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The Toronto Star
Puerto Rico's Unrequited Love For Beisbol
BY Richard Griffin
April 13, 2003
A walking tour through the stands of Hiram Bithorn Stadium just prior to the Expos hosting the Mets produced surprising results. On an island where tourism is the major industry, one couldn't help but notice the lack of tourists in the stands. Clearly, this 22-game mini-season of Expos home games is an event staged by Puerto Ricans, for Puerto Ricans.
"The fans here bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy," Mets starter Al Leiter said. "The music, singing, dancing ... there's a certain energy that's different than in the States. The fans here just want to see good baseball and their favourite players."
Leiter, who played for Arecibo in the winter of '90, seemed to have hit the nail on the head in his evaluation of these fans' loyalties. The Expos really don't get any special energy from the fans, other than their local stars.
"I go to winter league games occasionally," one of those local fans, Augusto Pintor, said. "But I think this is a sellout because this is the big leagues. This is quality baseball. That's why I have tickets for all 22 games."
It may be a bigger thrill for the six native Puerto Ricans on these two rosters than for the fans. Before the gates opened, Roberto Alomar and Rey Sanchez of the Mets and Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez and Wil Cordero could be seen waving to stadium workers and greeting friends at the railing, unable to hide the huge smiles on their faces.
"When we are kids we ask ourselves whether we'll ever have this chance," Vidro said. "For me it's a dream come true to play in front of my fans and family."
Yesterday at noon, Alomar volunteered to go to the Clemente Sports Complex in nearby Carolina to address thousands of youngsters on behalf of the Jackie Robinson Foundation's RBI program.
For some young Latin players coming here produces a metamorphosis. Players who are perceived as quiet introverts suddenly open up and reveal their true personalities when surrounded by their own culture and language. Mets shortstop Sanchez is an example. Yesterday was his daughter Sabrina's 6th birthday
"I can't think of a better present to give her than her papi playing in Puerto Rico," he said happily.
At a top price of $84 (all figures U.S.) per ticket, a pair for all 22 games would cost $3,696, a huge outlay of money in a commonwealth where per capita income trails the U.S. mainland by 33 per cent. And with professional sports' reliance on luxury suites to generate revenues, there are very few companies on the island with the disposable income to fill those big-ticket needs, which puts a crimp in the plans of those lobbying for re-location of the Expos to San Juan.
"I don't think it can happen," said Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado, a native of Aguadilla, located along the west coast of this tourism-reliant island. "Major-league prices are too high and the money is not there."
Some 30 minutes before game time on opening night, the stands at Hiram Bithorn resembled the platinum level at the Air Canada Centre. But as the three anthems were performed, the stands suddenly began to fill.
"We Puerto Ricans arrive late for everything," Natalia Fetiu scoffed. "It's good to see so many people come out for a baseball game, especially with the war and all the other things that are going on in the world."
Puerto Rico is hoping to grab a major-league baseball team by 2005. Puerto Rico boasts a population of 3.9 million people, making it the 12th-largest market in Major League Baseball, ahead of Atlanta and behind Houston. But despite the optimism, don't count on this economically struggling commonwealth of the United States ever acquiring its own permanent team.
"I don't see much possibility of it, to be honest," said Osvaldo Gil, president of the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation.
Atlanta businessman Charles Vaughn has already approached Major League Baseball regarding the longshot possibility of acquiring a franchise for Puerto Rico.
He is not part of the current promotional group, but is paying close attention and is reported willing to work with real-estate developer Antonio Munoz, owner of the Ponce Lions of the Puerto Rican Winter League. The chances of a repeat of this concept are slim.
"The people that are speculating that we will continue in this orphan position are people that have very little confidence that baseball can pull together an ownership group and a new site in time for next year's baseball season," Expos president Tony Tavares said. "That's just scepticism.
"I think baseball's first priority would be to relocate us into a permanent situation. Secondary to that is fulltime temporary somewhere. That may be Montreal. It may be somewhere else. A third is to split games again. I have some question in my mind how open the players (association) is going to be for one of these part-time seasons again."
These are tough times in Puerto Rico's economic history.
As such, Puerto Rico's interest in major-league baseball is far stronger than MLB's interest in them.