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The Associated Press
No Shortage Of Fun Or Games In San Juan
By Kyle Wingfield
March 14, 2004
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 in one of its most passionate fan bases -- Latin America.
Like last year, the Expos will play a 22-game schedule in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2004, with three home stands for visiting American fans to take themselves out to un juego de beisbol.
And make no mistake about it: Besides watching a game 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 do the bleacher bums cheer along with the soda vendors -- "Refrescos?" "Hey!" "Refrescos?" "Hey!" -- as much as they do for the home runs that routinely fly out of the diminutive stadium?
Where else are the native sons -- the Expos' Jose Vidro, in this case -- cheered like national heroes?
"To be a small island like this one, with a population of 4 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 a mainlander like myself.
From the Dominican girl in front of me, who chatted 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 U.S. 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 aging 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 postgame traffic are 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: New artificial turf is being laid, and fences that are 30 feet farther from home plate should help keep home runs from flying out. 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 rainforests as hot dogs and homers. Both are within easy driving distance of the Puerto Rican capital and made for wonderful side trips.
The only rain forest in U.S. territory, El Yunque, is less than an hour's drive east of San Juan. Also known as the Caribbean National Forest, El Yunque is a sprawling collection of lush vegetation mixed intermittently with rainfalls, both large and small.
Just past La Coca Falls stands Yokahu Tower, whose winding steps lead to a wonderful view of the park's highest points -- El Yunque Peak and Los Picachos -- as well as the surrounding countryside. There are trails to both El Yunque Peak and Los Picachos, and the Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls is relatively short, yet challenging and rewarding.
Puerto Rico's other natural attractions include beautiful beaches, like the popular Luquillo, just a short drive from San Juan, with its white sand, palm trees and warm turquoise waters.
For those who are interested in history, Old San Juan is lined by centuries-old fort walls and filled with narrow, stone-paved roads that wind among a mixture of historic buildings and modern shops and restaurants. You can walk along the sea-brushed walls of El Morro, a 16th century fortress billed as the largest of its kind in the Caribbean, then take a rest in the Plaza de San Jose with a bowl of Ben and Jerry's; or pass through the wooden San Juan Gate and uphill to the San Juan Cathedral, where immigrants to the New World offered prayers of thanksgiving for their safe passage from Europe, then take a ferry to the Bacardi rum distillery across San Juan Bay.
From Old San Juan or nearby Condado, a strip of trendy hotels and eateries alongside the city's popular beachfront, Bithorn Stadium is a 15-minute drive -- depending on traffic, of course. Plan to arrive early, as pregame carnivallike activities for kids and adults alike will start up outside the stadium three to four hours before gametime.
Besides the traditional batting cages and guess-your-speed pitching games, the 2004 Baseball Festival will feature an interactive game.
"It will be more state of the art, computerized, something very similar to what you see on video games today," Munoz said.
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, 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," Munoz said. "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."