|Thursday, April 10
Expos' 'homestand' has Puerto Rico abuzz
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Sprinting boys stir up dust with their cleats as they round the bases and jubilantly head for home.
Playing passionately is the rule in Puerto Rico, where baseball has long been the top sport. But with the island hosting the first of three regular-season homestands for the Montreal Expos starting Friday, there is new excitement in the neighborhood parks that have produced many top players.
"It makes us part of baseball,'' said Ricky Marin, a 16-year-old outfielder. "It makes us want to play better.''
Montreal plays the New York Mets on Friday in the first of 22 games the Expos will play on the Caribbean island this season. The Expos were purchased a year ago by the other 29 teams. The team has drawn poorly in recent years at Olympic Stadium, and the commissioner's office moved more than a quarter of the club's games this season to San Juan in an effort to raise attendance and revenue.
The U.S. territory has long been a source of top players, and this season there were 38 Puerto Rican-born players on major league opening-day rosters and disabled lists.
"This is a gift to our fans, to our people, to our island,'' said Edwin Correa, a former big league pitcher who heads the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School near San Juan. "Everybody is looking forward to these games.''
Three of the academy's 105 prospects have been selected to serve as bat boys during the games.
Oscar Marrero, a 16-year-old catcher who will be a bat boy in September, has baseball cards and balls ready to be signed and is looking forward to meeting Rodriguez, the Marlins catcher.
"He's Puerto Rican and he's always been one of my favorites,'' Marrero said.
Amarilys Quintana, an office worker, is deciding which game to buy tickets for. Her 8-year-old son Luis Angel "wants to see the players from close up,'' instead of on television.
At the Las Lomas Park in San Juan, many teenage players said they plan to attend the games. For some, it will be the first time they will see a big league game in person.
"It's really an honor,'' said 15-year-old slugger Julio Alamo.
At San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, site of the games, workers have been grooming the infield and patching rubber near the outfield wall.
Up until the mid-1990s, many Puerto Rican stars returned to play winter league ball. However, concerns about injuries have limited that practice.
In 2001, the Texas Rangers played their season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays in Puerto Rico. This year, after their series against the Mets, the Expos will host the Braves, Reds, Angels, Rangers, Marlins and Cubs.
Some consider the games as a chance to gauge the possibility of Puerto Rico getting its own team as major league baseball seeks new markets in Latin America.
Others see the games as a way to raised spirits and motivate young players.
"They're going to see the best in the world,'' said Carlos Berroa, a high school coach and scout for the Marlins. "It has to serve as a motivating factor.''