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Members of Team Puerto Rico and Team Venezuela before a game during the 2013 World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
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‘A week of happiness’: In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, baseball’s return is giving Puerto Rico comfort

Puerto Rico has been focused on its recovery since the devastation of Hurricane Maria. This week, MLB comes to San Juan for what will be a welcome distraction.

Bob Saget is joking about milking an Omaha cow.

Outside, New York City is frigid and windy but the air inside midtown’s Hunt & Fish Club in mid-November is far warmer, thick with money and the smell of catered sirloin. And in some sort of record for the most unexpected non sequitur from a celebrity guest, Saget is riffing about cows on stage.

He’s not doing stand-up. Saget is standing on a makeshift platform inside the high-end steakhouse alongside millionaire restaurateur and Hunt & Fish Club co-founder Eytan Sugarman, former Yankees star Jorge Posada and his wife Laura, and other wealthy friends who helped make this event — a fundraiser co-hosted by the Posadas in support of The Foundation for Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria Relief Fund — happen on short notice.

Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard steadily cycles through the crowd. A top investor grabs another glass of wine before chatting with Yankees legend Bernie Williams, who applauded the Posadas for being a leader among a group of current and former players who all want to help Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Carlos Beltran, the newly minted World Series champion and advocate for Puerto Rico’s recovery, stands off to the side taking everything in and dispelling rumors that he has aims to be the next Yankees’ manager.

It is less than two months since Maria hit Puerto Rico, destroying nearly everything in its path and leaving the island’s more than three million residents without electricity, water, or channels of communication. For Posada, the effort was personal. His parents are some of the many U.S. citizens who refused to evacuate despite multiple months without power and extensive hardships on the ground, which in some of the worst-hit areas included dangerous caiman-filled flood waters up to 16 feet high.

MLB is coming to the island at a good time. On Tuesday, the Indians and Twins will meet in San Juan for the start of a short series that was announced long before the hurricanes occurred.

For some of the players fundraising in Manhattan, Puerto Rico isn’t just their home, but the reason they were able to play professional baseball in the first place. Posada was an all-star shortstop at Alejandrino High School in San Juan, and he has spoken about how even if his father wasn’t a pro scout, baseball would have been impossible to escape as a kid. As a continuation of his own baseball legacy, Beltran opened The Carlos Beltran Academy in Puerto Rico in 2011, aimed at using kids’ love of baseball to maximize their educational and scholarship opportunities. Williams was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico on his 17th birthday.

Baseball and Puerto Rico are inextricably linked. The support of MLB players and teams after Hurricane Maria is emblematic of how strong that relationship is. By the time a Hamilton star is singing to a room full of donors and players in this gilded room, the Posadas have already made multiple aid trips, starting out helping the most at risk people — families, children, the elderly, and those who needed immediate medical attention — before moving on to “Phase 2” of “cleanup, rebuilding, and infusing the economy.”

It will be a long time before Puerto Rico is back to normal. In the meantime, baseball is always welcome.

World Baseball Classic - Pool C - Spain v Puerto Rico
Before the game between Puerto Rico and Spain during the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on March 8, 2013.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

A namesake stadium

Hiram Bithorn Stadium is Puerto Rico’s most famous baseball field, named after the first Puerto Rican player to play in Major League Baseball, and as good a symbol as any of the island’s storied baseball tradition. Maria all but destroyed it.

The batting cages, the outfield fences, the statue of Bithorn that welcomed fans to games, all gone or mangled. Not many structures can stand up to the nearly 150 MPH winds that stemmed from a storm bigger than the island itself. Hiram Bithorn was no exception.

The last MLB series to be played in San Juan was back in 2010 between the Mets and the Marlins. While Hiram Bithorn may not be restored to its former glory quite yet, the stands should be packed for the return of some of Puerto Rico’s favorite sons, like Francisco Lindor and Eddie Rosario.

Puerto Rico worked hard to make sure this series would happen as planned. Carla Campos, acting director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, told me her hope is that the island can leverage one of the most challenging situations in a generation to make Puerto Rico even better than it was before. In 2016, tourism directly or indirectly supported 6.9 percent of all employment on the island, and contributed to 8 percent of the territory’s total GDP. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s analysis, those figures were projected to rise in 2017 before being interrupted by Maria.

Right now, the company’s efforts are focused on high-trafficked tourist areas, like around Hiram Bithorn in San Juan. That includes renovating hotels that were damaged in the storm and building new ones, getting cruise ships (one of the largest pieces of the tourism sector) back into port as soon as possible, and stabilizing air access.

Campos says the perception of the island’s condition has been difficult for the rebounding tourism industry to overcome, that travelers misunderstand how ready Puerto Rico is to welcome them back. And travelers are important for far more than the money they are spending on a surface level. The rebounding tourism industry allows people to get back to work and back to a routine — as Campos puts it, to “get to that sense of normalcy again.”

