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Baseball Fever Grips Puerto Rico

By Gabrielle Paese

April 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The new English-only sign is up on Estadio Hiram Bithorn (that's Hiram Bithorn Stadium for San Juan mayor George Santini) and there's only a week left before San Juan plays host to its newest "home" team, the Montreal Expos, for a total of 10 games from April 11-20.

Already an island of die-hard baseball fans, Puerto Ricans have extra incentive to enjoy the game they so love this season -- 22 games in San Juan.

Accustomed to following their players on cable televised games, on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, via and the newspaper's printed boxscores, Puerto Ricans will get a closer look at the game they have watched from afar for so many years.

"My dad's in a wheelchair but I'm taking him for the first Mets game because we lived for a while in New York and he's always been a Mets fan," said Alberto Beniquez.

Workers were putting the finishing touches on the stadium this week, the food concessionaires were setting up temporary shops and even Adelphia cable TV was running a free preview of its MLB Extra Innings service, which offers island subscribers 35 games per week over nine channels.

Salsa and pop star Marc Anthony is going to sing the U.S. and Puerto Rican national anthems for the first game and the games are expected to have a decidedly Latin flair, which is a good thing for a team that had 19 Latin players at spring training and six on its opening day roster. GM Omar Minaya is Dominican and three members of the coaching staff speak Spanish.

MLB has already volunteered to set up tour guide service for all visiting media, thus assuring that visiting TV crews will get plenty of footage of the Expos' new Caribbean paradise outside of the ballpark. MLB's media release this week outlined details for visiting reporters on how to get to Old San Juan, the rain forest, the beaches and the golf courses.

If poet T.S. Eliot once wrote that "April is the cruelest month," it was because he obviously had never considered the possibility of baseball in San Juan.

Credit in that department goes to promoter Antonio Munoz Sr., who ponied up a reported $10 million in guaranteed revenue and also convinced MLB that its show could go on in San Juan.

While MLB is hoping for more fans than the Expos averaged last season in Montreal (estimates were somewhere between 875 to 1,500 per game), Bithorn Stadium turned out to be an even more "intimate" ballpark than was imagined several months ago. Capacity seating will be more at 18,200 than the originally talked about 20,000. And ticket sales are still a gamble for Munoz.

The harsh reality is that none of the 22 games were sold out at this writing. The average was more at 12,000 per game so far, which means there are still 6,000 tickets per game up for grabs for fans who have waited until the last minute. Munoz is probably not sweating the 6,000 empty seats for the first Mets game. He knows everyone in Puerto Rico waits until the last minute to do everything, from paying their taxes to putting up hurricane shutters.

P.R. Sailors Dominate Catamaran Classes At Rolex Regatta

Trading in his beloved Hobie 16 for the Olympic-class Tornado, Puerto Rico's elite catamaran sailor, Enrique "Quique" Figueroa, successfully defended his Beach Cat title last week at the International Rolex Regatta in St. Thomas, beating out a field of six other boats and finishing with a low score of nine over the seven races."This was one of our best Rolex regattas in a few years," said Figueroa, who is the defending gold medalist for the Pan Am Games later this summer in Santo Domingo. "It was very challenging and lots of good fun sailing against a new group of teams that shipped over from the U.S."Figueroa, a three-time world champion, was one of 22 Puerto Ricans who competed in the regatta, a tuneup for next weekend's BVI Spring Regatta, the third leg of the CORT, Caribbean Ocean Racing Triangle.Puerto Rico also nailed a 1-2-3 finish in the Hobie category. Enrique "Keki" Figueroa (no relation) was tops in the non-spinnaker division sailing Exodus/Ensysa. Figueroa was leading his fleet by only one point going into the final day, but pulled ahead with three victories in as many races.Rival Puerto Rican sailor, Rosarito Martínez, was second with Yulsa, a Hobie 16, while Lolo Too, another Hobie 16 skippered by Anton Guernica, also of Puerto Rico, was third.Efrain Lugo, Puerto Rico's leading J-24 sailor, won seven straight regattas to take the J-24 category aboard Orion/Coors Light. Lugo won last year aboard a Melges 24, and said the conditions with winds Sunday at 15-20 knots and competition made his seemingly easy victory a challenge.Puerto Rico took a 1-2-3 finish in the J-24s as well with Carlos Feliciano's Tax Return finishing second and Gilberto Rivera's Urayo third.

Gymnast Vargas Helps Penn State To Big Ten Win

Puerto Rican gymnast Luis Felipe Vargas, a freshman at Penn State, finished sixth in the all-around to help the No. 2 ranked Penn State men's gymnastics team to its first-ever Big Ten championship title last week at Ohio State's St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

The Nittany Lions scored a season-high 37.100 in its final rotation on the floor exercise for the victory. Penn State scored a 220.550 to finish ahead of two-time defending champion and host Ohio State (218.600) and Iowa (215.600).

Vargas was Penn State's highest all-around finisher, scoring a 53.225 for sixth place. He took first-place honors on the parallel bars with a 9.30 and tied for fourth on the horse, earning a 9.20.

Penn State did not finish lower than third on any event. Prior to this victory, the Nittany Lions' best finish at the championship was a second-place showing in 1998 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Penn State posted back-to-back third-place showings in 2001 and 2002.

Vargas, a gold medalist at the 2002 Central American-Caribbean Games, is Puerto Rico's brightest hope for a medal in the sport at the Pan Am Games later this summer. He was a bronze medalist at the 1999 Pan Am Games. Penn State goes after the NCAA title next week in Philadelphia with its primary rival being No. 1-ranked Oklahoma.

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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