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The Boys Of Baseball…As A Pastime And A Metaphor

The Boys Of Baseball


June 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Montreal Gazette. All rights reserved. 

Baseball and basketball rule in San Juan. Hoops and diamonds are everywhere.

Unlike in Canada, where kids play pickup ball and road hockey, everything is organized in Puerto Rico. Little League games start right after school and are played out until 9 p.m. Almost all the parks are full, and there is a baseball diamond in every community. Even in the poorer areas outside Catalonia and San Juan, where huge tenement projects have been built, there are small stadiums in every community. In the better developments, the parks are surrounded with very high fences and are kept under lock and key when not in use. The grass is truly greener here.

Only in the poorest of areas did I find kids playing pickup ball. They would have only one or two bats and one or two gloves among the whole gang. Most ran the bases barefoot: first base was a bush; second base a light pole; third a door step.

Like most kids, they hope they'll make the grade for the baseball academy in Catalonia, a high-school baseball camp that claims to have an 85-per-cent draft rate to the major leagues.

Entire families will spend evenings at the park. Mothers lay down chalk lines using old cups from McDonald's, fathers give pointers, kids do their homework in the stands and everyone gathers for supper on the sidelines at the ball park.

The late Roberto Clemente remains a true hero in Puerto Rico. Frescoed images can be found painted on walls everywhere. In Catalonia, there is a huge stadium that bears his name.

The Expos play at the inferior, but centrally located, Hiram Bithorn Stadium. On a hot summer night, to be outside watching a ball game is something long since forgotten in Montreal. After more than 20 years of baseball inside a humid concrete cavity, there's nothing like watching a game with a warm wind in your face.


Gazette photographer Allen McInnis spent five days in Puerto Rico during the Expos' first "homestand" there in April. He used his keen eye to capture what baseball means to the people who live in that country.

Color Photo: A young boy waits nervously for turn at bat during a Little League game in San Juan in April. Young Puerto Rican players hope to make the grade for high-school baseball academy in Catalonia.; Color Photo: A woman lays down chalk lines while getting field ready for team practice.; Color Photo: Two boys wait their turn to play pickup ball in a tenement block on outskirts of San Juan.; Photo: Young Puerto Ricans play pickup ball in the walkway between tenement blocks on the outskirts of San Juan.; Color Photo: A Little Leaguer hits one out of the park for a home run under the lights during game just outside San Juan.; Color Photo: Youngsters wait for barbecue chicken and fries during Little League game at park near San Juan.; Color Photo: Children peer through broken backstop window at a local baseball diamond as they wait for the next game to get under way.

Baseball As A Pastime And A Metaphor

John-Thor Dahlburg

June 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - When asked about the ubiquity of the thing called pelota in this island's life and culture, Puerto Rico's top justice official said she only has to glance out the windows of her home to catch the dazzling blue-white lights of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Or to think back to when she was a schoolgirl.

"My father and I, whoever had gotten up first, would go get the paper," said Anabelle Rodriguez, the secretary of justice in the Puerto Rican government. "We wanted to know what Roberto Clemente had done in his at-bats the night before."

Since the first bats, mitts and balls arrived more than a century ago in the baggage train of invading U.S. troops, baseball, or pelota, has become a deeply rooted part of society on this eastern Caribbean island, influencing Puerto Ricans' image of themselves and even how they spend tax money.

This summer, the commonwealth finds itself with its own major league team, or at least a share of one, as the financially shaky Expos split their home stands between Montreal and San Juan.

For 22 games, Les Expos are morphing into Los Expos, and plying their craft at the same wind-buffeted San Juan field Rodriguez can see from her windows. For many Puerto Ricans, it is tacit tribute to the rich talent pool that the island and its nearly 4 million people have become for baseball, and American society as a whole.

"All of our engineers leave. Half of our doctors go to the smaller states," said Father Fernando Pico, a Jesuit priest and history professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Four of Pico's own nephews are doctors, and all practice in the United States.

Baseball can serve as a metaphor for the confused, sometimes contradictory sentiments people here feel toward the mainland, where 2.7 million Puerto Ricans live. It is perfectly possible, said analysts of Puerto Rican politics, for an islander to advocate independence -- the departure of the Yanquis -- while rooting for the New York Yankees.

