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For Baseball Fans, San Juan Bats 1.000
BY KYLE WINGFIELD
April 6, 2004
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 -- Puerto Ricans.
Like last year, the Expos will play a 22-game schedule in San Juan in 2004, with three homestands available for visiting American 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?
At two San Juan games last summer, I found the fans -- like much of the island -- bilingual and eager to engage a mainlander like myself.
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 U.S. park.
Piña coladas & pitches: 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 piña 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.
New upgrades: Improvements have been made for the 2004 season: A new artificial turf is being laid, and fences that are 30 feet 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.
Nearby rainforest: 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 and made for wonderful side trips.
The only rainforest 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 collection of lush vegetation mixed with rainfalls both large and small.
Hiking by waterfalls: 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.
Beaches: 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.
History: 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.
Getting there: 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 carnival-like activities for kids and adults alike will start outside the stadium three to four hours before gametime.
Pre-game activities: Besides the traditional batting cages and guess-your-speed pitching games, the 2004 Baseball Festival will feature an interactive game.
''It becomes a cultural event, and it also becomes a meeting place event,'' says Antonio Munoz, the promoter who arranged the Expos' part-time schedule in San Juan. ``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.''
WHAT TO KNOW: SAN JUAN
Getting there: It's a 2 1Ú2-hour flight from South Florida to San Juan, with round-trip air fare starting at $228. American, Spirit, US Airways, Delta, ATA and Continental fly there.
The island's advantage: You won't need a passport or have to deal with a new form of currency.
Cost for a two-night trip for a family of four: $900.
Tickets: Prices for single tickets range from $11 each in the outfield bleachers to $78 behind home plate. Both areas offer a great view of the game. Information: 787-294-0001; www.montrealexpos.com.
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 and vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, July 8-11.
El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal, Old San Juan, 787-729-6777; www.nps.gov/saju. Historic forts maintained by the National Park Service. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission for each fort is free for children up to age 12; $1 for children, ages 13 to 17; $3 for adults; and $2 for senior citizens.
El Yunque, about 25 miles northeast of San Juan, 787-888-1810; www.south ernregion.fs.fed.uscaribbean/index.htm. The Caribbean National Forest, known as El Yunque, is a short drive from San Juan and features numerous hiking trails, wildlife, and beautiful waterfalls. Wear your bathing suit for swimming beneath the falls.
Old San Juan: A good way to see the walled city is to enter El Paseo de la Princesa and follow San Juan Bay's waterline for about a mile. This route takes you past the city's old walls and San Juan Gate to the San Felipe del Morro Castle at the city's tip.
El Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, 299 De Diego Ave., in Santurce, near El Condado, 787-977-6277; www.mapr.org. Holds the island's most important art collection. $5.
Beaches -- For information on Puerto Rico's beaches, visit www.puerto ricoplanner.com/be.htm.
The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Norzagaray St., in Old San Juan, 787-722-1808; www.thegalleryinn.com. A complex of restored 18th-century houses. Doubles, with no TVs, start at $175, with breakfast.
Tu Casa Guest House, 2071 Cacique St., 787-727-5100; www.tucasa guest.com. A guest house that caters to couples and business people. $125-$250.
Hotel Milano, 307 Fortaleza St., near the governor's residence, 877-729-9050; www.hotelmilanopr.com. $75 and up, including breakfast.
The Water Club, 2 Tartak St., in Isla Verde, 888-265-6699; www.wa terclubsanjuan.com. Hip luxury boutique hotel on the beach with happening open-air, rooftop bar. $229 and up.
Ritz-Carlton San Juan, 6961 Avenue of the Governors, in Isla Verde, 787-253-1700; www.ritz carlton.com. Luxury digs with a spa and casino. $239 and up.
Café Bohemio, in the historic El Convento Hotel, 100 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan, 787-723-9200. Casual tradition, with local favorites like ropa vieja (shredded flank steak) and mofongo (mashed plantains with meat or seafood). Entrees, $21-$25.
José José Restaurant, 1110 Magdalena Ave., in El Condado, 787-725-8546. Serves international dishes with flair. Dinner for two with wine is about $120.
Pamela's, at the Numero Uno Guest House, 1 Santa Ana, in Ocean Park, 787-726-5010. On the beach dining. Dinner for two with drinks is about $100.
Dragonfly, 364 Fortaleza, in Old San Juan, 787-977-3886. Trendy Asian-Latino fusion restaurant with deep red walls and a Buddha Bar soundtrack. Dinner for two with wine is about $75.
Waterfront, 187 Road, east of Isla Verde, 787-791-5989. Serves fresh seafood on a budget. Dinner for two with drinks is about $40.
Puerto Rico Tourism Co., 800-866-7827; www.goto puertorico.com.