Llevame al juego de pelota Take me out to the ball game, say the fervent fans in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Expos' new--and very different--home away from home

April 20, 2003

Last Friday the ghosts of barnstormers past came to life in
Puerto Rico. The vagabond Montreal Expos packed a patchwork team
and its uncertain future into two charter buses at their hotel
and followed an escort of Honda Shadow police motorcycles that
bisected traffic on the crowded Avenida Isla Verde en route to
the Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan. Inside the airy,
single-decked ballpark, underneath a clamshell roof with zigzags
like Bart Simpson's haircut, the Expos played before an
enraptured crowd that was blind to uniforms. "They're rooting
for the players of Latin descent, but all they want to see is
baseball, good baseball," said catcher Brian Schneider. The
enthusiasm in the ballpark was, for Montreal, a welcome
antidote to the churchlike quiet of Olympic Stadium, home to
10,031 a game last year, the smallest average attendance in the
National League. "You wake up and see a different land in the
morning," said New York Mets reliever Graeme Lloyd, an Expo
last season. "Other than that, everything else is baseball."

While the Expos, ward of Major League Baseball, cloaked their
players in the feel-good garb of globalization, deep down they
were after a quick buck. Their fan base in Montreal having been
dissipated first by mediocre teams, then by the threat of
contraction and now by the imminence of relocation, the Expos
landed a sweetheart deal to play 22 games in San Juan and rake in
a minimum of $7 million (roughly four to five times what they
would take in for a similar number of games in Montreal). They
brought to San Juan a club with 12 players from Spanish-speaking
countries, the most on any big league roster, including three
native sons: first baseman Wil Cordero from Mayaguez, righthander
Javier Vazquez from Ponce and second baseman Jose Vidro from
Sabana Grande.

At Hiram Bithorn, Montreal found compliant opponents in the
stumbling Mets, who supplied the immensely popular second baseman
Roberto Alomar (from Ponce) and scored but eight runs and made
five errors while being swept in a four-game weekend series.
Received so handsomely on this road trip, the Expos, 9-4 and in
first place in the NL East through Monday, couldn't have felt
more at home. "Sure, we'd like to be settled in our [Montreal]
apartments before the end of April," said catcher Michael
Barrett, "but to see the reception the Puerto Rican players have
gotten was worth the trip. We've gotten the red-carpet treatment
here."

At the park the carpet on the field was Day-Glo green, to match
the 1960s feel of the architecture. The 40-year-old stadium
underwent $2.5 million in renovations in the past few weeks, and
even so remains minor league caliber. In the weeks preceding the
opening series, workers installed a temporary video scoreboard,
which on Saturday night momentarily flickered and went dark
during the bottom of the sixth. Because of neglect and disuse,
dirt and silt had accumulated between the artificial playing
surface and the asphalt foundation, causing the carpet to bunch
up; groundskeepers repeatedly power-washed the field to flush out
the sediment, and puddles of mud were visible along the edge of
the outfield where the turf ended.

The field played hard throughout the series--Expos first baseman
Jeff Liefer twice mishandled short-hop ground balls for errors in
Saturday's 5-4 win--and there was a footlong semicircular tear in
the warning track behind home plate. A week before the series
opened, clubhouse showers only irregularly dispensed hot water,
though that problem had been fixed by last weekend. "Our club has
been through some difficult periods, with contraction, with
relocation, and we see coming to Puerto Rico as another
challenge," says Montreal general manager Omar Minaya. "I think
we've put together a fun, open-minded team that's the United
Nations of baseball."

Friday night's opener began with three national anthems--Canadian,
Puerto Rican and U.S.--which was one more than the number of
hits the Mets mustered in a 10-0 whitewash by Expos starter Tomo
Ohka, the 27-year-old Japanese righthander with the deadpan
demeanor. Asked how pitching abroad affected him, Ohka smiled
and said through his interpreter, "Canada and the United States
are foreign countries, so it didn't make a difference to me."
The game provided the near-sellout crowd of 17,906 with a moment
of unadulterated national pride when Vidro, playing in front of
his mother, Daisy, for the first time as a pro, smashed a
two-run homer into the leftfield bleachers in the bottom of the
eighth, prompting long, rhythmic chants of his name. To dozens
of local reporters afterward Vidro admitted that he fought back
tears as he rounded second base. "I was more nervous today than
in my first game in the big leagues." he said. "I felt like a
rookie, the butterflies were so strong."

