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THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Expos Park Named For Puerto Rican Pioneer
By Ben Walker of Associated Press
April 19, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- As the Montreal Expos settle into their part-time home in the Caribbean, fans all over are becoming more familiar with Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
Bouncy, odd-colored artificial turf. Enormous foul territory. Booming salsa music. Chanting fans and gyrating cheerleaders.
Only one question: Who was Hiram Bithorn?
Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda seems surprised that anyone would need to ask. Because when he was growing up here in the 1940s, everyone knew.
``He was the first person from Puerto Rico to make it to the major leagues,'' Cepeda said. ``He did so much for the island.''
Top players such as Roberto Clemente, Felix Millan and Willie Montanez came later, and now the likes of Puerto Rican stars Javy Lopez, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Carlos Beltran and Juan Gonzalez fill big league rosters.
But they all followed Bithorn.
He made his debut in 1942 and pitched four seasons with the Chicago Cubs and White Sox. His career was interrupted when he spent two years with the U.S. Marines during World War II.
Bithorn was 34-31 with a 3.16 ERA in 105 games. The right-hander led the NL with seven shutouts in 1943, going 18-12 and completing 19 of his 30 starts.
He tried a comeback a few years later in the Mexican winter league. But on Jan. 1, 1952, at age 35, he was shot to death by a policeman in Mexico. Reports on the shooting were sketchy, and the circumstances have always been a mystery.
``I remember watching him pitch against my father in the winter league and meeting him,'' Cepeda said. ``When I was about 10, I played for him on a team he ran. He was a big star.''
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Montreal pitcher Javier Vazquez was well aware of Bithorn.
``Being a ballplayer, we all knew about him and what he meant to Puerto Rico,'' Vazquez said. ``He was the first, and that's history right there. But a lot of people, I don't think they know who he was.''
Count Chris Barnes among them. A big baseball fan from Nashville, Tenn., he was on vacation this week and visited Hiram Bithorn Stadium to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Expos.
As he approached the front of the park, he circled an 8-foot statue of a pitcher. There was no name or plaque, however, and Barnes was curious.
``When I walked up, I saw the high leg kick and I could see where it said 'San' on his jersey, so I thought it was Juan Marichal,'' Barnes said. ``But when I saw that it was 'San Juan,' I had no idea.''
Bithorn played for the San Juan Senators and at age 22 became the youngest manager in the history of Puerto Rican winter ball. Soon enough, he was pitching at Wrigley Field.
His promising start, though, did not last once he returned from military service. After going 6-5 in 1946 for the Cubs, he moved to the White Sox and only pitched two innings in 1947, developing a sore arm that ended his career.
Bithorn's achievement of making it to the majors remained a source of pride in Puerto Rico, and he was honored in 1962 when the biggest ballpark on the island was built and named for him.
Two years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers played the major league season opener at the stadium, which has Bithorn's name spelled out in big, blue letters above a main gate.
This season, fans will have more opportunity to hear his name while the Expos play 22 games in San Juan.
``He was an important man,'' Cepeda said. ``I wish more people now knew about him.''