SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Moises Roman knew he was wrong. But he did it anyway.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in late September of last year, and in early October there was still no power or internet service in the San Juan area — and there wouldn’t be a long time.
Flouting a 10 p.m. curfew, Roman got in his car and drove for 30 minutes, pulling into the parking lot of a hospital that was powered by generators so he could tap into its wireless signal. Then he watched the Twins play the Yankees in a wild-card game.
“I was ready to spend the night in jail just to be able to watch the game,” said Roman, a loan officer at a bank who lives in Canovanas, the home of Twins minor leaguer Kennys Vargas. “I had no choice. I was already affected by Maria, but there was no way I was going to miss those games. I’m not a Yankee fan. I’m a huge Yankee fan.”
Puerto Rico is full of passionate baseball fans. As the island gets back on its feet following the devastating Category 4 hurricane, baseball has been its crutch. It can show the baseball world how much progress it has made Tuesday and Wednesday when it hosts the Twins and Cleveland in the Puerto Rico Series.
“This is huge for us,” said Roman, 37, “especially after Maria.”
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Maria caused about $85 billion in damage in Puerto Rico. Depending on who you ask, 5 to 10 percent of the island remains without power, mostly in mountainous areas in the middle of the U.S. territory.
The series between the Twins and Indians was announced before the hurricane hit, but despite the damage, locals were undeterred. The games are sold out, and Hiram Bithorn Stadium (which holds slightly more than 18,000) will be overflowing with 39,000 tickets sold.
These two days will celebrate what some consider to be a golden age for the sport of the island, as young products such as Houston shortstop Carlos Correa and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor have become stars. Puerto Rican Twins Jose Berrios and Eddie Rosario have gotten heroes’ welcomes.
The series will show how much progress has been made, post-Maria. And, in a place in which tourism fuels the economy, Puerto Ricans want to prove their island remains a vacation destination.
“The message to the United States is that Puerto Rico is open for business,” said Rosario, who spent Monday visiting schools in his home near Guayama. “It is still a beautiful island. Yes, there are still places in recovery mode, but most of the island is back up and is good and everyone is working hard to make it better.”
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Bithorn, who pitched for the Cubs and White Sox from 1942-47, was the first Puerto Rican player in Major League Baseball. More than 260 have reached the major leagues since then. Four — Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda and the incomparable Roberto Clemente — are in the Hall of Fame.
Many here are excited about the current group in the majors. In addition to Correa, Lindor, Berrios and Rosario, there are Cubs infielder Javier Baez, Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Most were part of a Puerto Rican team that finished second in the World Baseball Classic last year. The run to the title game energized the island. Everyone on the team dyed their hair blond, even the venerable Carlos Beltran, and the country took note.
“Half of the island had blond hair,” said Tuti Munoz, vice president of MB Sports, which helped promote the series. “It was collective pride. A lot of the kids were looking at soccer or something else to play, but they changed their minds. There was one report that in the next Little League season, there was an increase in registration.”
Like elsewhere in Latin America and colleges in the United States, there are cycles in which top players are produced. Twins scout Freddie Thon, who works in Puerto Rico, pointed out a gap between the Alomar-Rodriguez era and the current one.
“Players like Correa, Lindor, Berrios and down to Rosario are just so talented,” Thon said. “They were developed well in Puerto Rico but are just so talented. Especially Correa and Lindor and the people they are. It’s kind of generational. It’s exciting for the island, obviously.”
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There are plenty of good coaches around Puerto Rico, many of them former major leaguers. There are two major baseball academies on the island — the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy (PRBA), located in Gurabo, which is about 30 minutes outside of San Juan; and the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, located in Florida, near San Juan.
Correa said he was one of about 250 players at the PRBA who took classes from 8 a.m.-noon, then worked on baseball from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“They taught me to play baseball the right way, and that is the most important thing,” he said. “They prepare you physically and mentally to be ready.
“School was not my favorite part. I went to the academy to play. They do a pretty good job combining both. The perfect environment to play every single day.”
Other players from the island, such as Berrios and Rosario, were scouted while playing in Puerto Rico’s version of Legion baseball, as well as showcases. Lindor lived in Puerto Rico until he was 12 before going to a prep school in Florida. Fans here still claim him, as his jersey is for sale outside the stadium this week along with those of Berrios, Rosario, Correa and Indians catcher Roberto Perez, who’s from Mayaguez.
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One of the lasting images in the aftermath of Maria was the damage at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Trees were snapped in half. Branches were stuck in the honeycomb-like siding of the park. And the statue of Bithorn in mid-delivery fell off its base and was smashed on the ground. The base, which holds a plaque detailing Bithorn’s career, has been repaired, but not the statue yet.
The stadium lights have been replaced. The outfield bleachers, bullpens and batting cages had to be repaired or replaced. And a fresh coat of paint was slapped on the exterior over the weekend.
The Twins and Indians arrived Sunday and are staying at the same hotel. Players mingled on Sunday night.
On Monday, Rosario and Berrios made public appearances while a handful of players worked out at the stadium. The Twins haven’t played a game since Thursday because of snowstorms in the Twin Cities, so manager Paul Molitor seeks a return to normalcy.
But this week is more than two games between two American League Central clubs.
“I don’t know how to measure how big it is,” Molitor said. “Obviously, we have been given opportunities, in the position that we take in our game, people look up to it, and we have a chance to have influence.”
Roman not only will be at Tuesday’s game; he’s headed to New York next week when the Twins face the Yankees to watch some games as well. He estimated the crowd will be split on Tuesday but, when Berrios starts Wednesday, it will favor the Twins.
He promised an atmosphere with music, singing and plenty of spirit. Because that’s how it’s done on the island.
“You’re going to feel it when you arrive at the game,” Roman said. “It’s like a carnival and the players are going feed from that, especially the Latino players. You guys are going to have good weather this week!”