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San Juan Offers A "Fiesta" For Sports Lovers

By Gabrielle Paese

June 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

For sports lovers, San Juan was the center of the universe this week. Within a seven-day span, plans to hold three major spectator events here grabbed local headlines. For starters, the Montreal Expos returned to San Juan for the second of their three "home" stands at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. This time around, the Expos "host" the Anaheim Angels and the Texas Rangers.

Also this week, NBA president David Stern officially put San Juan on the league's exhibition schedule. The Philadelphia Sixers will take on the Miami Heat here on Oct. 7, in all likelihood to inaugurate the new coliseum in Hato Rey.

Last but not least, the Isla Grande Airport was announced as the venue Oct. 24-26 for the Puerto Rico Grand Prix, a street racing event that is the season finale of the Trans Am road racing series.

These three events, combined with Puerto Rico's hosting of the U.S. Dream Team this August in the Olympic Qualifying tournament, plus talk of bringing the Expos back to San Juan in 2004 have made the idea of sports tourism more lucrative than ever.

The Expos drew a tepid fan response in their return to San Juan Tuesday, losing 15-4 to the Anaheim Angels, their seventh loss in eight starts. Still, that didn't stop promoter Antonio Munoz from insisting that San Juan may again be the Expos' home away from home during the 2004 season.

Munoz confirmed again that he is in talks with Major League Baseball officials to bring anywhere from 20 to all 81 Montreal "home" games to San Juan next season, should the league fail to find permanent new digs for the troubled franchise.

Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, Bob DuPuy lent credibility to Munoz's claim this week in San Juan.

"The longer it [the relocation process] goes on the better the chance that San Juan will be hosting more games next season," DuPuy said.

Major League Baseball is still shopping the franchise around in the interest of a permanent home, but it did not go unnoticed last month when one of the Washington, D.C. bidders pulled out of the running. Should MLB fail to find a home for the Expos in 2004, Munoz said he's again ready to step in with a quick fix.

And while I'm on the subject of teams no one wants to pay to see stateside, Puerto Rico will host its fourth ever NBA exhibition game this fall featuring NBA players such as Allen Iverson and Keith Van Horn (Sixers) as well as Brian Grant, Eddie Jones and rookie Caron Butler (Heat). Puerto Rico and Mexico City are the only Latin American cities on the NBA exhibition schedule for next season. The Dallas Mavericks will play the Utah Jazz in Mexico City on Oct. 5.

More important than the actual NBA exhibition game itself are the plans to hold it in the new, as yet unnamed, coliseum in Hato Rey. Nearly two years past its projected completion date, the coliseum holds the key to San Juan's plans for securing more major sports events in the future.

Promoter Jorge Diaz Sr. scored an auto racing coup of sorts this year when he convinced the Trans Am Road Racing series and the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) executives that San Juan would be a picturesque final stop for the street racing event. Diaz is putting up a reported $750,000 of his own money for the race, which will be a showcase for his son, Jorge Diaz Jr.

In his rookie season on the 2003 Trans Am Series circuit, Diaz Jr. is turning heads. He's currently third on the leader board and in the lead for Rookie of the Year honors. The event will be broadcast by Cable TV's Speed Channel and is expected to be seen in some 68,000 households.

Like the other major events Puerto Rico is hosting, the Grand Prix is expected to make money for the island. This three-day race could generate as much as $12 million.

Not everyone was gripped with a desire to put Puerto Rico on the sports tourism map.

Puerto Rico Olympic Committee president Hector Cardona kept his wits about him this week when he said the idea of the island hosting a Pan Am Games, as the neighboring Dominican Republic will do next month, is "preposterous."

"Unless private enterprise took some great interest in the project it would be difficult to imagine it happening," said Cardona. "The Dominicans are spending some $260 million to host the Pan Am Games. It's true that Puerto Rico raised money in its [failed] bid to host the 2004 Olympics, but I would prefer to concentrate on developing our athletes than to get involved in such a ridiculously expensive venture."

Promoter Munoz sees the bid to host 81 Montreal "home" games next year in San Juan as a chance to prove that Puerto Rico is worthy of a major league baseball franchise and capable of throwing parties on a grand scale.

"It would open a door," said Munoz, who believes that Puerto Rico can support such a venture. "We don't know what we can do until we try."

Dominican Olympic Committee president Jose Joaquin Puello offered an even more innovative perspective.

"We are not far from the day when three or four Caribbean islands, maybe Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, can team up to host an Olympics," said Puello. "Right now it may seem like a crazy idea, but remember Japan and Korea's hosting of the World Cup. That partnership offered a vision for the future. That idea worked. This could too."

Puerto Rico names its basketball team for Centrobasket

A total of 14 players will make the trip next week to Mexico City in preparation for the June 17 Centrobasket regional tournament, a qualifier for next month's Pan Am Games. The top two teams earn the right to go to the Pan Am Games, which will be held two weeks prior to the all-important Olympic qualifier in San Juan.

While the local basketball brass would just as likely prefer to skip Centrobasket and the Pan Am Games to concentrate on training for the Olympic qualifier, Puerto Rico's team has no way out of the tight schedule. Countries like Brazil, Argentina and Canada will send second-string teams to the Pan Am Games while their first division national teams prepare for Olympic qualifying.

Lacking the depth of teams from bigger countries, Puerto Rico, by contrast, will be forced to use the Pan Am Games as a final tuneup for the tournament they will host beginning Aug. 20.

The 14 players on the Centrobasket roster include centers Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Danny Santiago and Osiris Ricardo; forwards Sharif Fajardo, Antonio "Puruco" Latimer, Rolando Hourruitiner, Jorge Rivera, Alex Falcon; shooting guards Larry Ayuso, Rick Apodaca and point guards Carlos Arroyo, Orlando "Guayacan" Santiago and Richie Dalmau.

Two players will be cut for the final rost of 12 two days prior to the start of Centrobasket June 17 in Culiacan, Mexico.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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