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Sports Illustrated

Llevame Al Juego De Pelota; Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Say The Fervent Fans In San Juan, Puerto Rico, The Expos' New--And Very Different--Home Away From Home

By Daniel G. Habib, Special Reporting By Melissa Segura

April 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Last Friday the ghosts of barnstormers past came to life in Puerto Rico. The vagabond Montreal Expos packed a patchwork team and its uncertain future into two charter buses at their hotel and followed an escort of Honda Shadow police motorcycles that bisected traffic on the crowded Avenida Isla Verde en route to the Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan. Inside the airy, single-decked ballpark, underneath a clamshell roof with zigzags like Bart Simpson's haircut, the Expos played before an enraptured crowd that was blind to uniforms. "They're rooting for the players of Latin descent, but all they want to see is baseball, good baseball," said catcher Brian Schneider. The enthusiasm in the ballpark was, for Montreal, a welcome antidote to the churchlike quiet of Olympic Stadium, home to 10,031 a game last year, the smallest average attendance in the National League. "You wake up and see a different land in the morning," said New York Mets reliever Graeme Lloyd, an Expo last season. "Other than that, everything else is baseball."

The Expos landed a sweetheart deal to play 22 games in San Juan and rake in a minimum of $7 million (roughly four to five times what they would take in for a similar number of games in Montreal). They brought to San Juan a club with 12 players from Spanish-speaking countries, the most on any big league roster, including three native sons: first baseman Wil Cordero from Mayaguez, righthander Javier Vazquez from Ponce and second baseman Jose Vidro from Sabana Grande.

At Hiram Bithorn, Montreal found compliant opponents in the stumbling Mets, who supplied the immensely popular second baseman Roberto Alomar (from Ponce) and scored but eight runs and made five errors while being swept in a four-game weekend series. Received so handsomely on this road trip, the Expos, 9-4 and in first place in the NL East through Monday, couldn't have felt more at home. "Sure, we'd like to be settled in our [Montreal] apartments before the end of April," said catcher Michael Barrett, "but to see the reception the Puerto Rican players have gotten was worth the trip. We've gotten the red-carpet treatment here."

At the park the carpet on the field was Day-Glo green, to match the 1960s feel of the architecture. The 40-year-old stadium underwent $2.5 million in renovations in the past few weeks, and even so remains minor league caliber. In the weeks preceding the opening series, workers installed a temporary video scoreboard, which on Saturday night momentarily flickered and went dark during the bottom of the sixth. Because of neglect and disuse, dirt and silt had accumulated between the artificial playing surface and the asphalt foundation, causing the carpet to bunch up; groundskeepers repeatedly power-washed the field to flush out the sediment, and puddles of mud were visible along the edge of the outfield where the turf ended.

The field played hard throughout the series--Expos first baseman Jeff Liefer twice mishandled short-hop ground balls for errors in Saturday's 5-4 win--and there was a footlong semicircular tear in the warning track behind home plate. A week before the series opened, clubhouse showers only irregularly dispensed hot water, though that problem had been fixed by last weekend. "Our club has been through some difficult periods, with contraction, with relocation, and we see coming to Puerto Rico as another challenge," says Montreal general manager Omar Minaya. "I think we've put together a fun, open-minded team that's the United Nations of baseball."

Friday night's opener began with three national anthems--Canadian, Puerto Rican and U.S.--which was one more than the number of hits the Mets mustered in a 10-0 whitewash by Expos starter Tomo Ohka, the 27-year-old Japanese righthander with the deadpan demeanor. Asked how pitching abroad affected him, Ohka smiled and said through his interpreter, "Canada and the United States are foreign countries, so it didn't make a difference to me." The game provided the near-sellout crowd of 17,906 with a moment of unadulterated national pride when Vidro, playing in front of his mother, Daisy, for the first time as a pro, smashed a two-run homer into the leftfield bleachers in the bottom of the eighth, prompting long, rhythmic chants of his name. To dozens of local reporters afterward Vidro admitted that he fought back tears as he rounded second base. "I was more nervous today than in my first game in the big leagues." he said. "I felt like a rookie, the butterflies were so strong."

In a quiet corner of Montreal's tiny clubhouse on Saturday afternoon, a soft-spoken Vidro seemed weary. His mother and father, Jose, had made an hour-and-a-half drive home immediately after the game; Vidro had spoken to them for only a few minutes, and without any off days scheduled during the 10-game homestand, he was unsure when he would have time to spend with them. "It's been kind of hard, trying to please a lot of people," he said. "There's only four or five guys from Puerto Rico playing here, and everybody wants to get our attention. The atmosphere is very special, but it's hard." Agreed Cordero, "All I've seen is the ballpark and the hotel."

On Sunday afternoon, after Vidro turned on a Mike Stanton slider for a walkoff homer on the first pitch in the bottom of the 10th, then rounded the bases to meet a mob of Expos at the plate, his mood had brightened considerably. "I wished I could have gotten to home plate faster, where all my teammates were waiting for me," he said with a smile, then quickly excused himself. "I've got to go see my parents now."

