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The Hartford Courant
Love May Not Be Enough To Bring Baseball To Puerto Rico
By Matthew Hay Brown
September 27, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Carlos Vélez knows the player salaries are high, the parking is expensive and the ticket prices are steep. But on an island where love for el béisbol runs deep, he sees little difficulty supporting a major-league team.
"People are going to buy tickets," Vélez said Thursday at Lupi's, the San Juan sports bar he manages. "They're going to buy souvenirs. We would appreciate a team here. It would be a matter of pride."
Benjamín Morales has his doubts.
"The fans' love for the game is not in question," said Morales, sports editor of the tabloid daily Primera Hora. "We have a group of people who love baseball. But the economical situation here is not the best."
Reports this week that a group of investors wants to buy the Montréal Expos and move them to Puerto Rico have this baseball-mad island dreaming big-league dreams.
But while the prospect of cheering on homegrown players against the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves and Mets in San Juan excites many, some question whether this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth has the money to support a team of millionaire players through an 81-game season.
"I don't see much possibility of it, to be honest," said Osvaldo Gil, president of the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation, which organizes the amateur Superior Baseball League and the island Olympic team. "All baseball fans, including myself, we would like that, but truthfully, I'm not too hopeful about it."
Possible move by 2004
Atlanta businessman Charles Vaughn Velázquez said Wednesdaythathe had been leading a group of investors looking to purchase the troubled National League franchise and move it to San Juan in time for the 2004 season.
His group, which includes island impresario Angelo Medina, is one of several that has submitted letters of interest to Major League Baseball, current owners of the Expos.
But it is the only one made public that has suggested moving the team outside of North America. Baseball officials say they are reviewing all proposals.
The idea of Major League Baseball in the birthplace of Roberto Clemente may not be so far-fetched. With a population of 3.9 million, the island as a whole would rank 12th in size among major-league markets, behind Houston and ahead of Atlanta.
Baseball is by far the most popular team sport here, and with no other professional sports franchises, a major-league club would have no competition.
Luring free agents tricky
But with income per person roughly a third of the national average, Puerto Rico would also be the poorest market. Because San Juan is about 1,000 miles from Miami, where the Florida Marlins would be the nearest current team, travel to and from the island would be costly.
A team in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico might face the same difficulties attracting American free agents that the Expos have had in French-speaking Montréal.
And capacity at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which seats 20,000 spectators, would have to be expanded to hold at least twice that many.
"Frankly, I don't think it's going to happen," said economist José Villamil, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. "The numbers are not there, and the logistics are complicated."
Puerto Rican stars abound
And yet, from the storied Puerto Rican Winter League to current stars Roberto Alomar, Juan González and Iván Rodríguez, the island is steeped in baseball tradition.
The 2001 major-league season opened with a sellout game at Bithorn Stadium between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays.
When news of Vaughn's group hit the sports department at Primera Hora, editors and reporters were divided between skepticism and anticipation.
"It's very exciting to think about," said Carlos González, who covers Puerto Rican players in the major leagues for the paper. "But it would be very difficult to maintain a team in San Juan. You can't start charging people $20 to $25 for a ticket. People here are not going to pay $4, $5, $6 for a beer.
"When you look at parking, food, tickets, luxury boxes, at the prices they charge in the major leagues, maybe you can go once or twice a year. Not to 81 games."
The walls at Lupi's, which is owned by former major-league pitcher Ed Figueroa, are covered with photographs and other mementos from Puerto Rico's baseball past -- Hall of Famers Clemente and Orlando Cepeda -- and present: Alomar, Bernie Williams and Carlos Delgado.
Nancy Pérez says their successes could promote a positive image of the island.
"Having a baseball team would be a good way for Puerto Rico to be better known," the pediatric nurse said. "There are places where they still think we live like Indians. A team would be good for tourism and the economy."
Morales, the sports editor, still has his doubts. He says much will depend on the still unknown makeup and financial power of Vaughan's group.
"People are very excited about the idea," he said. "What we need now is a clear statement explaining the plan."