SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Carmen Yulin Cruz has attended only a handful of Major League Baseball games in her life, and she won’t be adding to that total this week.
Soon, she hopes, that will change.
Cruz, San Juan’s mayor, isn’t attending the two-game series in her city between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins - because she’s receiving an award on Wednesday from the National Press Club in recognition of her work trying to get help to the island after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last year.
Her hopes for these games are simple: Cruz wants it known that San Juan “is open for business,” and she wants to see big league games in her city again soon.
“I think it’s important that we are thankful for those who didn’t neglect us and understand that this is a very long road to recovery,” Cruz said in a telephone interview. “Continued help is necessary. That’s number one. Number two, there is something to be said that assuring that sports and cultural events are seen as a tool for financial and social development. It shows we’re capable of putting together world-class level of activity and our facilities are up to it.”
Cruz pleaded loudly for help in the days after Maria hit Puerto Rico with 155 mph winds, causing more than an estimated $100 billion in damage, making it the third-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. The official death toll from the storm in Puerto Rico is 65; hundreds more may be added to that tally once a government review is completed.
The mayor was a regular guest on newscasts around the world after the storm, criticizing the response of the U.S. government in comments that raised the ire of President Donald Trump. She has detractors in San Juan, too; when she appeared at a charity event at Hiram Bithorn earlier this year, some in the crowd booed.
But media coverage helped her make points then, and she believes attention directed at San Juan again now - this series is the first time MLB has played here since 2010 - will reiterate the need for more help.
“News organizations will say ‘Live from San Juan, Puerto Rico,’” Cruz said. “It’s good for the municipality. It’s good for the country. It’s a sense of pride.”
There was some doubt that these games would be played in San Juan, which lost a two-game series in 2016 between Pittsburgh and Miami because of fears about the Zika virus.
Unlike Zika, however, Maria remains an enormous problem all across Puerto Rico.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium was hit hard by the storm and nearly $2 million in repairs were needed, most of which was covered by insurance. Light fixtures were broken and wound up being upgraded. Clubhouses and dugouts were repaired and batting cages were rebuilt. The turf was damaged, signs were destroyed, a statue of Bithorn - Puerto Rico’s first big leaguer - was knocked down and broken, and power lines looked like spaghetti.
Cruz said she never lost faith. Weekly meetings were held to keep people updated on plans and progress.
“I was very, very clear on this,” Cruz said. “Once we committed to these games, they were going to happen.”
MLB players from Puerto Rico have made no secret about how thrilled they are to see San Juan host these games. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora tweeted that he is thankful the Twins, the Indians and MLB officials believed in the Puerto Rico series, and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina said it’s another positive step for the place he calls home.
“We’ve had some tremendous players, us and the Indians, who have come from that island,” Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. “And it’s going to be a great opportunity for them to see a few of their homegrown.”
Cruz said she’ll be watching the games closely and has no doubt that San Juan will leave the right impression.
“Sports unites people,” Cruz said. “For two days, we’re all one. We leave our sorrows and we focus on assuring that we show how proud we are for everything our country has accomplished, for how hard our people are working and how proud we are to be represented by our players.”
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