PLATE-SETTER

Times Staff Writer

CABO ROJO, Puerto Rico -- Hector Valle sure can spin a good yarn.

At least that's what people in this tiny coastal town along Puerto Rico's western shore used to say.

"Tell us again about the time you hit .300 in the big leagues," they would ask with a laugh, figuring if Valle really had been a major leaguer, they would have heard of him.

So Valle went out and had his baseball card laminated and stuck it in his wallet. There, on the front, in gray Dodgers flannels, is Valle striking a fierce pose at the plate. And on the back, in neat print, is proof of his big league career:

Nine games, 13 at-bats, four singles and a .308 average.

If you had blinked, you might have missed Valle's time in Los Angeles. But those nine games have provided him with a lifetime of memories.

"Getting to the major leagues was the ultimate," he said 43 years later. "What a great experience. It was beautiful."

As it turns out, it was historic as well because it made Valle the first Puerto Rican catcher to play in the majors. And the trail he blazed is one many of his countrymen have followed.

Of the 41 Puerto Ricans who played in the majors last season, 13 were catchers. Only twice in the last 12 years has a World Series been played without at least one Puerto Rican behind the plate; three times in the last six years Puerto Rican catchers started for both teams.

And 17 times in the last 18 years a Puerto Rican catcher has started for the American League in the All-Star game.

So how did a commonwealth of less than 4 million people, a place where baseball is no longer the most popular sport, come to dominate what may be the game's most difficult and important position?

"You know, everyone asks me that question," said Ellie Rodriguez, who played for the Dodgers and Angels in the 1970s and was the first Puerto Rican catcher to make an All-Star team.

So far, he hasn't come up with an answer. Which doesn't make him unusual.

"I don't know the reason," said New York Yankees catcher Jose Molina, whose brothers Yadier and Bengie are also big league catchers. "It is unusual. [We] develop differently, I guess."

What is certain, however, is that it all started with Valle.

"I," he said with a wink, "gave the example."

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Valle's example notwithstanding, not every Puerto Rican ballplayer set out to squat behind the plate. The Yankees' Jorge Posada was drafted as a second baseman and led the rookie-level New York-Penn League in double plays in his first professional season.

But the five-time All-Star insists changing positions saved his career.

"I don't think I would have made it to the big leagues as an infielder," said Posada, a three-time World Series champion who led all catchers with .338 batting average last season.

And the San Francisco Giants' Bengie Molina played just about every position but catcher before the Angels signed him in 1993.

"A scout asked him to throw to second because he always had a pretty good arm. And look where he's at now," Jose Molina said of his brother, a two-time Gold Glove winner with the Angels.

Yet, as more and more Puerto Ricans reach the majors as catchers, Posada and Molina say, the way teams view players from the island has begun to change, a fact that has helped keep the pipeline flowing.

"When you sign as a Puerto Rican, they pretty much know you have a great arm. Then it comes down to the organizations needing catchers," said Posada. "Me, I was a project."

Rodriguez says one reason kids are eager to make the switch is because the trip to the majors is often quicker for catchers.

"They always used to say the best way to get to the big leagues is by catching," said Rodriguez, a former Golden Gloves boxer who started his baseball career as a pitcher. "If you're pretty good behind the plate, you can get to the big leagues in three, four years."

Which is exactly how long it took Rodriguez to get there. But then he had help -- from Valle.

"He really took me under his wing and taught me the ABCs of catching," Rodriguez said of Valle, once a teammate with Caguas of the Puerto Rican winter league. "So then Hector was my idol. It goes back to that."

Rodriguez later passed that wisdom along to the Molina brothers, continuing a tradition that has helped further Puerto Rico's catching legacy.

"They put the example there. They were the ones that pretty much brought everything to life," said Jose Molina, pointing as well to former rookies of the year Sandy Alomar Jr. and Benito Santiago and perennial All-Star Ivan Rodriguez.

"I didn't say I could make it because they did. I said I want to make it and be like them," he said. "Because I knew they were a success. And when they're a success, you're like, 'I want to be like them.' Of course."

As Jose Molina sits out a midday cloudburst on the patio behind his sprawling home in a gated community about 20 minutes west of San Juan, he nods toward brother Yadier's house across the street and considers the improbability of three brothers reaching the major leagues at baseball's most demanding position -- much less combining to win three World Series championships and two Gold Gloves.

"It wasn't anything that we planned to be that way," said Jose Molina, who said his dad, an outfielder for 15 seasons in Puerto Rico's double-A league, actually started all three brothers out at first base. "My family, my older brothers, we probably don't have the best bodies in the world. But we try to, whatever we have, put it there together and make it work."