The series, with all of its coverage and ceremonial MLB trappings, can show how far the island has come in such a short time and encourage the necessary influx of vacationers.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló told SB Nation about Major League Baseball coming to the island: “We have been working tirelessly to show the world that we are open for tourism and business and the MLB celebration will play a significant role in doing so.”

Just as importantly, the coverage around the games has the chance to serve as a reminder of how far the island still has to go.

Aerial view of the flooded neighborhood of Juana Matos in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Catano, Puerto Rico.
AFP/Getty Images

Traditions to hold on to

Puerto Rico’s first baseball game was played in 1989 in San Juan, and the island’s professional league (approximately equivalent to the AA circuit) the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente (LBPRC) has existed in some form since 1938. In all of the years of its existence, it has only missed one year of action — a restructuring in 2007. It was renamed in honor of Roberto Clemente in 2012.

After Maria, the league was almost forced to take the year off, but organizers decided the league had become a tradition that was too important not to play. Four teams were able to take part — the Mayaguez Indians, the Cangrejeros de Santurce, Criollos de Caguas, and Carolina Giants — in a limited series of games in January all played during the day, free for fans. The Criollos won their 18th title, tying the Indians for the most all-time, and went on to defend their Caribbean Series title.

Caguas and Mayaguez were lucky when it came to their baseball stadiums: neither was damaged beyond use and all four teams rotated using those fields for the season. They moved forward during a difficult period of time for the same reason the Twins-Indians game needed to (as the league decided in January): to try and insert some normalcy into life after the hurricane.

Dr. Ismael Pagan-Trinidad works in the civil engineering department at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez with a focus on coastal resilient infrastructure. He explained how important the series would be for the community. In December, a month out from the league’s truncated season, people in Mayaguez were still using car batteries and converters to power their homes, or taking batteries from their computers and jerry-rigging them so that they could use their televisions, refrigerators, and lights.

In addition to his work at the University, Pagan-Trinidad is a member of the NCAA D-II Management Council and the co-owner of a team in Puerto Rico’s women’s volleyball league. He explained that after the hurricanes, sports largely came to a standstill in Puerto Rico. The women’s volleyball league canceled their season due to Maria, and the men canceled their planned tournament after only a few games played. Athletes on professional service contracts aren’t able to receive necessary benefits, and training on their own was almost impossible due to the lack of facilities.

Even if sports could be played normally, it’s hard to tell how many of the usual players would be around to participate. A significant portion of Puerto Rico’s population shifted to the mainland United States, and those who stayed often understandably had more pressing priorities than sports.

With baseball still being played, even on a limited basis, it gave the community something else to focus on. Before it was confirmed that baseball would return, Pagan-Trinidad said in Mayaguez, “people have been used to these traditions year after year for 50 years … they all expect the season … and people are waiting for that.”

He said fans were shocked at even the possibility that baseball wouldn’t be played this year.

Carlos Beltran hitting an RBI single for Puerto Rico against Cuba during the 2006 World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

“Sometimes it takes a toll on you”

If you took a bird’s eye view of Puerto Rico and drew a line down the middle, north to south, you would only miss passing directly through the small city of Coamo by a hair. Home of AAU Baseball district director Normand Valliere, it is still dealing with setbacks more than seven months after Maria.

Coamo’s baseball fields weren’t as lucky as those in Mayaguez or Caguas, and it didn’t have the same repair priority as Hiram Bithorn. Valliere’s AAU program, the 61st district in the AAU baseball system (similar to the ever-present AAU basketball circuit on the mainland), is only a little more than a year old. Before Maria hit it was growing and expanding as well as anyone could have hoped, hosting a tournament last May. Now, Coamo’s fields are destroyed as Valliere is trying to get the available kids back on a field any way possible.

Southern cities and towns were hit hardest by Maria, and their geographic location made them more difficult to reach during rescue efforts and supply distribution. Valliere is an Air Force veteran and described looking at the area in the aftermath as like looking at the photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs dropped. Brown land as far as the eye could see, with no trees left standing and “everything they cherished” gone in less than a day.

After the storm, with local and federal government support all but invisible, Coamo’s residents started stringing up power lines themselves. Valliere is critical of the ways in which he feels both the U.S. and local governments failed Puerto Rico through slow responses or inaction. After coming back from a few weeks with family in Tampa he found that it hurt especially hard to return to what felt like a lack of progress in his community.