Even for Puerto Ricans who desire a continuing link with the United States -- either statehood or the current self-governing commonwealth status -- baseball and all sports have become a soft and safe form of nationalism, a cause for self-identification and collective pride.

In 1993, when a nonbinding plebiscite was held about Puerto Rico's future, advocates of keeping the commonwealth noted, among other things, that if the island were to become the 51st state, it would lose the right to send a baseball team and other athletes to the Olympics.

"Their argument was, we'll keep the Puerto Rican national basketball team and our representative to the Miss Universe contest," said Jorge Martinez, a Puerto Rican who works as spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington. "You know, for a lot of people, that was one of the main reasons they voted for the commonwealth."

In that referendum, a narrow plurality of 48% cast ballots in favor of keeping the existing relationship with the United States, while 46% voted for statehood and 4% for independence. Economics was cited at the time by observers as a major factor in voter behavior, for under American tutelage, Puerto Rico's per-capita income, estimated at $9,800 in 1999, has become Latin America's highest.

However, with the island politically and economically dominated by the United States, the achievements of sports figures are embraced as the triumph of all.

"We follow teams and our athletes as our brothers and sisters," Martinez said. "When we see athletes or Miss Universe contestants from Puerto Rico succeed, for us, it's a matter of pride that someone from our backyard made it this far."

On the long list of the islanders who have made good on the mainland -- or "over there," as Puerto Ricans call it -- none is more venerated than Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirate superstar who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1972 while flying with relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

"He is not only known as a baseball player, but as a hero," said Bruce Markusen, author of the 1998 biography "Roberto Clemente: The Great One," and Puerto Rican on his mother's side. "He is known as much for his charity work and how he died as for what he did on the field, maybe more so."

There is another, sometimes unspoken reason for the lofty status of athletes here. Like Clemente and the other Puerto Rican who is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- former San Francisco Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda -- many are dark-skinned.

"One of the ways in which sports appeals to the average Puerto Rican is that the average sports figure on the island tends to look like the average Puerto Rican," said Amilcar Antonio Barreto, a Puerto Rican who is an associate professor of political science and Latino studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "Sports figures tend to be black, or of mixed race. The political or literary figures tend to be very white."

Not everyone likes the prominence of sports here.

Puerto Rico may be prosperous compared with other Caribbean islands, but its per capita income is less than half that of Mississippi's. There are no first-rate libraries in the Connecticut-sized commonwealth, Pico complained.

"We're always spending resources on basketball courts and such, and not on things that would foster research," the priest and professor said. "When the Nobel Prizes come and we don't get anything, no one says a word. But if the Olympics come and we don't win medals, there's an outcry."

Since Hiram Bithorn threw his first pitch for the Chicago Cubs in 1942, more than 200 Puerto Ricans have made it to the majors.

With Latin Americans now accounting for about a quarter of all players, Puerto Rico's share has dipped slightly as other regions, especially the Dominican Republic, have produced more top players. On Opening Day this year, 38 major leaguers hailed from this island, according to researchers at the Hall of Fame.

On one recent evening when the Expos met the Anaheim Angels, fans seemed to yell and pound their inflated Thunderstix to a salsa beat to encourage any player with a Spanish name. Waitresses circulated through the stands, selling rum-and-Cokes for $5 a cup.

The Expos might be back in San Juan for more games next year if they remain in Montreal.

Some Puerto Ricans hope to bring the franchise here permanently, but others doubt whether the island can support it financially, especially if general admission seats continue to sell for $28.

For some Puerto Rican ballplayers, the Expos' venture into the Caribbean gives them a chance to show off their stuff to friends and neighbors. Last Sunday, Texas Rangers right fielder Juan Gonzalez, who now has more home runs than any Puerto Rican, hit No. 423 in the top of the fourth inning. The crowd at Hiram Bithorn went wild.

"I just thank God for the opportunity to play in front of my family and friends, and in front of all the fans that have followed my career," Gonzalez, 33, told reporters. "Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente never had the chance to wear a major league uniform here."

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