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THE MIAMI HERALD
Baseball, Puerto Rican Style
Far from Canada, Expos should feel at home in San Juan
BY KEVIN BAXTER
March 2, 2003
SAN JUAN - It's early on a Sunday morning, but already the sun has turned the city's downtown ballpark into a sauna. As a half-dozen local players take turns hitting, throwing and running before an equal number of major-league scouts, a sweat-soaked Juan Rodríguez Mejías strides purposefully across the field's spongy carpet on another kind of scouting mission.
In less than six weeks, the Montreal Expos will play the first of 22 regular-season games in Puerto Rico, and Rodríguez is running down a list of what must be done to bring the stadium up to par: Outfield grandstands are needed to increase seating capacity to 20,000; the decrepit press box and clubhouses must be refurbished; the field's artificial turf needs retouching; and there's talk of boosting the 8-foot outfield walls to keep the games from becoming a home-run derbies.
''Can you see Mike Piazza hitting here?'' said Rodríguez, one of the series' organizers, pointing to the 339-foot marker on the wall in left-center field.
Puerto Rican fans can -- and they can hardly wait. Piazza's New York Mets open the Expos schedule in San Juan on April 11, and most of the advance tickets were sold just hours after they went on sale -- despite prices as high as $85.
Organizers expect to turn away crowds for all 22 games, making Major League Baseball's most ambitious international project to date a huge success while also pumping much-needed revenue into the Expos' depleted coffers.
That is exactly what the commissioner's office had in mind when it announced the games last September.
''The commissioner's goals here were at least twofold, maybe threefold,'' said John McHale, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for administration. ``He wanted to try to do something to help the financial condition of the [Expos]. He wanted to try to do that in the context of an agenda that was important to him, which is the internationalization of the game. And I think he wanted to do it in a place that had some strong baseball roots and that would be fun for players to come back and play in.''
Moving more than a quarter of Montreal's ''home'' schedule to San Juan marks the sixth time Major League Baseball -- which runs the Expos on behalf of the other 29 clubs -- has put regular-season games outside the United States and Canada.
In 1996, the San Diego Padres, displaced by the Republican National Convention, played a three-game series against the Mets at Monterrey, Mexico.
In 1999, the Padres and Colorado Rockies opened the season with a game at Monterrey.
In 2000, the Chicago Cubs and Mets opened the season with a two-game series at Tokyo.
In 2001, the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays began the season with a game in Puerto Rico.
On March 25-26, the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics will play a two-game series at Tokyo.
''I think in this situation, it's pretty obvious that we are playing down there because we don't have the revenues [in Montreal],'' said Expos general manager Omar Minaya, who traded standout pitcher Bartolo Colón in January to reduce payroll. ``We have to be kind of creative, innovative.''
But if making money for the Expos was the only reason for moving the games, McHale said, it would have made more sense to play them in a larger stadium in the United States, which would have reduced travel costs and produced a larger gate.
Sara Loarte, MLB's director of Latin American marketing and a Puerto Rican native, said San Juan offers additional benefits in terms of marketing and improving MLB's image on the island, birthplace of nearly four dozen active major-leaguers.
''We have an ongoing business there. We have some active corporate sponsors there. So, in reality, for us, Puerto Rico is a very important market,'' Loarte said. Plus, the success of the Texas-Toronto game in 2001 made it 'an easy decision for us to say, `Let's go back,' '' she added.
However, the Puerto Rican market -- there are more than 3.8 million people on the island, including about 700,000 in metro San Juan -- is famously fickle say those who know it well. Although baseball is the island's No. 1 passion, the Puerto Rican winter league suffered through one of its worst-attended seasons this year. And the just-concluded Caribbean Series, which matched the top two teams in Puerto Rico against the champions of the Dominican and Mexican winter leagues, could not sell out 15,000-seat Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium in nearby Carolina.
The fans who did show up, however, were raucous.
''The market's strange,'' said San Juan Star sports writer Eric Edwards, who has covered Puerto Rican baseball for more than a decade. ``A lot of things have sprung up in Puerto Rico in the last 20 years. Cable, shopping malls. A lot of these things compete with baseball.''
MLB officials, citing a confidentiality agreement with the games' local promoters, refuse to discuss the financial details.
But the Expos' guarantee is believed to be $350,000 a game, a substantial amount for a team that finished last in the majors in attendance each of the past three years. Montreal averaged 10,031 fans at Olympic Stadium last season.
For Puerto Rico, whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, the games' publicity is a godsend.
''Tourism has been very difficult since 9/11, so we're trying to get as many big events as we can to show the world that this is a safe city, that big things could happen in San Juan,'' said John Blakeman, San Juan's director of city enterprises. Although the Expos visits to Puerto Rico seem sure to be a hit from a financial and marketing standpoint, the team's success on the field is far less certain.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the aging 40-year-old park where the games will be played, was scheduled for a $26 million makeover that has been delayed by the games. Instead, the city of San Juan will spend $2.5 million to try to bring the field, clubhouses and press box up to minimal major-league standards.
And even if the walls are raised, the park's low mound, pool-table-smooth AstroTurf and tiny dimensions -- 315 down the lines, 338 in the gaps and 398 to center -- could make Coors Field look like a pitcher's haven by comparison. With Sammy Sosa's Cubs, Ken Griffey Jr.'s Reds, the world champion Angels, Alex Rodríguez and the Rangers and Pudge Rodríguez and the Marlins among the teams coming to San Juan, football scores could be common.
''You would have been foolish to think you could have somehow lifted PNC Park up and plunked it down and recreated it in the middle of San Juan,'' McHale said. ``You have to be prepared to accept some differences in local conditions.''