Valliere noticed an immediate change in people’s behaviors and attitudes after Maria, that people were worried about whether something of this scale could happen to them again, and whether they were ever going to get back to normal. Local sports being “put on the back burner” only exacerbated this mood. Valliere is trying to help by doing “things that could be really enjoyable for [the] kids and our families, just to have something to share and to get their minds off of all the problems [they] encounter.” Valliere’s goal is to get the baseball fields fully rebuilt, and to have the kids in his program be able to play freely and without daylight or location restrictions.

The wider AAU organization has shown nothing but support for District 61, helping with fees and logistics in the lead up to the National and Grand National tournaments that will take place this summer in Florida. Valliere is hoping to send at least two teams in hopes of giving the teenagers in his program something to prepare for and accomplish rather than linger on Coamo’s continuing struggles.

According to Secretary of Sports and Recreation Adriana Sanchez, the government is working with FEMA and others to get all complexes, but baseball especially, back up to snuff so that kids can be back outside and playing. While they say they are on track with their efforts, things are still far from where they were.

During our conversations, Valliere didn’t miss a chance to remind me of all the help still needed on the island — of the magic they need to start having normal lives again, and how important it is for people in the 50 states to not forget how tough life is for hundreds of thousands of people living only a short flight away from their mainland homes.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium before a game between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001.
Getty Images

A little hope and happiness

No matter their current situation, Puerto Ricans are largely happy the MLB series is happening, and that Puerto Rican players are returning at this crucial time. MLB could not have known the circumstances these games would be played under when it first announced the teams and dates last June, but the series is resonating with people who desperately need a break.

Sanchez said that increased tourism could help create future opportunities for lower profile sports on the island. She specifically cited Alex Cora’s clause in his managerial contract with the Red Sox that guaranteed a relief trip, one that donated 10 tons of supplies to the island and $200,000 to Cora’s hometown of Caguas to help restore electricity. In tandem with MLB and this series, her department is offering clinics for players between 14 and 18 years old in multiple municipalities.

Other events have been held on the island since Maria hit — including an Iron Man, and an unofficial PGA Tour event — but Campos is excited for the magnitude of the Indians-Twins series, and the boost it will provide now that the island is better prepared to welcome visitors.

For all of the fury that Valliere carries about the ways in which government has failed Puerto Rico, he was grateful for what MLB owners and players have done, and are still doing, to help those in need on the island. His only complaint was that more of them could have followed the lead of Astros owner Jim Crane, who deployed a plane full of supplies within weeks of the hurricane (“I wish everyone would have done the same thing”). But, he acknowledges, overall he thinks MLB has showed an incredible display of support.

“They have done an amazing job, OK? They’re going to continue doing it because one of the things we do have is we just love our island. We love our people and we do whatever it takes to get it back to normal. And they’re doing a heck of a job.”

The most unabashed excitement I’d heard in Valliere’s voice throughout multiple conversations was when he praised the two-game series.

“We need things like that, because it will take your mind off of all the problems that we have and we get a week,” Valliere said. “A week of happiness. Because we do have kids that are athletes, and we’ve got players like Francisco Lindor and Roberto Perez and Eddie Rosario ... and Eddie Vargas and I’m just mentioning a couple. They’re going to be here and it’s going to be the first time, and I’ll bet you their hearts are beating probably a thousand times harder than they used to because they want to play in front of people.

”Just to bring a little bit of hope and happiness to us, that’s all that matters right now.”

Hurricane season is mere weeks away, and it’s impossible to predict what setbacks could arise over the next few months. The phrase that came up most often in conversations with Valliere and others is that the communities will keep working. They’re working together, working as a team, working for the kids, and “working their butts off” to get back to some kind of normal.

In Mayaguez, Pagan-Trinidad is already helping his community prepare for next time, despite how tough it is to imagine that this might happen again. Students are learning practical applications of their civil engineering studies — how to create hydro power in emergency conditions, for one — and the area is planning how to live for months without clean water, or how to get through the early stages of an emergency more effectively knowing they won’t be able to communicate with other parts of the island for multiple weeks.

Puerto Ricans are resilient, one of the first things they will tell you when looking back on the last seven months. Bernie Williams said as much back in November when I asked him what struck him most when visiting his hometown for the first time after Maria.

“People still manage to find happiness,” he said. “In the midst of this tragedy they still find a way to make humor in light of the fact that they are going through one of the worst natural disasters that have hit the island in the past hundred years … It was like they’re mad and ready to get going. To pick themselves up and dust themselves off and just keep going.”

Williams is singing the national anthem to start the series and Carlos Beltran is throwing out the first pitch. They’ll be leading off two days of excitement for fans all across the island. Two days for fans to be distracted from hardships on the ground, the lack of basic necessities and all of the problems still gnawing at the back of their minds waiting to be solved.

Then after it’s over, when both team planes have been packed up and pointed back to the mainland so that the Indians and Twins can continue their seasons, Puerto Rico will get back to the many problems at hand. Because there’s still so much work to be done.


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