Puerto Rico, 14 South Side kids and baseball legend Felix Mantilla.
Dozens applied, but only 14 Milwaukee Little Leaguers will be chosen for a summer trip to a locale that sounds like a “Wheel of Fortune” prize. Isabela, Puerto Rico, is a small city on the island’s northwest coast where surfers ride waves at the foot of towering cliffs. Baseball is big there, and so is Felix Mantilla, the star second baseman for the 1957 Milwaukee Braves team that defeated the vaunted New York Yankees in the World Series. Mantilla, who turns 82 in July, was born in Isabela and today lives quietly in a small ranch house on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side. This new cross-cultural baseball tournament takes place under his auspices, and he’ll be along to show them his hometown. “Some of these kids have never been anywhere,” Mantilla says. The 14 players (not yet selected at press time) will be culled from the Felix Mantilla Little League, which started in 1972 and plays its games at Baran Park by the Kinnickinnic River. The trip will be paid for by donations.
Among the 9- and 10-year-old hopefuls were Armani Chico Camus, who says he hopes someday to embark on a dual career as a baseball player and mixed martial arts fighter. Armani also wants to get his college education. Julian Dominguez plans to become a lawyer if playing professional ball doesn’t work out, he says, so he can “help put the bad guys away.”
Isabela “will be turned upside down with us coming down there,” says Felix “Tony” Mantilla Jr., son of the former player who’s a league coach and will join in the trip. “There’s much better competition [in Puerto Rico] and a huge passion around the game.” Away from the diamond, the youngsters will go on mini-expeditions into caves and a rainforest, visit an astronomy observatory and amble through the island capital of San Juan.
Next summer, a team from Puerto Rico will travel to Milwaukee, where they’ll find less surfing but more bratwurst. About $80,000 is needed to fund both trips, half of which had already been raised in April by a consortium of Journey House, which runs the Mantilla League, Marquette University High School and North Star Providers, a charitable organization based in Milwaukee. The effort already has a prominent fan in Pedro Colón, the Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, former state representative and native of Ponce, Puerto Rico. A former Mantilla player, Colón says the newly concocted cultural exchange program is “what sports should be about.”