Delgado's run for Toronto at catcher was so short-lived that those attending Hiram Bithorn Stadium that winter got to witness history.
At spring training in 1995, the Jays tested Delgado in the outfield and in 1996 when the Blue Jays traded John Olerud to the Mets, Delgado became the Jays' first baseman. He didn't start more than 25 games at first base in a season in the majors until 1997.
"Carlos was such a big guy and he looked almost uncomfortable behind the plate," Nieves remembers. "But he had a feel for catching games that was above average and I think it was because he was such a legit hitter."
The Senadores were up against tough competition that year. The Dominicans, managed by Art Howe, showed up with Pedro Martinez, Jose Rijo, Raul Mondesi and Jose Offerman and the Venezuelans had Bobby Abreu, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Hernandez and Luis Sojo.
But the Dominican Republic, despite aces Rijo and Martinez, didn't advance past Puerto Rico. The Dominicans lost only two games that tournament with both losses coming against the island rival Puerto Ricans.
Game 1 of the tournament pitted Puerto Rico against a 2-0 Dominican team, which featured Offerman, Mondesi and Todd Hollandsworth, not to mention a 23-year-old Pedro Martinez on the mound. The game turned out to be an absolute blowout; Puerto Rico won 16-0; Pedro lasted just four innings while Doug Brocail threw seven scoreless for Puerto Rico, allowing just three hits while striking out seven.
"I remember I think it was the sixth inning of that game and Carlos Perez was pitching relief for the Dominicans and we were already up 9-0 but Perez struck out Juan Gonzalez, and their pitchers were still taunting us," Nieves said. "Ruben, who played against me as a kid in the little leagues, said to me: 'This guy thinks he can keep throwing the changeup. Watch what I'm going to do.' And he smacked the ball to drive in two runs and off he went with his little dance that he did. The crowd went wild."
Jose Rijo, who had sported a 2.63 ERA over his previous seven seasons in the majors, started the final game of the series, which was the second faceoff between Puerto Rico and the Dominicans, but he could not stop a Puerto Rico team that finished with nine runs and 15 hits in the game.
Bernie Williams hit a double and two home runs (one from each side of the plate) and Gonzalez hit a home run 460 feet over the wall in center field.
"The Dominicans were so confident that even the reporters [going into the 9-3 Puerto Rico win in the final game] got on my nerves," Melendez said. "They badgered me in the clubhouse before the game asking how we were going to handle Jose Rijo. I still remember one reporter asked me: 'If you have a man on second and Juan Gonzalez is up to bat, will you have him bunt?' And I just laughed and said, 'Check Igor's major league records. How many times have you seen him bunt with a runner on base?' The guy must have thought I was a jerk, but what a question."
Puerto Rico actually trailed 4-0 in the fifth inning in its first game of the tournament against Mexico. But it was Roberto Alomar who sparked the rally, hitting a three-run homer in the fifth inning. Alomar finished as the series MVP, batting .560 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.
Puerto Rico tied the game in the sixth inning on a Delgado home run. They took the lead for good in the seventh on RBI singles from Baerga and Gonzalez.
"People remember the lineup but it was the toughest situation I have ever been in," said Nieves about Puerto Rico's rotation, which featured Brocail, Ricky Bones, Eric Gunderson and Chris Haney. "Everyone in the Dominican Republic wanted to be Pedro Martinez. But in Puerto Rico, everyone wanted to be Juan Gonzalez. But my guys went at it with their hearts and hands. When Doug [Brocail, now a senior pitching adviser for the Houston Astros] and I run into each other at games we still joke about that series."
Overall for the tournament, Puerto Rico batted .346 as a team with a 2.29 team ERA.
Puerto Rico has won the Caribbean Series only once (in 2000) since 1995. The Dominican Republic has won 10 times in that span and Mexico six times. It was the end of a magical era in Puerto Rican baseball history. Since 1995, the island has not fielded another team of the same caliber.
"I had never before seen a team that so wanted to represent Puerto Rico," said veteran statistician, historian and journalist Jossie Alvarado about the Senadores, who traded the club's name and played with Puerto Rico on their uniforms for the first time in Caribbean Series history. "The front office staff told me that no checks were ever cut for the major leaguers. They all waived any fees they could have charged just because they so wanted the chance to play for the island. It was that big a deal."
Gabrielle Paese is a deputy editor for ESPN.com and the former sports editor at The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She covered the 1995 Caribbean Series, along with ESPN senior editor Hiram Martinez and ESPN Stats & Info specialist Pedro Zayas, who also contributed to this story.