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Puerto Rico Enjoys Day In Sun…Expos Teach Kids At Caribbean Army Base

Puerto Rico Enjoys Day In Sun


APRIL 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, P.R., April 13 - Couples carrying palms from Mass walked past Las Lomas Park this morning at 9:30 as teenagers played baseball inside on the dirt infield. Here in this residential neighborhood about five miles from Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the Montreal Expos' home for 22 games this season, it was difficult to find a skeptic about Major League Baseball's return to Puerto Rico.

"We've been to the big leagues in the United States and it's not the same," Anita Ronda said as she rested from running the concession stand here. "To enjoy it with your people is different. Seeing it with Puerto Ricans is glorious. The United States is nice, but watching it with Puerto Ricans is something historic. We're enjoying it tremendously."

Boricuas, the native Taino name that Puerto Ricans have proudly maintained, have supplied the major leagues with talent since 1942, and baseball has promoted the Expos' games here as a way to return the favor, while increasing revenue for the cash-starved team. Tickets prices are as high as $85, far more than in Montreal and other major league cities.

After falling about 1,500 short of a sellout Friday for the Expos' first game against the Mets, officials announced that Saturday's game drew a sellout crowd of 18,264, though that is still short of capacity. With a game-time temperature of 95 degrees today, the crowd was 16,332. A crowd of 19,891 was announced for the first major league regular-season game in Puerto Rico - the Texas Rangers against the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001.

Many here this morning shared Ronda's attitude that Puerto Ricans were willing to pay the high prices, treating these games like an event. All 22 Expos games are being televised here in Spanish, and cable television allows fans to watch the opponents' broadcast in English. Most, though, doubted that Puerto Rican pockets were deep enough to sustain that interest and were curious to see the attendance once the Mets departed and the novelty wore off.

Few here have complained publicly about price gouging or have said they have felt an economic divide from the mainland. They consider tickets a necessary expense.

"It's fantastic," said William Vazquez, a 49-year-old from nearby Rio Piedras, whose son, Michael, 15, was playing baseball this morning. "Everybody supports the decision. It's not expensive. It's sensitive to everybody's means."

Vazquez has tickets for the Mets' final game here Monday, and he said he planned to see more games once the crowds lessened and the traffic subsided.

Ronda, whose husband, Willie, runs the Las Lomas Potros youth league here, had four tickets for Friday. She turned away when she could not find parking and left her husband and two sons to watch the game as she drove home.

"Puerto Ricans are united and those that can't go watch on television," said Willie Ronda, 50, whose son Willie Joe, 17, plays in his youth league. "What's good for Puerto Ricans is good for everyone."

Edwin Montanez, 39, president of one of the teams here, bought $70 seats for all 22 Expos games. He said he envisioned gains in tourism and the economy and said the games were an inspiration for young players, but he added that he was unsure how long people could tolerate high ticket prices.

"We understand it's a costly event," Montanez said. "If they come back with the same prices, I'm not sure how they'll draw."

Puerto Rican baseball has other inherent problems. Tony Bernazard, a former major leaguer from nearby Caguas who works for the players association, has worked to turn around the slide of player development. He says he does not want children to abandon their studies for baseball - as many do in the Dominican Republic to sign professionally at 16 - but he wants to reverse the decline in the professional players Puerto Rico produces.

There were 38 Puerto Ricans on opening day major league rosters this year compared with 55 in 1989, the first year they were subject to the draft.

Bernazard was asked if Puerto Ricans felt disenfranchised by the numbers. "Of course they do," he said. "Parents, kids gets discouraged by the lack of opportunity."

The Expos' 22-game experiment could easily be seen as a major North American corporation's raiding Puerto Ricans, whose per capita income ($8,185 in the 2000 census) is about a third of mainland Americans'. Officials from the Expos and Major League Baseball, which owns and runs the team, said their goal was to make more money here than would have been made in Montreal.

San Juan poured $2.6 million into Hiram Bithorn Stadium for improvements, and the Expos are guaranteed to make $350,000 a game, or $7.7 million this season. In return, local officials estimate that at least $8 million will be pumped into the economy in hotel revenue and player taxes.