Concerned about wear and tear on the Montreal players, MLB and the players' union negotiated a series of perks that go into effect when the team is in San Juan: Meal money is doubled, to $153 daily, and family members are permitted on charter flights and buses and provided with police-escorted transportation to and from games. (About half of the players brought their families along last week.) The club was lodging at the El San Juan, a luxury hotel in upscale Isla Verde, a tourist enclave removed from the bustle of downtown.

The rigors of road life aside, several Americans on a team dominated by Latinos said the series had been eye-opening. "If there were doubts [about playing in Puerto Rico], they were gone after Friday night," Schneider said. "The crowd exceeded all our expectations. It's been interesting. Now we see how the Latin players feel, when they might not understand what's being spoken around them."

For all the smiling multiculturalism, the Expos were, unmistakably, playing for the Yankee dollar. San Juan promoter and winter-league owner Antonio Munoz struck the deal with Montreal that guaranteed the $7 million and promised as much as $10 million if all 22 games were sellouts. Because of raises built into contracts and other salary increases bestowed on arbitration- eligible players, the Expos' Opening Day payroll ballooned from $38.7 million last season to $51.9 million this year; to bring that figure down to a level acceptable to the commissioner's office would have required a salary dump greater than that of elite righthander Bartolo Colon. Instead, thanks to the influx of money from Puerto Rico, Montreal was able to retain Vazquez, Barrett, righthander Tony Armas Jr. and shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Although Vazquez may command more than the Expos can afford when he becomes a free agent next winter, the other three, along with Vidro (under contract through 2004), would be significant starting pieces for a franchise under new ownership.

"We welcomed this arrangement because frankly, we needed the revenue," says team president Tony Tavares. "If we didn't have it, we wouldn't have been able to hold on to one of our star players, and that would have been disastrous." Although the Mets series drew well--65,657 for the four games, just 8,343 short of capacity-- there are doubts about the drawing power of teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds, who followed the Mets into Puerto Rico this week and had presold just 8,000 and 7,000 tickets per game, respectively. Club officials have suggested that a benchmark for success for the 22 games would be drawing 90% of capacity, but that target will be difficult to reach, especially given that ticket prices range from $10 to $85; many local fans say the upper range is excessive.

MLB is monitoring attendance and corporate sponsorship in Puerto Rico (Radio Shack is one such sponsor) while it also weighs the proposals from the three relocation candidates: northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Portland (a decision is expected by the All- Star break). Though San Juan's hopes of landing the team full-time are seen as a pipe dream--in addition to needing a new stadium, the city doesn't appear able to support a club for 81 games (its per capita income is less than one third the U.S. average)--the Expos could return next season if they aren't relocated by then or are moved to a city where a stadium isn't immediately available. Said Alberto Lopez, a mortgage banker, at Friday night's game, "As long as there are Puerto Ricans playing baseball, we will support baseball."

There is concern, however, that fewer Puerto Ricans are playing baseball these days. The sport hasn't been played in high schools since 1973, and the island has produced less and less talent since the major leagues decided in 1989 to make Puerto Rican players subject to the amateur draft. "The development of youth baseball in Puerto Rico has stopped, has gone backward, ever since the draft," said former major leaguer Tony Bernazard, now a special assistant to the players' union. That move came on the heels of large signing bonuses given to Puerto Rican teenagers like Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez. Big league scouts increasingly turned their attention to players in the Dominican Republic, who were not covered by the draft and could be signed more cheaply and at a younger age; this helped make the Dominican Republic the primary source of foreign- born Hispanic talent in the major leagues. Even interest in the Puerto Rican winter league has slumped; a decadelong attendance decline continued last year, when some games drew only a few hundred fans.

That seemed unimaginable on Friday night, two thirds of the way through an April blowout between two teams that are long shots to contend for the postseason, when Hiram Bithorn remained full, chants persisting as exuberantly as during the first inning, Vi- dro! morphing into Ole! As pushcart vendors manned the stadium concourses, ringing bicycle bells and selling E-lados ice cream in paper cups, and concessionaires poured shots of Cutty Sark and blended pina coladas, there was a palpable sense of spirit.

It was the same the next morning at Francisco Polanco Field in the San Juan neighborhood of San Patricio, on a spacious diamond with a dirt infield where Deya beat the Titanes 9-2 for the championship of the 11-12-year-old division of the Summit Hills- Altamira Pequenas Ligas. Fathers and grandfathers hollered instructions (largely ignored) from the shaded cement bleachers, while their children and grandchildren joyously mobbed Jorge Rosali after an inside-the-park home run. "Baseball starts in the neighborhoods," said Evelyn Batista, mother of 12-year-old Jorge Batista, Deya's catcher. "Children play together, on the same teams with the same teammates, throughout. Baseball here is a community."

Imagine being part of that community this season, watching the Expos play in their island home. It's the seventh-inning stretch, the loudspeakers are pumping a conga rhythm into 18,000 sets of eardrums through the muggy Caribbean night, and though the words sound unfamiliar, you know what they mean all the same. So you stand up and sing along: Y ahi va un, dos, tres strikes panchao en el viejo juego!

Quote: "You wake up and see a different land in the morning," said Lloyd. "Other than that, everything else is baseball." For all the smiling multiculturalism, the Expos were, unmistakably, playing for the Yankee dollar.

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