In a quiet corner of Montreal's tiny clubhouse on Saturday
afternoon, a soft-spoken Vidro seemed weary. His mother and
father, Jose, had made an hour-and-a-half drive home immediately
after the game; Vidro had spoken to them for only a few minutes,
and without any off days scheduled during the 10-game homestand,
he was unsure when he would have time to spend with them. "It's
been kind of hard, trying to please a lot of people," he said.
"There's only four or five guys from Puerto Rico playing here,
and everybody wants to get our attention. The atmosphere is very
special, but it's hard." Agreed Cordero, "All I've seen is the
ballpark and the hotel."

On Sunday afternoon, after Vidro turned on a Mike Stanton slider
for a walkoff homer on the first pitch in the bottom of the 10th,
then rounded the bases to meet a mob of Expos at the plate, his
mood had brightened considerably. "I wished I could have gotten
to home plate faster, where all my teammates were waiting for
me," he said with a smile, then quickly excused himself. "I've
got to go see my parents now."

Concerned about wear and tear on the Montreal players, MLB and
the players' union negotiated a series of perks that go into
effect when the team is in San Juan: Meal money is doubled, to
$153 daily, and family members are permitted on charter flights
and buses and provided with police-escorted transportation to and
from games. (About half of the players brought their families
along last week.) The club was lodging at the El San Juan, a
luxury hotel in upscale Isla Verde, a tourist enclave removed
from the bustle of downtown. The rigors of road life aside,
several Americans on a team dominated by Latinos said the series
had been eye-opening. "If there were doubts [about playing in
Puerto Rico], they were gone after Friday night," Schneider said.
"The crowd exceeded all our expectations. It's been interesting.
Now we see how the Latin players feel, when they might not
understand what's being spoken around them."

For all the smiling multiculturalism, the Expos were,
unmistakably, playing for the Yankee dollar. San Juan promoter
and winter-league owner Antonio Munoz struck the deal with
Montreal that guaranteed the $7 million and promised as much as
$10 million if all 22 games were sellouts. Because of raises
built into contracts and other salary increases bestowed on
arbitration-eligible players, the Expos' Opening Day payroll
ballooned from $38.7 million last season to $51.9 million this
year; to bring that figure down to a level acceptable to the
commissioner's office would have required a salary dump greater
than that of elite righthander Bartolo Colon. Instead, thanks to
the influx of money from Puerto Rico, Montreal was able to retain
Vazquez, Barrett, righthander Tony Armas Jr. and shortstop
Orlando Cabrera. Although Vazquez may command more than the Expos
can afford when he becomes a free agent next winter, the other
three, along with Vidro (under contract through 2004), would be
significant starting pieces for a franchise under new ownership.

"We welcomed this arrangement because frankly, we needed the
revenue," says team president Tony Tavares. "If we didn't have
it, we wouldn't have been able to hold on to one of our star
players, and that would have been disastrous." Although the Mets
series drew well--65,657 for the four games, just 8,343 short of
capacity--there are doubts about the drawing power of teams like
the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds, who followed the Mets
into Puerto Rico this week and had presold just 8,000 and 7,000
tickets per game, respectively. Club officials have suggested
that a benchmark for success for the 22 games would be drawing
90% of capacity, but that target will be difficult to reach,
especially given that ticket prices range from $10 to $85; many
local fans say the upper range is excessive.

