The Outlook for Virgin Islands Baseball
Two Sad Stories
People in the islands still talk about pitcher Roberto Smalls of St. Thomas, a character seemingly co-created by Bernard Malamud and Tupac Shakur. "The best thing out of here next to me," says Al McBean. "He could throw small baseballs. He could run. He could hit. He could definitely have been a major-league pitcher. I worked with him, I was trying to show him a slider. And his older brothers, who were involved with this dope s**t, told me 'If you mess up his arm, we'll get you.' So I said I don't need this."
As a youth, Smalls was once featured in the "Faces in the Crowd" section of Sports Illustrated for throwing five straight no-hitters. He was a third-round pick of the Cubs in 1988. However, he never amounted to much in the minors -- the lure of the thug life proved too great.
The Smalls brothers "ran the most violent drug gang in St. Thomas and one of the most violent in the Caribbean...[they] cornered the crack trade in St. Thomas through murder, witness intimidation, and bomb threats."1
On January 9, 1994, Robbie fatally shot a rival gangsta named Reynaldo James. This turned out to be one of the most sensational murder cases in V.I. history. Melvin Claxton of the Daily News, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation, revealed that a green police sergeant from the forensics division mishandled the evidence. The James shooting took place the same day and in the same vicinity as another gun death, but the two were treated as the same case. "The FBI asked not once, not twice, but three times before Jackson got it right."2
When the case came to trial, middle brother Eugene (a.k.a. "Quick") was suspected -- though never charged -- of threatening the lives of a territotrial judge, as well as jurors, prosecution witnesses and a prosecutor...and blowing up the Alexander A. Farrelly Justice Center."3 Nonetheless, Robbie's plea of self-defense against a drive-by was rejected, though he had been wounded in the battle. He was sentenced to life for Murder One.
Two years later, Eugene -- using a walker after taking a bullet himself -- and Mitchell "Sebo" Smalls -- who once threatened to blow off a park ranger's head for ticketing his BMW4 -- were also sentenced to life without parole after Virginia authorities took down their crack ring.
One of the other blue-chip V.I. prospects in recent years was catcher Eddie Williams, a second-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 1991. Williams followed the same path as his youth ball teammate Midre Cummings, moving from St. Croix to Miami and starring at Edison High. He hit for average and power, showed a strong arm, and even stole bases. USA Today named him to its Super 25 and later its All-USA high-school teams in 1991. Cardinals farm director Mike Jorgensen thought they had a steal in the strapping 6'3", 220-pound switch-hitter.
In that draft, however, the biggest prize of them all was Brien Taylor--the number-one overall pick who wrecked his fabulous left arm in a foolish bar fight. This was a more notorious parallel to Williams, another case of youthful folly.
While playing for the Single-A Springfield Cardinals in 1993, Williams was at the wheel in a grave car accident that cost the life of his friend and teammate Diego Ruiz. Both alcohol and excessive speed were involved. From his hospital bed, Williams urged his team to win one for the well-liked Ruiz, and in storybook fashion, they did. Williams was fortunate enough to make a full physical recovery, but -- as Springfield manager Mike Ramsey had feared -- he could not rebound from the psychological effects. The Cardinals and Tigers chains both released him, and he also had to serve six months for reckless homicide. Around 1995, Joe Mihalek arranged a last-ditch tryout with the Mariners. Although Williams could throw, he couldn't hit the ball out of the infield.
It is impossible to project whether Williams would ever have advanced to the majors. Even before the accident he had not been progressing as the Cardinals had hoped, but that Super 25 team of 1991 shows the odds against even the most promising young players. It produced two future stars (Manny Ramírez and Shawn Green), eight marginal to good big-leaguers (Cliff Floyd and Dmitri Young being the best), and 15 who never made it. The common critique of many recent V.I. ballplayers, though, is that their baseball skills are unrefined. This warrants a closer look at the state of the game there today.
1. Jon Frank, "Drug Dealer Gets 90-Year Term," The Virginian-Pilot, October 23, 1996, p. B1.
2. Melvin Claxton, "Evidence Supervisor: I Screwed Up," V.I. Daily News, December 14, 1994.
3. Frank, op. cit.