Those figures were beside the point at Las Lomas this morning.

"Nobody's going to say anything bad," Willie Ronda said. "Are you looking for somebody that doesn't agree? You won't find him."

Expos Teach Kids At Caribbean Army Base

APRIL 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Montreal pitcher T.J. Tucker figured to have a fun, full day when a group of Expos made a goodwill visit to a military base Wednesday.

He sure did. The reliever signed tons of autographs, told bunches of stories about big league life and showed lots of kids how to grip fastballs and curves.

Oh, and one more thing -- he got shot.

``It was a once in a lifetime thing,'' Tucker said.

He volunteered, of course. Just before a dozen Expos got ready to leave Fort Buchanan, a fully packed Army MP asked whether any of them wondered how it would feel to be shot.

When Tucker gamely said he'd try, a soldier provided a protective helmet, marched him 15 feet away and turned him around. The MP took aim at Tucker's backside and, with a loud pop, fired a practice round from a simulated 9 mm pistol used for training.

Tucker stiffened but never squawked when he was hit squarely in the left buttock. The shot left six, small pink marks in a circular pattern on his pants, which will wash out, and caused several of his teammates to wince.

``It stung a little bit, not bad,'' said the 6-foot-3, 265-pound pitcher. ``I never thought they'd allow it. But when they said OK, I wanted to do it.''

There was plenty of enthusiasm to go around at the only active U.S. Army base in the Caribbean.

About 400 children and family members of military personnel turned out for the two-hour visit. Manager Frank Robinson, closer Rocky Biddle and the other Expos rode three Humvees onto the base's ballfield and got right into the spirit, passing out caps and posing for pictures.

Santos Vazquez was all smiles, and so were his two young sons. His other son, 25-year-old Orlando, works with Army helicopters and is now overseas in the Gulf.

``We thought he was in Kuwait, but we now think he might be at the airport they just took near Baghdad,'' he said.

Vazquez said the Expos' visit made for great morale, and 8-year-old Nicky agreed. He got batting tips from catcher Brian Schneider and infielder Jamey Carroll.

``They said to hold the bat like this,'' the boy said beaming, positioning his hands high, ``and hit the ball hard.''

Carroll was among the most popular Expos, demonstrating proper footwork for infielders on grounders and inviting questions on all topics. Seeing his enthusiasm, there was no way to tell that 12 hours earlier, he'd been picked off second base in a key spot of Montreal's 2-1 loss to Atlanta in 10 innings.

Reliever Joey Eischen, who got a big out in that defeat, taught a pitching clinic and also learned something -- how to assemble an M-16 rifle. Biddle later was impressed by a close-up look at a grenade launcher.

``That's what I like,'' he said.

Army jet pilot Steve Layman and his wife, Charlisse, brought their 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to the session. Both kids were busy trying to get autographs, sidling up to the big guys wearing Montreal hats and jerseys.

``This is so awesome,'' Charlisse said.

``It lets us know that people care what we're doing,'' Steve said.

The fort is a mobilization center. Base commander Col. Edward Short said about 4,500 soldiers have been deployed from Puerto Rico to take part in the Iraq war.

Robinson presented Short with an Expos cap and jersey signed by All-Star outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, and the colonel thanked the team and major league baseball for their support.

The Expos were eager to come. They're playing 22 games in San Juan this season, and want to feel like part of the community in their part-time home.

Later this summer, children whose military parents are in the Gulf will serve as batboys and batgirls. In all, the Expos will make three trips to Puerto Rico, and each time they'll reach out to the area.

``We wanted to do this, to show we appreciate them welcoming us,'' Expos general manager Omar Minaya said.

Said Robinson: ``It's important to do this, especially with what's going on in the world these days.''

Along with handshakes and hugs, Robinson left with a present. He got a military dinner ration of jambalaya, and was told the tightly wrapped package had no expiration date.

Tucker, meanwhile, hoped the souvenir -- courtesy of that practice shot -- on his back pocket was a little less permanent.

``I wonder if it left a mark?'' he said. ``Well, at least now I can tell people what it feels like.''

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