Red Sox manager Alex Cora laments post-Maria stadium demolition in Puerto Rico: 'I grew up there'

Read the original Spanish-language version of this story here.

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- When José Manuel Cora covered the Caguas Criollos ballclub as a newspaper correspondent, his youngest son had free rein of Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium. He played in its press box, ate dinner there, even caught glimpses of a few games before tiring out.

That youngest son was Alex Cora, who before becoming manager of the Boston Red Sox was a franchise player for the club, and later its general manager after retiring as a major leaguer. All of his successes as a ballplayer in Puerto Rico are linked to Solá Morales.

"The press box was my crib, my playpen," Cora said. "Sometimes I watched the games, sometimes I fell asleep on the floor. I spent a lot of time on those stairs [leading to the press box]. No place was off limits to me, not the press box, the radio booth nor the owners' box. I could do whatever I wanted to up there."

Solá Morales, home for nearly seven decades to the Criollos -- one of Puerto Rico's most storied winter league franchise that rostered more than a dozen MLB Hall of Famers -- was among the island's most damaged sports facilities in the wake of devastating Hurricane Maria, to the point where government officials deemed the stadium unusable. The venue turns 70 on Nov. 7. But celebrations and baseball games will instead give way to padlocks and rubble, as dozens of trucks employed by a company have been taking over the site and working to re-establish power lines to affected areas.

Caguas mayor William Miranda Torres announced a few weeks ago that because of the high cost of repairs, the damaged stadium will instead be demolished to make room for housing and commercial developments. A new, smaller stadium will be built on the city's east side to house the Criollos.

Cora has more than just fond childhood memories of the ballpark. He developed into a ballplayer there, and later honed his executive skills in its front office as one of the most successful general managers in recent Puerto Rican baseball memory. So even if he understands the decision to raze the stadium, the news proved difficult to swallow.

"I have mixed feelings about it," Cora told ESPN. "I had hoped for a renovation, but I think that the cost was too much and it was the right decision. I imagine the mayor's project is a good one, and you have to make the most of that land."

Not a priority

Exactly one year ago today, Puerto Rico endured the worst natural disaster in its history as Maria pummeled its shores and caused severe damage throughout the island as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 mph . Communications lines were down for weeks, leaving Puerto Rico without power and potable water for months, in some places up to 11 months. A recent study conducted by George Washington University estimated that Maria was responsible for 2,975 excess deaths in its aftermath.

With Puerto Rico already in the midst of a financial crisis compounded by Maria, repairing or reconstructing a stadium -- as beloved as it may be -- just wasn't a priority.

The Criollos played a shortened winter leage season in neighboring Gurabo's cozy, modern stadium, one with major league amenities but a capacity for only 1,500. Solá Morales holds 11,000 fans.

On the field, the Criollos won the winter league title and repeated as Caribbean World Series champions where they played champions from Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba. However, the business side of things is a different story, a predicament that's sure to linger for the next few seasons.

Miranda Torres acknowledged the stadium's historical value and the memories it provided to so many fans. Still, from a fiscal viewpoint, a renovation wasn't feasible.

"Reconstructing it to Major League Baseball's specifications would cost us $15 million, because it's a stadium that's 70 years old with an aging infrastructure," he said. "Since I became mayor in 2011, for the Criollos to play there would have required an investment of nearly $500,000 every year. That's a significant cost, so when the situation is considered, I have to decide whether to use $7 million for a new stadium with a capacity of 7,000 fans, or seek $15 million that's needed elsewhere but only fixes Solá Morales. So the time came for a new stadium."

The future home of the Criollos, which would open in 2020 under ideal circumstances, will comprise part of a new sports complex. The main ballpark was already slated to eventually become the Criollos' stadium. That timeline has been moved up, the mayor said. The original plans included a 1,000-seat ballpark that would have opened last November, but the hurricane put that on hold.

'Like Fenway or Wrigley'

Historian Jorge Colón Delgado said 14 Hall of Famers have worn the colors of the Criollos, a group that includes Hank Aaron, Eddie Murray, Mike Schmidt, a young Sandy Koufax and native sons Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar and Ivan Rodriguez.

Alomar made his professional debut during the winter leagues in 1985.

"It makes me sad," said Alomar, a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee, of Solá Morales' fate. "That's where they gave me my first opportunity as a professional ballplayer. It was among the best stadiums to play in, with the best fans.

"So many memories. Lots of Hall of Famers played on that field. We're taking away part of the experience of growing up a Puerto Rican ballplayer.

Discussing Solá Morales with Cora is like making a film about his life. His father was for many years a pregame analyst on Criollos radio broadcasts as well as a correspondent for several of the island's dailies. For young Alex, the stadium was an extension of his home.

"I still remember the face Dad made when in the 1987 Series final the official scorer gave Joey [Alex's brother, then with Ponce] an error on an at-bat rather than a hit."

Cora, a top contender for AL Manager of the Year honors in his first season on the job, would stay on with the Criollos in a professional capacity for nearly two decades. He was the club's franchise player from 1996-2012. Between his retirement as a player and his current position with the Red Sox, he was the Criollos' general manager. In two seasons, he served as both an executive and the team's manager. His legacy with the Criollos includes two championships as a player and two as GM.

"Since Joey always played with the Leones de Ponce [from 1985-95], y fell in love with them and wanted to play for the Leones. But the opportunity presented itself to play at home, and it was incredible to be able to do all those things, player, general manager, being the only manager to not reach a final in the last nine seasons," he said, laughing.

To Cora, Solá Morales has a special mystique matched only by some of the majors' legendary venues.

"It was like Fenway Park or Wrigley," he said. "In Caguas, everybody saw the tower of lights [during night games] and knew where the stadium was. Even with its shortcomings there wasn't a bad seat, the fans enjoyed it. We knew that if the ballpark was full the polluted water was going to come out of the clubhouse, that the lights could go at any minute, like they did in the last game of the series final in 1987, and the first one in 2001.

"Even with its defects, it was the best place to us."