- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 20, 2018

JUNCOS, Puerto Rico (AP) - Shortly after becoming the first person from this hillside industrial town 40 minutes from San Juan to reach the major leagues, Rangers reliever Alex Claudio searched online for a tattoo design to display his Puerto Rican pride.

The Dallas Morning News reports he happened upon a version of the Puerto Rican flag that vaguely resembles the island’s shape. The edges are serrated and a jagged tear cuts through the heart of the flag.

He could not have known how prescient the design would be.

Nearly six months ago Hurricane Maria came ashore on the island’s eastern edge. It tore through the island’s interior with winds of 155 mph. It dumped nearly 40 inches of rain. This town of 40,000 was among the hardest hit.

The recovery throughout the island is ongoing. Sixty-four people died as a direct result of the hurricane, according to the U.S. government. About 1,000 more perished in the aftermath when the power grid was knocked out of commission, water wasn’t available and emergency services were brought to a standstill, according to The New York Times.

In Claudio’s circle, his mother was stunned into shock by the storm and its aftermath, one of his closest friends lost a home and everybody was affected in some way.

“Nobody was prepared,” Claudio says now after spending the last three months on the island and watching a new normal emerge. “You talk to 20 different people and each of them say the same thing about how they were affected. It was awful. Nobody took it seriously.”

Baseball has played some small part in the island’s ongoing recovery, serving as a distraction, if nothing else. Before the storm, baseball was enjoying a bit of renewal on the island. Claudio and the Puerto Rican team advanced to the World Baseball Classic. After the storm, Carlos Correa, of Ponce, helped lead the Houston Astros to their first-ever world championship.

And in December, after on-again, off-again plans, owners found a way to cobble together some truncated version of the Puerto Rican season. Claudio, of course, pitched.

“The baseball is just a good example for the people,” he says. “It’s a distraction, but it gave them some relief. It’s not important, but, in a way, it is.”

Everybody in Puerto Rico has a story about the hurricane and life afterward, even those who weren’t on the island when the storm hit. Here is Alex Claudio’s:

She would not - could not - leave the house.

When somebody was finally able to get a cell signal, this is what Claudio learned of his mother, Edith Hernandez.

Physically, everybody in Claudio’s circle had survived without significant injury. But the impact ran deeper than injuries.

Most of their homes in the hillside Lirios neighborhood - his, his father’s, his in-laws’ and his mother’s - had sustained minimal damage, minimal being a relative term. That is, they were still standing and inhabitable. Like everybody else, they had no water or no power. His mother no longer had a small garden and the tool shed had been washed completely off its foundation. At least she had a roof and dry floors.

Everything else, though, had changed. Literally. Her neighbors walked out of their houses to see homes they never knew existed because the trees between them had been washed away. The mayor said he discovered a river running through town that had never been charted because it had been so overgrown with greenery that, too, had been washed away.

For more than a week, Edith Hernandez, born and raised in Juncos, couldn’t face this changed landscape. She didn’t leave the house. Nor did she speak to her son because the cellphone service was only reachable by driving to overpasses along the highway to San Juan. Messages were passed to him by those who checked in on her.

“It wasn’t just shock, I was also paralyzed by desperation,” Edith Hernandez says now through an interpreter, her son leaning over a chair next to her in the small, immaculate dining room, a pan of pork chops simmering in the kitchen. “That storm was a ferocious animal. When the wind started, it never stopped.

“When I went outside, it looked like a bomb had gone off,” she said. “I couldn’t get to my father, who needs dialysis. Pieces of roofs from higher up on the hill were scattered all around us. Everything we were growing was gone. The shed was gone. There were trees in the street.”

When the storm came in the middle of the night on Sept. 19 - about the time Claudio was pitching a scoreless inning at Seattle - Hernandez had already been without power for most of the last two weeks. Hurricane Irma, which skirted to the north of Puerto Rico, had left that as a calling card. She had lost power before, but she managed.

That was before that ferocious animal howled at her door.

Unable to speak to his mother for more than a week, Claudio managed to finish the season with four more scoreless outings and a pair of saves. Remarkable considering the emotional baggage. He said at the time: “You learn to compartmentalize things.”

Then came their first phone call.

“It was very emotional,” Hernandez says, her eyes dancing now as she looks over at her son. “I didn’t cry, but I think he was.”

“I tried to be strong, but, yes, yes, I was crying,” Claudio says. “She doesn’t want me to worry about her, but I was very worried.”

The scars, they call them.

They are the lingering reminders of the storm that changed the island. And four months later, they are still readily visible.

