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Paradise Found: Major League Baseball's San Juan Experiment A Memorable Experience
BY Stephanie Myles
April 19, 2003
Gazette baseball writer Stephanie Myles has spent the past eight days in San Juan covering the Expos during their first "homestand" in Puerto Rico. The following is her diary from the trip.
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - The Expos' travelling party arrives in balmy San Juan from chilly Chicago in the wee hours of Friday morning to a welcome reserved only for major VIPs. Sirens flashing, the motorcycle brigade leads the buses the few miles from Juan Antonio Marin airport to the team hotel in the Isla Verde resort area.
No point checking into the El San Juan through the lobby, a bustling hot spot at night. They go through a back entrance off a parking lot.
Once a few rooming issues are settled -- several players who brought their wives had the hotel assign double beds, single guys get the kings, broadcaster Mark Griffin gets a room over the 24-hour-a-day thump-thump-thump of the disco -- many head off to introduce themselves to Dama Suerte -- Lady Luck.
The locals say the weather has been picture-perfect for seven months. The lack of rain was so severe, any more of it was going to bring drought restrictions to this small island.
Right on cue. It's pouring.
Right on cue again, the clouds disappear and it's 26C and beautiful at game time.
Those who had seen Hiram Bithorn Stadium before its US$2.5-million facelift were happily surprised. The home clubhouse, while cramped, has been completely renovated and painted shades of blue and red -- Expos colours, but also the colours of the home team, Santurce.
The artificial turf underwent a steam-clean -- three straight days, 24 hours a day -- to turn it back from brown to green.
The old rust-coloured carpet warning track lies in unkempt rolls behind the new batting cage. Also, there is a plastic barrel of the cleaning solution used to shampoo the carpet.
It's made by a company called Selig Industries.
Play ball. Despite some noisy Mets fans, the Expos get a great reception, with local heros Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez and Wil Cordero warmly received.
Mets second-baseman Robbie Alomar is unquestionably the biggest star. He goes 0-for-3. Brad Wilkerson hits the first grand slam of his career.
Expos beat the Mets 10-0.
After the Expos hit three homers Friday, there's only Michael Barrett's solo shot today. But the warning signs are there; the Expos make two errors and give the Mets plenty of opportunities. The Mets are too hapless to take advantage. Vladimir Guerrero almost throws out MoVaughn at first base on a single, and the sellout crowd of 18,264 gets its first taste of how spectacular the Expos' franchise player can be.
It's hot; a sign in the Mets clubhouse warns them the on-field temperature is 40C, and encourages them to drink fluids.
Expos win again, 5-4.
It's steamy. Air temperature is 35C; on-field temperature 58C. Alomar, who passed the legendary Roberto Clemente in career runs scored the previous night, soaks his feet in an ice bucket between innings. Mets starter Al Leiter goes through two jerseys and four undershirts. In an American ball park, you'd expect hundreds of guys with big bellies to shuck their shirts and proudly display them. Not here. Few are even fanning themselves. A few umbrellas go up for shade.
It's too hot to hit, or breathe. A 10th-inning homer by Jose Vidro wins it. Vidro is as excited as he's ever been, sprinting around the bases. The crowd is chanting his name.
It's 33C for the late-afternoon start. The Expos win 5-3 on a clutch RBI single by Fernando Tatis. The Mets can't wait to get out of paradise.
More and more Expos paraphernalia is starting to appear in the stands. The Mets fans are still yelling, but the growing number of Expos fans are working hard to out-noise them.
A five-piece band rolls through the stands, making the atmosphere even more festive.
Two guys head onto the field, unfurling a 20-foot anti-war banner right behind pitcher Javier Vazquez. "I told them to get the hell out of here," Vazquez says. Security takes forever to get there. Security is re-evaluated.
The Expos are now 4-0 in Puerto Rico. Maybe there is a home-field advantage after all.
Echoes of 2002; Tony Armas Jr. shuts out the Atlanta Braves on three hits through seven innings, extends his scoreless streak to 16 innings, but the Expos can't solve Shane Reynolds, a pitcher whose fastball was in the low 80s in spring training and was released by the Houston Astros. Jamey Carroll, sent in to pinch-run for Fernando Tatis as the tying run in the ninth, gets picked off second base. The winning streak is over. And the Expos will get John Smoltz in the ninth inning the next two nights, not the shaky Benitez.
Some days the motorcycle cavalcade accompanying the Expos' team bus numbers 15. Other days, three or four. Perhaps it's a volunteer assignment.
Another one-run loss to a rookie pitcher, Horacio Ramirez, who had never been above Double-A before this season. Since his home run Monday, a towering shot, Guerrero has been on a personal mission to hit it even further. He's struggling, Puerto Rico native Wil Cordero is struggling. Braves catcher Javy Lopez, also from Puerto Rico, goes 0-for-4 for the second straight day and is getting a little weary of scrambling for some 80 tickets per game for friends and family.
The sign on the clubhouse notice board is ominous: the Casino at the El San Juan -- and all others on the island -- will close at midnight for Good Friday, and won't re-open until Saturday at noon.
It's pouring again, so much and so steadily the game itself is in doubt. The braintrust is standing in the Expos dugout as if at a funeral: Tony Tavares and Claude Delorme from the Expos, grim-faced John McHale Jr. from Major League Baseball, television rights-holders, local promoter Antonio Munoz. The Expos take their turns in the covered batting cage.
Amazingly, it stops raining. The grounds crew gets the field ready and the start time is pushed back only 45 minutes. Well aware of the imminent casino closing, the Expos and Braves nevertheless play a three-hour, 36-minute marathon, a 14-8 Braves win that marks the first slugfest at Hiram Bithorn.
It starts raining again in the ninth; Expos closer Rocky Biddle gives it up. Coming in, most had expected this every night. The Expos are swept; maybe this home-field thing is overrated after all.
By the time they get back to the hotel, perhaps a half-hour remains at the tables.
Everything in the city is shut down, with the notable exception of the Starbucks in Old San Juan, naturally. The neighbouring Church's Chicken, Pizza Hut, Ponderosa, Wendy's and Burger King? Shuttered. The usual traffic jams? Light. Expected attendance for the Cincinnati Reds, with no liquor being served on the holy day, and no Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Larkin in the lineup? Unknown.
One more thing; a huge storm is about an hour east of San Juan around lunch time, with the weatherman on the local television station saying it's expected to cover the entire island, with favourable conditions for the developing of a tornado.
It's been cloudy pretty much every day of the Expos' trip, with no beach time to be had. Showers off and on.
And they said the bad weather would only happen for the Expos' return visits in June and at the beginning of hurricane season in September.