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Major League Baseball In Puerto Rico?

By Gabrielle Paese

October 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"The San Juan Expos" -- it has a nice ring to it. Of course, the best thing to do would be to lose the Expos part and call them something entirely different, but let's save that column until AFTER Major League Baseball moves the franchise to this Caribbean island.

Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico?

Yes, you heard right. Last week, Atlanta-based businessman Charles Vaughn and local sports and entertainment promoter Angelo Medina revealed that they have asked Major League Baseball to consider San Juan as one of the potential new homes for the ailing Montreal Expos in 2004.

Reaction to the news in San Juan this week has been along the lines of "Don't trip. It will never happen."

Yet Medina and Vaughn say they have the money and the means to bring the big leagues to Puerto Rico.

It certainly won't be cheap or easy.

Major League Baseball paid former Expos owner Jeff Loria $120 million for the franchise last year and its estimated value is somewhere between $150-200 million.

Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, New Orleans and Charlotte, N.C. are all bidding to get the franchise. Major League Baseball has never had a team outside of the contiguous United States and let's face it, MLB is not the NBA. Its commissioner is not the kind of guy who thinks out of the box.

Commissioner Bud Selig had originally hoped to include the Expos in his contraction plans, but that idea went out the window with the new collective bargaining agreement reached last month with the Players' Association.

But when you get right down to it, why can't San Juan be home to a big league ballclub?

Apparently, the Commissioner's Office doesn't think it's such a crazy idea because MLB officials were in San Juan this week to inspect the two potential venues -- Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan and Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium in Carolina as well as to meet with government officials.

They weren't visiting with an eye toward selling the franchise just yet. They are more interested in what you could call a practice run -- a tryout of sorts.

MLB's plan for the Expos in 2003 is to make the team itinerant -- that is to say, have the Expos play only a few games at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, while playing the rest on the road in the six cities vying to buy the franchise.

San Juan's "home stand" would be in May with two 10-game series played (most likely) out of Bithorn Stadium, which hosted MLB's Opening Day between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers in 2001.

The Player's Union has also reportedly agreed to the idea, which would mean the Expos would remain in San Juan for about a month while hosting other teams. The same scenario would be repeated during the rest of the season in Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., Las Vegas, New Orleans and Charlotte, N.C.

This alternative is being considered for 2003 as a measure to increase the team's revenue, the lowest in the league, and also because the Commissioner's Office has reportedly determined that it's too late to try to sell the Expos outright to another city in time for the 2003 season.

Coincidentally, San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini last month revealed plans to give Hiram Bithorn Stadium a $26 million facelift, reconstructing the park to hold 40,000 fans, up from its current capacity of 18,000. The work was originally scheduled to begin in February 2003, but sources this week said work could start right away should San Juan get MLB's blessing.

It remains to be seen whether San Juan can be considered a serious contender for a big league ball club, especially when faced with competition from such big-market areas like Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas.

The island's median household income is less than $10,000 and 44.6 percent of the families in Puerto Rico live below the poverty line, meaning only about 3.4 percent could actually afford to attend the games.

Vaughn, of Puerto Rican descent and a 33-year-old Atlanta-based tax and financial executive for the U.S. unit of an Australian conglomerate, cites Census figures he says indicate that San Juan is economically more secure than some of the small-market cities already supporting Major League franchises.

Vaughn contends that of the 2.4 million San Juan residents, the average middle class income compares to households in such other markets as Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. He says the average household income in those three cities is $40,000 while in San Juan it is $33,500.

In his report to the Commissioner, Vaughn also notes that Denver was given a franchise 10 years ago even though it had 200,000 fewer residents than San Juan. A total of 3.8 million people live in Puerto Rico.

Yet even if Puerto Ricans could afford average ticket prices of $28 per person, no one can be sure they will actually go to the games. While Puerto Ricans are some of the most baseball savvy fans in the world, they already don't turn out to the ballpark to watch Puerto Rico Winter League games, which are chock-full of major leaguers.

Medina and Vaughn, however, say they are sure San Juan can beat out its opposition and say they have the numbers and the investors to back up their claim.

In his defense of the San Juan effort, promoter Medina said that it was important to "dream big."

Hmmmm. San Juan Salseros, San Juan Sharks, San Juan Hurricanes -- they all sound too cutesy. Maybe we should steal the winter league names and go with something traditional: San Juan Senators or San Juan Cangrejeros. Nah, Joe Morgan would have a heck of a time pronouncing Cangrejeros. Oops, sorry there. I was just dreaming big.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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