MLB is monitoring attendance and corporate sponsorship in Puerto
Rico (Radio Shack is one such sponsor) while it also weighs the
proposals from the three relocation candidates: northern
Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Portland (a decision is expected
by the All-Star break). Though San Juan's hopes of landing the
team full-time are seen as a pipe dream--in addition to needing a
new stadium, the city doesn't appear able to support a club for
81 games (its per capita income is less than one third the U.S.
average)--the Expos could return next season if they aren't
relocated by then or are moved to a city where a stadium isn't
immediately available. Said Alberto Lopez, a mortgage banker, at
Friday night's game, "As long as there are Puerto Ricans playing
baseball, we will support baseball."

There is concern, however, that fewer Puerto Ricans are playing
baseball these days. The sport hasn't been played in high schools
since 1973, and the island has produced less and less talent
since the major leagues decided in 1989 to make Puerto Rican
players subject to the amateur draft. "The development of youth
baseball in Puerto Rico has stopped, has gone backward, ever
since the draft," said former major leaguer Tony Bernazard, now a
special assistant to the players' union. That move came on the
heels of large signing bonuses given to Puerto Rican teenagers
like Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez. Big league scouts
increasingly turned their attention to players in the Dominican
Republic, who were not covered by the draft and could be signed
more cheaply and at a younger age; this helped make the Dominican
Republic the primary source of foreign-born Hispanic talent in
the major leagues. Even interest in the Puerto Rican winter
league has slumped; a decadelong attendance decline continued
last year, when some games drew only a few hundred fans.

That seemed unimaginable on Friday night, two thirds of the way
through an April blowout between two teams that are long shots to
contend for the postseason, when Hiram Bithorn remained full,
chants persisting as exuberantly as during the first inning,
Vi-dro! morphing into Ole! As pushcart vendors manned the stadium
concourses, ringing bicycle bells and selling E-lados ice cream
in paper cups, and concessionaires poured shots of Cutty Sark and
blended pina coladas, there was a palpable sense of spirit.

It was the same the next morning at Francisco Polanco Field in
the San Juan neighborhood of San Patricio, on a spacious diamond
with a dirt infield where Deya beat the Titanes 9-2 for the
championship of the 11-12-year-old division of the Summit
Hills-Altamira Pequenas Ligas. Fathers and grandfathers hollered
instructions (largely ignored) from the shaded cement bleachers,
while their children and grandchildren joyously mobbed Jorge
Rosali after an inside-the-park home run. "Baseball starts in the
neighborhoods," said Evelyn Batista, mother of 12-year-old Jorge
Batista, Deya's catcher. "Children play together, on the same
teams with the same teammates, throughout. Baseball here is a
community."

Imagine being part of that community this season, watching the
Expos play in their island home. It's the seventh-inning stretch,
the loudspeakers are pumping a conga rhythm into 18,000 sets of
eardrums through the muggy Caribbean night, and though the words
sound unfamiliar, you know what they mean all the same. So you
stand up and sing along: Y ahi va un, dos, tres strikes panchao
en el viejo juego!

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN [T of C] HOMEBOY Playing in his native Puerto Rico, on a Day-Glo carpet, the Mets' Roberto Alomar took aim at the transient Expos (page 46). THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN FUN AND GAMES Baseball brought a community together, from Estadio Hiram Bithorn (where on Friday, Orlando Cabrera ran down Roger Cedeno and fans had a banner night) to Francisco Polanco Field. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A SIGN OF THE TIMES AT FRIDAY'S OPENER COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON YOUPPI MAKES NEW FRIENDS COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON LOCAL HERO Vidro made it a happy homecoming by belting a game-winning homer in the 10th inning on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON VIDRO REUNITES WITH LITTLE BROTHER JOEL COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON ROCKIN' ROBBIE Favoring Puerto Rican players over either team, fans cheered Ponce native Alomar, who was thrown out at the plate on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON ALOMAR HAD HIS SHARE OF BACKERS

"You wake up and see a different land in the morning," said
Lloyd. "Other than that, everything else is baseball."

For all the smiling multiculturalism, the Expos were, unmistakably, playing for the Yankee dollar.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)