Oh, not so much down in old San Juan, where the cruise ships are once again docking. You can once again get a Pina Colada at Barrachina, one of two restaurants that claims to have originated the frozen concoction, as if nothing ever happened. An international health conference, originally scheduled for November, is now in full gear. But on the highways leading out of the city, the occasionally bent road signs start to pop up. As you head into the mountains, blue tarped roofs still stand out.

Here in Juncos, too many scars are still open wounds.

The first sight that greets those who veer off Highway 30 is a traffic light that still isn’t working. Beyond it, a brick façade welcomes visitors to Juncos, established in 1797. Somebody has added additional information, fastening a satellite receiver as a makeshift billboard with a hand-painted plea for power and help for a particularly hard-hit neighborhood.

Just up the hill, the corner of the corrugated roof of Estadio Nini Meaux, where Claudio played his high school games, is a mangled mess, as if a starving man attacked a can of tuna with a pocket knife. The home plate light tower has collapsed with the lights still resting in the parking lot. Behind the stadium, a water tank has come to rest on top of the wall where the town had painted a portrait of Claudio to celebrate its first-ever major leaguer.

In one neighborhood that backs up to El Yunque, 16 of 52 homes were completely washed away. El Yunque, a hiking haven, remains closed, until further notice, according to the U.S. Forest System.

“I used to have a beautiful town,” mayor Alfredo Alejandro “Papo” Carrion said in the days after the hurricane. “Now I have a desert.”

Juncos went without water for a month. Claudio’s mother didn’t get power until mid-November. She was lucky. The mayor’s power didn’t return until the 97th day after the storm. In late January, while power had been restored to about 75 percent of Puerto Rico, 40 percent of Juncos’ population, the mayor estimated, was still running on gas-powered generators or going without power at all.

It is why Claudio’s mother and his friends urged him not to return to the island immediately after the season. Though he wanted to help, there was nothing he could do. More people would just create more of an issue. And Claudio and his wife, Daianne, have two sons, ages 2 and 3. They would be better off to stay in Arlington, Texas.

“We had to be firm with him,” said his trainer and mentor Luis Cadiz. “We had to convince him. He was worried about his family. But we were OK; we were worried about his children. There was no water for them. It was no place for them. People here were thinking of leaving, not bringing more people down.”

Claudio acquiesced for two months. It was late November before he returned.

His first visions:

“We landed at night, and usually, when you land, you see the lights of San Juan and the island pop out from the sea,” he said. “But out of the window, we’d see a few lights here, a few there. Just small patches.

“The next morning, when I finally got to see, there was nothing green,” he continued. “There used to be so much green. Instead, everything was brown.”

The color of scars.

The stadium doubles as a Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery site.

During the day, claimants shuffle into the lobby of Isidoro Garcia Stadium on the island’s western edge in Mayaguez to check the progress of their applications for aid and assistance. Come the evening, though, Claudio’s Mayaguez team will face Santurce in the play-in game of the abbreviated Puerto Rican Liga Roberto Clemente season.

This is the new normal for Puerto Rico: The hurricane has touched everything, everywhere.

Mayaguez is technically the visiting team, but after much discussion, the game was moved from San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium here. League officials wanted to play it as a night game. Many of the lights at Bithorn are still out, and many of those that work are still twisted at bad angles. Garcia, which backs up to the Caribbean on the western side of the island three hours from San Juan, has working lights. The scoreboard, not so much.

And this is the new normal for Puerto Rican baseball: They play the game because they can; all else is details.

Take, for example, this entire season of this 79-year-old winter league that is home to many young prospects. At one point, it seemed unfathomable to think they’d play baseball this winter. The schedule was shortened. Then shortened again. And somehow here they are, after a four-team 18-game schedule, playing the playoffs.

“I wanted to play this year, but I didn’t think it was going to happen,” says Dereck Rodriguez, son of the Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez who’s going to camp with the San Francisco Giants. “The past couple of months here have been horrible for people. If we can give the people a couple of hours where they don’t have to think about those things, it’s important.

“Other years, playing here has been about getting ready,” Rodriguez adds. “But this year, it’s about something more.”

The winner of this game will face Caguas in the finals. The winner goes to the Caribbean World Series. Caguas won the 2017 Puerto Rican League, then won the Caribbean Series to kick off perhaps the greatest year in the history of Puerto Rican baseball.

In the month after the Caribbean Series, the Puerto Rican national team, with Claudio working out of the bullpen, reached the finals of the World Baseball Classic against Team USA. Four months later, Ivan Rodriguez became the fourth Puerto Rican native to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And throughout the year, young stars such as Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Eddie Rosario created a new wave of pride for the island.

Then the winds came and changed everything.

This is why simply playing the game means more.

“We’re giving them something other than horrible pain and suffering,” says the former major leaguer Jose Valentin, who manages Mayaguez. “We’re giving them something different from looking for gas. We just want to bring some joy.”

