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National Post

Home Team Advantage: You Can Buy A Pina Colada In The Stands

Kyle Wingfield
The Associated Press

March 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 National Post. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Another nomadic season may be bad news for the Montreal Expos' pennant hopes, but it's a welcome opportunity for baseball fans to enjoy the game alongside one of its most passionate fan bases -- Latin Americans.

Like last year, the Expos will play a 22-game schedule in San Juan in 2004, with three homestands available for visiting fans to take themselves out to un juego de beisbol.

And make no mistake about it: Besides watching a game just minutes from the beaches of Condado or the narrow, compelling streets of Old San Juan, the attraction of a game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium is the fans themselves.

Where else are the native sons -- the Expos' Jose Vidro, in this case -- cheered like national heroes rather than mere athletes?

"To be a small island like this one, with a population of four million people, we have a great legacy of great baseball players," said Antonio Munoz, the promoter who arranged the Expos' part-time schedule in San Juan. "From many years ago, with the one that's in everybody's mind, Roberto Clemente, to the ones we have now ... [they] have helped to make baseball a passionate sport here in Puerto Rico."

At two San Juan games last summer, I found the fans -- like much of the island -- surprisingly bilingual and eager to engage in conversation.

From the Dominican girl in front of me, who chatted away about how her father had surprised her that morning with plans to fly over for the game, to the businessman behind me who advocated a full slate of games in San Juan with either the Expos or other ballclubs, the conversation was as easy and interesting as any I've had in a ball park.

That's fortunate, because an exciting atmosphere -- and nearby attractions -- are necessary to make up for a setting that otherwise too closely resembles an ageing Triple-A ballpark.

Sure, Bithorn Stadium (named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the majors) is the only park I've seen where you can buy a pina colada in the stands. But the rest of the fare includes the usual suspects: Pizza Hut, KFC and the like. And parking and post-game traffic is hardly better than what you'd see after a typical game at a much larger major league stadium.

Improvements have been made for the 2004 season: A new artificial turf is being laid, and fences that are nine metres farther from home plate should help keep the home runs from flying out at breakneck speed. A new Jumbotron scoreboard will also help fans keep track of the action.

But my premise for going to San Juan certainly wasn't to see a state-of-the-art ballpark. The stadium explosion of the 1990s has made that easily accomplished in most any region of the country.

No, the allure of a trip to San Juan is as much about beaches and rain forests as hot dogs and homers. Both are within easy driving distance of the Puerto Rican capital and make for wonderful side trips.

Keeping the momentum from last year -- nearly all of last year's season-ticket holders have renewed for 2004 -- and building on it with the additions to the ballpark will be key to making San Juan a permanent stop for baseball teams, Mr. Munoz said.

"When you talk about the Expos and the other teams coming into Puerto Rico, you see that it's not only a sporting event. It becomes a cultural event, and it also becomes a meeting place event. You see a lot of people watching the game, but you also see a lot of people talking in the hallways and having a lot of fun. It is a tremendous family event."


Expos' San Juan schedule:

vs. New York Mets, April 9-11

vs. Florida Marlins, April 13-15

vs. Milwaukee Brewers, May 18-20

vs. San Francisco Giants, May 21-23

vs. Toronto Blue Jays, July 2-4

vs. Atlanta Braves, July 5-7

vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, July 8-11

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