As his Delta flight descended toward San Juan last month, Carlos Beltrán stared out the window at two distinctly different swaths of blue. There was the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the sea of tarps covering the countless houses that had lost their roofs. He knew, of course, of the damage Puerto Rico had sustained in Hurricane Maria, but seeing it for himself was stunning.
The trip was Beltrán’s first to his homeland since the storm hit on Sept. 20. In the intervening two months he had been busy helping to buoy spirits in another area that had been recently devastated by a hurricane: Houston, where his Astros delivered their first World Series two months after Harvey struck. But his heart had been in Puerto Rico. “I went to the ballpark like a zombie,” he says of those first few days. “I was there, but I was not there.”
He couldn’t sleep. He could barely eat. He just waited, bleary-eyed, for his phone to ring with news of his family. In the meantime he and his wife, Jessica, who is also from Carlos’s hometown of Manatí, set up a CrowdRise page to collect funds for their charity, Fundación Carlos Beltrán, and contributed $1 million of their own money. He had been horrified by what he saw on TV: The Category 5 hurricane had left nearly all of the 3.4 million residents without electricity and almost half without water. The death toll is believed to be greater than 1,000.
After six days without any news, his brother, Wilfredo, called, and the normally stoic Beltrán burst into tears. His family was O.K. Wilfredo told him of waiting more than 24 hours in line for gas and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in his car. He made it to the grocery store, only to find the shelves empty. Carlos thought of the postgame spreads that awaited him, his comfortable home and the lavish hotel accommodations on the road. He told Jessica, “We have to do more.”
"I went to the ballpark like a zombie. I was there, but I was not there."
For following through on that pledge, Beltrán is the winner of Sports Illustrated’s inaugural Hope Award, which recognizes athletes who deliver that precious commodity to the place they call home. A few days after his conversation with Jessica, he spoke with Astros owner Jim Crane, a shipping magnate. “What do you need?” Crane asked. “A plane,” Beltrán said. Crane chartered three, to take supplies down and then bring people back. Beltrán announced the trip on his personal Facebook page and soon filled the return flights—his family, Dodgers utilityman Enrique Hernández’s family, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor’s family. Beltrán also called around to hospitals and coordinated transportation to the mainland for cancer patients who needed to continue their treatments. He used the money raised by his foundation—$500,000 plus the $1 million he donated—to buy food and water. He tries to publicize his work, in an attempt to remind the news-weary mainland American public that their countrymen in Puerto Rico still need their attention.
Many other Puerto Rican athletes have also pitched in with their own relief efforts on the island: Olympic tennis champion Monica Puig has raised more than $150,000 and has made several trips to her native San Juan to hand out supplies. Mavericks guard J.J. Barea has raised more than $250,000 and, just days after the storm hit, took the team plane to the island with provisions. And Hernández, who has raised nearly $125,000, added another $2 million by hitting a third home run in Game 5 of the NLCS; Dodgers ownership had pledged the money after he hit his second.
Beltrán has partnered with the National Association of Christian Churches, a nonprofit disaster relief organization that has helped to distribute additional supplies to 22 towns. Beltrán has made several of the deliveries himself. He is a hero in Puerto Rico, so he often finds himself surrounded by fans as he carries boxes down streets where close to 40% of people still lack electricity. They tell him what an inspiration he is, but he derives strength from them. “You talk to people without a roof, without power, and you say, ‘How are you doing?’ ” he says. “And they say, ‘We’re gonna be O.K.’ ”
He retired last month at 40 after a 20-year career as an outfielder. He was a nine-time All-Star, and he may well enter the Hall of Fame someday. But in the meantime he has work to do: Beltrán wants his foundation to rebuild 200 homes, to transform his island’s skyline back to rows of roofs.