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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Expos Win Puerto Rican Fans Over
By Gabrielle Paese
April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Baseball proved to be a game of extremes last week for the Montreal Expos. On the one hand, there was the series versus the Cubs in Chicago with one game snowed out and 32 degree temps. On the other hand was San Juan, where it was 90 degrees last Sunday with the turf registering 136 degrees.
Forget Hotlanta, welcome to steamy San Juan. No pulled muscles in this Caribbean heat, the players were already warmed up before they got to BP.
Given a choice, Expos second baseman Jose Vidro said hed take the heat anytime. It showed as Vidro smacked two home runs out of the cozy confines (338 in the power alleys) of Bithorn Stadium during the Expos four-game sweep of the New York Mets.
With 13 Latin American players on its roster, plus one Puerto Rican coach (Jerry Morales) and one Dominican GM (Omar Minaya), Los Expos (as the stateside media took to calling them) felt right at home here.
Expos manager Frank Robinson said after the teams "opener" against the Mets:
"I saw the seats filled out there but it certainly wasnt an all Expos crowd. There were a lot of New York fans, but I expected that."
The New York clubs have a huge Puerto Rican fan base, probably due to the fact that so many Puerto Ricans live or have lived parts of their lives in New York. But chants of "Lets go Mets" from the stands not withstanding, the Bithorn crowd seemed to be fans of the game in general.
Off the field, the Expos are already giving Puerto Ricos winter league clubs a lesson in community service. So far, Expos have spread their goodwill at Ft. Buchanan Army base and at Roberto Clemente Sports City.
"Coming to Puerto Rico and playing the game is not enough," said Expos GM Omar Minaya. "This is our way of giving back to the community."
The jury is still out on whether attendance in San Juan would be a factor in the islands hosting of more Expos games down the road. Montreal Expos president Tony Tavares said earlier this week that the size of the crowds was just one of many reasons to consider playing in Puerto Rico. Yet in that same conversation he added:
"I dont personally have a benchmark [for attendance] but anything up in the 90 percent is good."
Well, so far, the Expos are close to 90 percent, with one sellout on the second night of play in San Juan versus the Mets (18,264) and an average attendance thus far of 16,414 fans per game, according to MLB figures.
"To know what would be the determining factor for future games you have to look at the 22 games," said Tavares. "There are tons of issues beyond the seating, but if youre asking what your footing is, you have to start off with attendance."
If its a competition, San Juan is actually not that far ahead of Montreals average 2002 home season attendance (about 13,000 per game). Ive said this before and Ill say it again: theres absolutely no excuse for the Expos not to sell out each and every one of the 22 "home" games here. Its ridiculous to see empty seats. Fans should be lining up for tickets for the sheer novelty alone. With the exception of 2001 Opening Day, Puerto Rico has never hosted major league games before.
Sure, the tickets are pricey (the cheapest seats are $10 in the outfield bleachers) and way out of range for the majority of the 3.8 million people living here. But lets be realistic. There certainly is a sector in Puerto Rico making enough money to be able to afford to go to the ballgame.
Does it really matter to MLB whether the Expos sell out every night in San Juan?
I dont think so. It is bad publicity to have the TV cameras panning to empty seats. But MLB has shown over the past decade that what matters most is its bottom line. Remember, promoter Antonio Munoz Sr. gave MLB an estimated $10 million in guarantees to land the rights to host these games. The Puerto Rican government sweetened the deal with an extra tax break that looks exactly like the old 936 tax exemption given to U.S. companies doing business here.
MLB doesnt have to worry about how many seats go empty, they already got their money up front. If they play their cards right, MLB can use this opportunity to really tap into the huge Latin fan base they have virtually ignored for so many decades.
P.R. to host Fed Cup Group II play
Cristina Brandi, Vilmarie Castellvi and Tania Rivera head up Puerto Ricos team for Federation Cup Group II play, which gets under way this week in San Juans Central Park. Gigi Fernandez will coach the women. Teams from a total of 12 countries in this region are expected to participate. The top two teams move up to Group I in the Americas zone. Puerto Rico dropped out of Group I in 2001.
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 email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.