|Friday, April 11
Updated: April 13, 3:55 PM ET
Puerto Rico welcoming baseball with open arms
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Expos had barely digested Tony Armas Jr.'s 11-strikeout miniature classic against the Cubs on Thursday, when April's pitiless schedule beckoned. One more time, the Expos caught a charter flight for another road series -- a familiar blur of buses, planes, and suitcase-stuffing.
If the Expos feel virtually-homeless ... well, it's hard to blame them. They won't play their first game in Olympic Stadium until April 22, although Montreal's next 10 games offer this dividend: it'll be warm, the crowds will be loud and pro-Latino, and it's all part of history.
For the first time ever, Puerto Rico is being used a major league hub -- the site of 22 "home" games for the Expos. This is a multi-level experiment being conducted by Major League Baseball's experiment to globalize the sport, increase the Expos' cash-flow -- which goes into MLB's coffers -- and honor the game's growing Spanish-speaking contingent.
Among Opening Day rosters, 230 of baseball's 827 players were born in Latin America.
So the curtain goes up on the San Juan homestand. It'll be divided into three segments -- the first of which begins Friday night, when the Mets arrive for a four-game series. By the time the June and September installments are complete, the Expos will have also hosted the Braves, Rangers, Reds, Angels, Cubs and Marlins, and baseball will know if San Juan can be a factor in the game's future expansion.
It's an ambitious plan, but in the short-term, the Expos are feeling a bit overwhelmed.
"I sure like the idea of warm weather, finally, but at the end of the day, we're still on the road. It's a tough demand on our time," said Montreal general manager Omar Minaya. "I'm sure the games are going to be exciting and loud, and I've always believed in the game being played worldwide, but this is a long time to be away from home."
Actually, this is just a warm-up for the 2004 season, when the Expos will be on the move again. An intense power play is underway to determine where the franchise will land -- either in the northern Virginia/Washington D.C. area or else in Portland, Ore.
Some believe Puerto Rico itself is being evaluated as a future full-time home for a major league franchise, although Roberto Clemente Jr., the son of the legendary Pirates' outfielder, doesn't think so.
"I'm not sure the local economy is strong enough for a full season," Clemente said. "This is a good first step, though. It'll be good for baseball to see how much the Puerto Rican people appreciate major league baseball. I know my father would be proud the game is finally coming to the island."
To prepare for the homecoming, Hiram Bithorn Stadium has been treated to new dirt for the infield, new seats in the stands and an expansion of the bleachers to allow for 18,500 fans. Obviously, that's well below major-league standards, but promoters expect to sell out most of the seats -- and thus create a loud, raucous winter-ball atmosphere.
"We had estimated 10,000 per game, and we're going to surpass that easy," promoter Tono Muñoz told the Orlando Sentinel. "This is going to be a hit for Puerto Rico and for baseball, and it will create a unique experience for the players."
Even at three-quarters capacity, "Los" Expos would do better in Bithorn Stadium than in Olympic Stadium, where they drew an average of 10,000 fans a game last year. And what local promoters lack in attendance, they'll make up in ticket prices. Tickets ranged from $10 to $85, with the average seat costing $19, more than twice the average in Montreal.
Make no mistake: This innovation has as much to do with money as anything else. MLB executives found local entrepreneurs who were willing to guarantee $8 million in cash in exchange for delivering the Expos' 22 games. Any profit made beyond the $8 million would be split between Major League Baseball and Muñoz.
Once inside the ballpark, fans are expected to root for ... well, Latinos. The Expos themselves have four players of Puerto Rican descent and 14 Spanish-speaking players overall. But the Dominican-born Minaya doesn't necessarily think his team will enjoy a home-field advantage.
"I think it'll be very similar to what the Marlins experience when the Mets go there," Minaya said. "A lot of people in Florida come from New York. Same thing in San Juan. There are a lot of New Yorkers, people who've visited New York, or have family in New York. It'll probably be 50-50 who the crowd is rooting for."
Either way, it's safe to assume the atmosphere will be different than any other major-league venue. So says Mets second baseman Roberto Alomar, a Puerto Rican native.
"You'll hear congas in the stands, a lot of noise, a lot of music, a really good crowd," Alomar said. "I bet every one of these (four) games is going to be a good one."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.