About 1,500 fans make it to the stadium for the hastily scheduled game, which is also being televised to those who have service across the island. They watch Mayaguez take a 1-0 lead in the fourth and give back a run in the fifth. The game is tied when Claudio, unscored upon in six appearances this winter, including the save the night before, is called on for the ninth.

The ninth begins with trouble: A soft single is misplayed by the left fielder. Then a sacrifice bunt to third is thrown away, putting runners on the corners. Claudio strikes out the next batter, and with the infield in, gets the second out at home on a soft grounder to second. Claudio is on the brink of doing what he did so often for the Rangers in 2017, cleaning up somebody else’s mess.

There things go awry again, a squibber up the middle requires a diving stop by the shortstop just to ensure no run scores. And, finally, another softly hit grounder just to Claudio’s right. He scrambles off the mound, but the ball kicks off his glove, he chases it down and throws to first, too late and the run scores. Mayaguez is eliminated.

Claudio flings his hat at the ground, hunches over his knees and stands a long minute.

And now for three hours back to Juncos.

It is 10 o’clock the next morning. Alex Claudio is back to work.

After a three-hour drive home - much of it was spent in “therapy,” with Cadiz, the trainer - he gets about six hours of sleep and then heads to a pool workout in San Juan. Cadiz has arranged for him to use the community pool at a gated subdivision in San Juan.

“He helped me clear my mind,” Claudio says of the drive home with Cadiz. “It was churning in my head. It was my first time to lose a game with so much on the line. These are the situations you live for. I felt it was something I should have done, and for it to come to such an abrupt end on something we practice every day in spring training, it’s like you were swimming, swimming, swimming and then you drown right before you reach land.”

Speaking of, right now Claudio is about to take a 53-pound kettlebell, sink to the bottom of the pool and see how long he can hold his breath. He will do this on three separate occasions over the workout, eventually working up to 56 seconds. But this is only the first pool workout of his prep camp. By the end, he should be able to hold it 90 seconds or more.

The purpose of this?

“I want him to control his breathing under pressure, to learn how to breathe in those situations and stay calm,” Cadiz says.

Cadiz, 45, has trained Claudio in the offseason since shortly after the Rangers drafted him in the 27th round in 2010. He is a bit of a cross between Mickey, Rocky Balboa’s trainer, and Mr. Miyagi, the philosophical sensei of Karate Kid movies. He once did work with the Puerto Rican boxer Miguel Cotto for a rematch against Mexico’s Antonio Margarito that resulted in avenging Cotto’s first career loss and helped him retain a WBA title belt.

Claudio was just a slight, underwhelming long-shot pitcher when he found out Cadiz lived in his neighborhood, showed up at his door and asked to be trained. Cadiz had no baseball experience, but plenty in boxing and in life. He had married early, moved from New York to Puerto Rico, worked as a construction worker and a prison physical therapist.

He sized up Claudio quickly and used his best boxing analogy to explain his philosophy.

“You are not a knockout puncher,” Cadiz told Claudio. “You have to place your punches. We are going to work on angles.”

Working with Cadiz diligently each offseason and Rangers strength and conditioning coach Jose Vasquez during the year, Claudio has “filled out” his 6-3 frame to a listed weight of 160 pounds. He has pushed his fastball up from 82-83 mph to an average of 86.7 mph last year. It is still unbelievably below league average, ranking 199th of 204 pitchers with at least 70 innings.

But Claudio has worked those angles with a funky delivery and a masterful changeup. He was never considered a prospect, but his willingness to throw strikes and that changeup kept him on the fringes. In 2014, when the Rangers were going through a plague of injuries, he got an unexpected call-up. Over the next three seasons, he bounced between the minors and majors seven times.

He stuck in the second half of 2016, then was a star on Puerto Rico’s entry, which finished as the runner-up to Team USA, in last year’s World Baseball Classic. He followed it up by pitching 82 innings over 70 games and picking up 11 saves as the Rangers’ closer after two others failed. He ended up the team’s Pitcher of the Year.

“I understand I have a purpose and there is a focus to everything I do,” Claudio said. “I realize it doesn’t come out of my hand very hard, but on the mound, I feel like I’m throwing 95-96.”

Despite the workload, he insisted on pitching in winter ball against the Rangers’ recommendations. He was headed to the Dominican Republic until the last-minute save of the Puerto Rican League. It gave him the opportunity to repeat his offseason program from a year ago and to work closely again with Cadiz.

The biggest difference: Usually, with Claudio hauling a kettlebell, they hike 2 miles to the top of El Yunque where Claudio boxes a round under the fatigue and then they hike back down. With El Yunque closed, that’s not possible.

Instead, the workouts continued and then on to spring training in Arizona.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

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