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Valle also became a catcher by accident. Born on the eve of World War II near Puerto Rico's north-central coast in Vega Baja -- the same town that would later produce big league catchers Ivan Rodriguez and Ramon Castro -- he was discouraged from playing baseball by his father, who wanted him to help care for the family farm.

But Valle's mother had other ideas, fashioning a baseball glove out of scraps of fabric so her son could practice in secret.

By the time he was 18, Valle was good enough to make the Puerto Rican national team, leading it to a second-place finish in the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago and drawing the attention of a Dodgers scout, who signed him that fall.

Although Valle is recognized as the first Puerto Rican to catch in the majors, he wasn't the first major league catcher born there. That honor goes to Valmy Thomas, who made his big league debut with the New York Giants two years before Valle signed. But Thomas' birth on the island was something of a technicality because his mother, who lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, came to San Juan seeking a better hospital in which to give birth and returned to St. Croix soon after her son was delivered. So though Thomas spent six years with the Navy in Puerto Rico and played 14 years of winter ball there, he always considered the Virgin Islands to be his homeland, allowing Valle to claim his spot in Puerto Rican history when he made his initial appearance behind the plate for the Dodgers in 1965.

"I was the first," said Valle, leaning forward in an easy chair in the second-floor living room of an apartment building that sits on land he bought with the $7,500 World Series check he received that fall.

More than four decades later that minor historical footnote -- and a small bookcase full of baseball mementos -- are all that remains of Valle's big league career. A standout defensive catcher who hit .280 or better in three of his first five minor league seasons, Valle went to spring training in 1966 with a good shot to make the Dodgers roster.

Instead he was sent to the minors, and when the Dodgers promoted Jim Campanis, son of team executive Al Campanis, to the big leagues later that season, Valle knew his days in Los Angeles were numbered.

His wife Belen, a tiny but feisty woman, insists racism played a role -- her husband was the only Latin to play for the Dodgers between 1961 and 1967 -- but Valle, a burly man with big hands and a constant smile, keeps whatever complaints he has to himself.

"The other players," he said simply, "were better."

A year later, Valle was claimed by the New York Mets in the minor league draft and in December 1968 he was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He later played five seasons in Mexico and played, coached and managed for several years in the Puerto Rican winter league, but he never appeared in another big league game before retiring, at 40, in 1981.

For most of the next quarter-century he worked in the bookstore at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, where most were unaware of his place in baseball lore. The same, sadly, can be said of many of the players who have followed in his footsteps.

Although Valle continues to follow baseball closely, few of Puerto Rico's current major leaguers have bothered to introduce themselves and a spokeswoman for the island's Museum of Sports, which recently honored Posada, said she had never heard of Valle.

Valle pretends not to care.

"There aren't many major leaguers that live in this area," he said with a laugh. "We don't see each other. I just wish them the best. I hope they get a hit every time at bat and throw out every runner at second."

Then he pauses and reflects on what he started.

"I don't know what happened. But it's something phenomenal," he said of Puerto Rico's dominance behind the dish. "They're all starters, all good catchers.

"But why it happened? I honestly don't have a clue."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Behind the masks

Puerto Ricans who played as catchers in the majors last year:

* Sandy Alomar Jr., N.Y. Mets: The 1990 American League rookie of the year and six-time All-Star was most valuable player of the 1997 All-Star game.

* Raul Casanova, Tampa Bay: Has played 367 big league games for five teams in an eight-year career.

* Ramon Castro, N.Y. Mets: In 1994 became the first Puerto Rican high school player to be a first-round pick. Won a World Series title with Florida in 2003.

* Bengie Molina, San Francisco: Won two Gold Gloves and a World Series with the Angels.

* Jose Molina, Angels, N.Y. Yankees: Backed up brother Bengie on the 2002 World Series championship team.

* Yadier Molina, St. Louis: His home run won the 2006 National League Championship Series. Batted .412 in World Series win over Detroit.

* Jose Morales, Minnesota: Was three for three in his big league debut in September.

* Wil Nieves, N.Y. Yankees: Former Angels minor league player was one of three Puerto Ricans to catch for the Yankees in 2007.

* Jorge Posada, N.Y. Yankees: Five-time All-Star led big league catchers with a .338 average in 2007.

* Mike Rivera, Milwaukee: Batted .285 or better three times at triple-A level.

* Ivan Rodriguez, Detroit: Former American League most valuable player is a 14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner and career .303 hitter.

* Geovany Soto, Chicago Cubs: Projected to be the next great Puerto Rican catcher, hit .389 in a late-season call-up and homered in the playoffs.

* Javier Valentin, Cincinnati: Had career highs for average (.281), homers (14) and RBIs (50) in 221 at-bats in 2005.

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