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The Palm Beach Post

Puerto Rico Has Plenty To Prove

By JOE CAPOZZI Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

April 13, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Jose M. Suarez might be this island's biggest baseball fan, but he delivered the equivalent of a fastball high and inside at the defending world champion Florida Marlins.

"Why didn't they sign Pudge?" he said Monday, referring to Puerto Rico's most famous baseball native - catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

After leading the Marlins to the World Series last season, Rodriguez couldn't reach a new contract agreement with Florida and signed with the Detroit Tigers.

The Pudge-less Marlins may be the world champs, but they may not exactly pack in the fans at newly renovated Hiram Bithorn Stadium for their three-game series against the host Montreal Expos that begins tonight.

"After what he did in the playoffs last year, if we had Pudge here, we would have a full stadium every night," Suarez said. "It's too bad, but I understand it's business."

As executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the government agency in charge of promoting the island, Suarez has an interest in seeing baseball succeed here.

The timing of Easter weekend and the absence of Rodriguez, who grew up in nearby Vega Baja, are making for slower-than-hoped start at the gates for Montreal's first "homestand" in Puerto Rico.

Another loss for fans here are Latin stars who played for the Expos last season but signed with other teams - right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (Anaheim) and pitcher Javier Vazquez (Yankees). Second baseman Jose Vidro is a free agent after the season, so he could be traded by the All-Star break.

Unlike last season, when San Juan hosted games in the first and second halves of the season, the Expos play all of their Puerto Rico games this season before the All-Star break. In May, the Expos host Milwaukee and San Francisco. Toronto, Atlanta and Pittsburgh come in July.

By then, the island will have answered the larger question behind baseball's experiment here: Can Puerto Rico host a Major League Baseball team for a full season?

"That's a tough one to answer," Suarez said. "The 22 games last year were successful, but when you talk about a full season, that's another story. I think it's going to be proven this year whether or not we can do 81 games."

Last year, the Expos drew an average of 14,222 for their 22 games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which had an announced capacity of 14,000.

During the off-season, San Juan's municipal government added 6,000 more seats to boost the capacity to 20,000 as part of an $8 million renovation of the stadium.

On Friday, the 2004 opener between the Expos and New York Mets drew 14,739, about 5,000 short of a sellout. Saturday, the Expos drew 11,957.

Sunday's attendance of 10,623 was the second-lowest for the 25 games the Expos have played in San Juan, a number local officials attribute to the Easter holiday.

The commissioner's office hopes to have a plan by the All-Star break for a permanent home for the Expos starting in 2005. Aside from San Juan, candidates include Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, Norfolk, Va., Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Monterrey, Mexico.

For now, Expos players are tired of being known as baseball nomads.

"We're not not looking forward it," Expos catcher Brian Schneider said last week. "We just want to get these games going. It's going to be a lot easier this year knowing we've been there before. It doesn't matter where we're playing. We need to play good baseball regardless of what country we're in."

The city of San Juan hopes it will help the Expos play better baseball through the off-season improvements. The biggest change: the 8-foot outfield wall, which has been moved back to the same dimensions as Olympic Stadium - 325 feet down the lines, 375 to the power alleys and 404 to straightaway center field.

Last season, the stadium was a pitcher's nightmare. It was 313 feet down the left-field line, 400 feet to straightaway center and 315 down the right-field line.

"It went from a tremendous hitter's park to a tremendous pitcher's park. There were some home runs last year that were pretty questionable as far as the distances," said Murray Cook, the head of groundskeeping for Major League Baseball.

Last season, the Expos homered at least once in their first 17 games at Hiram Bithorn. They swept the first series against the Mets by a combined score of 17-5.

Last weekend's opening series was different. The Mets won 3-2 on Friday, lost 1-0 on Saturday and won 4-1 on Sunday.

FieldTurf has replaced the AstroTurf and there has been significant upgrades made in the clubhouse and on score boards and video boards.

"I still think the ball is going to travel, but as far as the measurements are concerned, it will be a legitimate distance," Expos manager Frank Robinson said. "Every ball that's popped up in the air, I will no longer have to hold my breath.

"I wished they improved the batter's eye. . . . I don't think you could get too wide with the batter's eye. There is a lot of space out there that hitters will be looking at, especially during day games. It will be troublesome."

Meanwhile, the Marlins won't have Pudge, but they'll have Pudge's replacement and his boyhood pal.

"I'm very excited going back there, especially this year when I'll have a chance to play more," said catcher Ramon Castro, from Vega Baja. "It's a chance for my family to see my play."

- The Associated Press contributed to this story

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