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June 25, 2004
The Coamo Maratonistas are finally going to the costume ball. Coach David Rosario's pupils are facing the Ponce Leones this weekend in what is Coamo's first ever trip to a Superior Basketball League (SBL) final. The Maratonistas beat out the Bayamon Vaqueros in a hotly contested semifinal to earn this first pass. There hasn't been a Cinderella story in the SBL this big in more than a decade because under its current configuration, only the monied franchises have been able to pull off championships.
But here is Coamo, the veritable David, up against a Goliatha-like Ponce.
Ponce has been to the finals 22 times in franchise history and has 11 titles to its credit. Manolo Cintron's charges are armed for battle this month with a starting five led on the floor by veteran point guard Javier "Tonito" Colon. Bobby Joe Hatton and Eddie Casiano provide the offense and power forward Anthony Bonner and center Andres Guibert throw the elbows and set up the screens. Ponce's strength is in its bench, which is loaded with a combination of veteran talent and lots of youthful enthusiasm.
But Rosario and his Maratonistas are in a unique position.
"Anything can happen. This is a good moment and we have a good chance," said the Coach of the Year before the start of Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. "We don't have any pressure on us because we got here with nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Coamo's best weapons so far have been in the paint with big men Jaja Richards and Gabriel Mouneke. Shooting guard Carlos Escalera never misses, scoring triple-doubles twice during the semifinal series versus Bayamon.
While the SBL final series unfolds, unrelated drama builds in Fajardo. Just when you thought it was safe to cross the Montreal Expos' demise off your summer reading list, this news comes in. A group of investors, most of them Puerto Rican, have squeaked in a last-second bid to bring the Expos to Fajardo into Major League Baseball's commissioner's office. The investors, none of whom yet come forth to speak for the record, hired Miami-based sports attorney Scott Shapiro, who represents Hispanic ballplayers to pitch their idea to MLB. Their plan is to build a 42,000 stadium in Fajardo with a retractable roof, hard by Roosevelt Roads, the U.S. Navy base that recently closed and is soon to open for development.
Even though he's a mercenary, Shapiro is positively passionate for the Latino cause and swears that the Commissioner's office is taking this proposal seriously.
MLB officials have set July 13 as the date on which they will announce where the Expos will move to next. It's a timetable no one takes seriously, since MLB insisted it would make a decision regarding the Expos' future last year after the All-Star break and failed to do so.
That said, Shapiro insists he'll do his heaviest campaigning for this second Puerto Rican bid (Antonio Munoz's bid to bring the Expos to Bithorn Stadium is the first) all over the next three weeks.
Neither of the two Puerto Rican bids is thought to stand a chance in the relocation committee's eyes. Insiders say either Washington, D.C., or northern Virginia are the front-runners in this race. Las Vegas, Norfolk, Portland and Monterrey, Mexico are all also reportedly on MLB's radar.
Yet by Shapiro's interpretation of the relocation committee's work, a decision will be made this summer as to where the Expos will go. Shapiro doesn't, however, believe the July 13 deadline necessarily means the Expos will move by 2005.
"The timetable [July 13] doesn't have anything to do with when a stadium will be built," said Shapiro in reference to plans by investors to build the 42,000-seat venue in Fajardo. "It has to do with where the location will be for the relocation of the Montreal Expos."
A source close to the project said that should the investors land the Expos, baseball's most beleaguered franchise could play at Hiram Bithorn Stadium until the venue in Fajardo could be built. The source also said the investors have enough economic clout to ensure this project will be taken seriously both by MLB and the people of Puerto Rico.
Shapiro said the investors have much more in mind than merely bringing a major league ballclub to Puerto Rico. Although he declined to confirm the projected stadium plans, Shapiro did say that HOK Sport, a leader in the construction of sports venues, will visit Puerto Rico soon to evaluate potential sites.
"We don't have to convince MLB that Puerto Rico is a viable alternative. They already know because Antonio Munoz has proven that Puerto Rico can stage games", said Shapiro. "Fajardo is an area that will see a lot of growth in the next few years and a lot of corporations are interested. The growth goes together with MLB's idea of globalization."
Shapiro said he didn't put much stock in the Expos' poor attendance figures in San Juan, particularly the numbers from this season that have the Expos averaging under 13,000 per game.
"Major League Baseball is aware that Puerto Rican fans know their baseball," said Shapiro. "The Expos are no longer as good of a product as they were even last year. There are people who say that Puerto Ricans should be so excited just to see baseball, but that's not giving Puerto Rican fans enough credit. The fans there are educated and they want to see a good product. We've seen that in Miami with the Marlins. Once they had a good product, attendance shot up."
In the meantime while the Expos struggle, they are not likely to win over many fans in San Juan. And it remains to be seen whether they would play in Fajardo.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at email@example.com.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.