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THE NEW YORK TIMES
San Juan Expos: Idea Si! Fact No! Games In Puerto Rico Have Look And Feel Of A Money Grab
Good Idea, But Lacking Good Will
By HARVEY ARATON
April 12, 2003
A Puerto Rican flag waving at the Expos game on Friday. San Juan, P.R.
PHOTO: Associated Press
THE players began to drift into the unfamiliar ballpark around 3 p.m., most with puzzled expressions, unsure where to go. The Expos' clubhouse? That would be the blue door, to your left, sir. Welcome home.
In the case of the baseball team still receiving its mail in Montreal, home is a loose-fitting term, relative to the moment. Next year? Who knows? For the next 10 days, and for 12 more later this season, it is right here, on the carpet at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where Commissioner Bud Selig has sent his ward to stage what amounts to baseball's version of a multicultural bake sale.
The expected profits of the 22 "home" games should, the Expos' team president, Tony Tavares, said, "be significant enough to help us retain one player." The drive to save pitcher Javier Vazquez or the slugging outfielder Vladimir Guerrero for the patrons of Washington, Northern Virginia or Portland, Ore., began last night with a 10-0 hammering of David Cone and the Mets.
The visitors arrived from Miami in the wee hours yesterday after Armando Benitez gave the Mets another ninth-inning horror Thursday night. The Expos landed from Chicago just before midnight, off three road series in frigid temperatures, and celebrated their "home opener" without so much as a stadium workout or guided tour.
It was an excellent idea by Selig to bring major league baseball to San Juan. He just might have made sure it was a little more of a good-will offering and a little less of a blatant money grab.
As baseball becomes more international, it needs to develop a sensitivity it has sorely lacked at home. The decision to cancel the Oakland-Seattle season opener in Japan when war in Iraq broke out was shortsighted. A baseball game in New York is arguably a bigger security threat than one in Japan.
Recently, baseball officials were heard advising the Dominican Republic to spruce up its existing facility to the tune of $10 million if it wants what Puerto Rico now has. Given all the talent that poor country has sent north, baseball couldn't kick in, like, half?
Here, the Expos might have played a few exhibition games during spring training to introduce themselves to their foster home. Baseball might have adjusted its schedule once the Puerto Rico deal was struck last December, to give the Expos Thursday off and allow them to say hello to the community and sign a few autographs.
Instead, for starters, the operation gave the appearance of drive-by baseball, at prices that can best be described as highway robbery.
The top ticket here costs $85, more than the Mets charge in New York. The general admission price, $25, costs more than a box seat in Montreal. Tavares and John McHale, a baseball official, passed the buck, saying the scale was established by Antonio Muñoz, a winter league owner who is the local promoter of the 22 games. Baseball assumed that Muñoz knew what the market would bear. In any language - English, French or Spanish - it sounded like price gouging.
"Of course they knew what they were doing," said Vazquez, one of three Puerto Rican players on the Expos. "It's business, the bottom line."
Vazquez said he thought many tickets for the 22 games would sell because of the novelty.
The likelihood of Puerto Rico's becoming a full-time home for the Expos or any other major league team someday has become a subject of debate here. An Atlantan, Charles Vaughn, has said that he and a group of investors are interested in buying a team and moving it to San Juan or the nearby city of Carolina, provided an existing ballpark could be upgraded to seat 40,000.
A baseball official said Vaughn had never contacted the commissioner's office. It sounds like a noble fantasy, given what North American sports teams demand from municipalities they deem lucky enough to have them. There is no stadium in Puerto Rico close to the major league standard. Hiram Bithorn Stadium was upgraded but still seats less than 20,000. Puerto Rico's population of 3.9 million is comparable to many major league markets, but the per capita income in this United States commonwealth is roughly one-third of the American average.
"Puerto Rico is not ready to have a major league team," said Roberto Clemente Jr., whose father's number, 21, is one of three retired on the right-field fence. "This is a good start, a test. It's great for the people here, great for the players from here to play major league games in Puerto Rico."
Vazquez, who will pitch Monday night, said that as soon as he heard last winter that the Expos were coming here, he didn't want to be traded anymore from baseball's most unloved team. He and Jose Vidro, the Expos' second baseman, spoke of the many relatives who had never had the chance to see them play in person.
Muñoz, the promoter, said he would ask for 40 games next season if the Expos don't have a new home.
It's never a bad idea to take the game on the road, to where people love baseball, to where - as McHale said -"it is deeply rooted in the culture." Just make the long-term investment, not the quick hit.
The fans here may not be ready to purchase luxury suites, but they are plugged into the majors via satellite and cable.
Last night, they filled those pricey seats to near capacity and cheered loud for the introductions of Mike Piazza, for the home boys, Vazquez and Roberto Alomar, and the other Latino players, save one. Jeers were heard for Benitez, indicating the presence of New Yorkers, or proving conclusively that the folks here know their baseball.