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Puerto Ricans Welcome MLB Opener

April 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.


Looking for the catch of the day.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- The crowd began gathering around 5 a.m. By noon, there were at least 5,000 fans waiting outside Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the smartest of them holding up umbrellas to block the hot, bright sun.

Around 12:45 p.m., more three hours early, the gates were opened and the first huge cheer of the afternoon went up.

The party was on.

The celebration continued throughout Sunday as major league baseball came to the would-be 51st state for the first time. The land of Clemente played host to the opener of 2001 season -- between los Azulejos de Toronto and los Rangers de Texas -- and the locals couldn't have been any prouder.

``Demasiado especial,'' said Margarita Figueroa of Guaynabo. ``Extremely special.''

It all began at 4:14 p.m. EDT when Toronto's Esteban Loaiza began the year with a called strike to Rusty Greer. Moments later, Alex Rodriguez -- the $252 million man -- singled for the first hit of the season, then scored the first run on Rafael Palmeiro's double.

The Blue Jays beat the Rangers 8-1.

Dennis Colon was part of a 32-person group that left Hatillo at 7 a.m. and arrived at 8. It was worth the wait as the six members of the 7- and 8-year-old Lechuga (Lettuce) Rangers team he coaches snagged the third row of the general admission section behind first base.

Colon was most in awe of the stadium, a place he thought he knew well after playing here hundreds of times during a career that only recently ended. He couldn't believe how much it had been improved in the three months since he last suited up for the Santurce Crabbers.

``It's incredible,'' said Colon, who wears a 1996 Texas League championship ring from his days as a first baseman-outfielder with the Jackson Generals. ``I heard about all they did, but the difference is so big.

``Next year for winter league, fans are going to love to come here. They're really going to enjoy it.''

More than $600,000 was spent sprucing up the stadium named for Puerto Rico's first major leaguer.

Among the changes: Reshaping the artificial playing field (which is only 315 and 313 down the lines and 398 to dead center, with more foul territory than any major league park), padding the walls, repairing and replacing seats and overhauling the clubhouses. Most of it was done in about two months.

The final touch came in a pregame ceremony Sunday.

A green sheet slid down the right-field wall, revealing two white circles with the names and numbers of Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, the two Hall of Famers from the island. The spot was chosen because it's the position Clemente played, possibly better than anyone in baseball history.

Clemente's wife, Vera, joined Cepeda in throwing out the first pitch after the singing of three national anthems -- ``Oh, Canada,'' ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' played by Jose Feliciano, and Puerto Rico's ``La Borinquena.''

Prior to all that was a vintage celebracion puertorriqueno.

A 12-piece band played folks songs as women twirled in red dresses with men wearing white straw hats like the kind worn by golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez. Then came the vejigantes, seven somewhat grotesque-looking characters popular in street carnivals and religious celebrations.

The singing and dancing gave way to the introductions of players from both teams. The loudest cheers went to three locals: Texas' Ivan Rodriguez and Ricky Ledee and Toronto's Carlos Delgado.

Rodriguez and Ledee waved Puerto Rico flags and Rodriguez and Delgado met for a hug. Rodriguez later went to a box seat near the Blue Jays' dugout and kissed his mother, Eva Torres. Delgado and Rodriguez caught the pitches from Clemente and Cepeda.

``This is something marvelous, very positive for baseball in all of Latin America,'' Cepeda said.

Although tickets cost up to $75, fans came ready to spend money on souvenirs and concessions.

Hats and pins with the game's logo sold out at Saturday night's exhibition. T-shirts with the names and numbers of Rodriguez was the top seller. Alex Rodriguez, who is of Dominican descent, beat Delgado for second.

Americans might've been a bit lost at the food booths. Pizza and nachos were among the few things you'd find in ballparks back home.

The selection included kebabs called ``pinchos'' available in beef, chicken, sausage, fried shrimp, which come on wooden sticks with the meat separated by discs of fried plantains. Another popular item is ``alcapurrias,'' fried pockets made of either mashed plantain or yuca with various meats inside.

Some unusual thirst quenchers included jugs of fruit juices poured $1 at a time and liquor stands -- run by ``the 3 Amigos'' -- featuring the wide variety of exotic mixed drinks found on a Florida beach.

Colon said this weekend has two lasting effects: Raising the Puerto Rico's profile and giving the game a jolt to youngsters, who no longer play the game with the same passion as previous generations.

Stricter draft rules and a heightened interest in basketball have chipped away at baseball's Puerto Rico pipeline.

``That's why I'm managing this team,'' Colon said. ``I want them to know what baseball is like and I want them to love the game. That's why I brought them here today.''

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