Thursday, December 16, 2004

HATO REY, Puerto Rico — At Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a gate festooned with sample press badges is one of the few reminders of the Montreal Expos’ 44-game island stay for parts of the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Just five months since the last of the Expos’ “home” games here, the ballpark stands as a poignant symbol of baseball’s decline in the homeland of Roberto Clemente.

On a Wednesday night in mid-December, the home team Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) are playing the rival Carolina Gigantes (Giants) before a crowd announced as 1,000 but actually much smaller.

When the Expos migrated from Montreal to Washington in late September, they left behind a legacy of losing seasons and dwindling fan interest in a region that never really embraced major league baseball. Their departure from San Juan, however, has a much different flavor.

Puerto Rico has long been known as a baseball-mad country with an enduring legacy that runs from Orlando Cepeda and Clemente — an icon on the island — through Roberto Alomar and Bernie Williams and on to Carlos Beltran and Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro. That legacy, however, has languished in recent years, with other sports growing in popularity and the overall level of baseball declining.

Bringing the Expos to San Juan seemed the perfect remedy for that lagging interest, as well as an opportunity for Major League Baseball to showcase its Latin fan base. But rather than resuscitating the sport there, the Expos left a baseball vacuum in their wake.

“It has had a devastating effect,” Puerto Rican Winter League president Joaquin Monserrate said of the Expos’ two-year stay. “Major League Baseball deflated this market without any kind of warning or cooperation with the Winter League.”

Bithorn Stadium, just 10 minutes south of San Juan, has struggled to draw even nominal attendance despite a renovated stadium and the presence of Crabbers infielders Alomar and Carlos Baerga (who doubles as team president). A recent injury to Alomar has helped curtail interest, but ardent fans say the team’s problems — as well as the league’s and, by extension, Puerto Rico’s — run much deeper.

• • •

Monserrate’s chief complaint is marketing. He said the sponsorship that used to pour into the Winter League, determining ticket prices and attracting fans to the games, largely has dried up.

While he is hopeful of a brighter future, Monserrate conceded the current economic climate is not good. As evidence, the league trimmed two weeks from this year’s season because of financial concerns, and in Carolina three of the eight billboards above picturesque Roberto Clemente Municipal Stadium remain empty.

“Without sponsors you don’t have the proper advertisements,” Monserrate said. “And after watching major league baseball in the city, it’s hard for people to go back to watching us.”

Edwin Rodriguez, however, places the blame at the feet of Winter League officials. Rodriguez, a former Carolina general manager, runs, the league’s unofficial Web site. He said the problem is not with the Expos’ departure but with a league that operates only five months a year and has not done enough to showcase players.

“Saying the Expos are the reason for the poor attendance — that’s not true,” Rodriguez said. “People who say that are looking for an excuse.”

For years, any notion baseball could lose its foothold on the island was unthinkable. Puerto Rico dominated the Caribbean World Series — played among the top teams from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic — in the 1950s, won four titles in the 1970s and took three of four from 1992 through 1995. The World Series was not played in the 1960s.

That background led many to believe that, although the Winter League had been in decline since the mid-1990s, Puerto Ricans would rally behind the Expos and draw baseball back into the national consciousness.

It hasn’t happened.

• • •

The reasons for baseball’s decline in Puerto Rico are many. Buoyed by the national team’s upset of the United States in the Summer Olympics, basketball has boomed on the island and draws nearly as much attention as baseball. Volleyball, horse racing and even professional wrestling also are making inroads and diluting a market baseball once claimed as its own.

“Basketball is so big over here that nowadays it is knocking us down,” said Luis Rosa, who runs the Raiders, one of the nation’s premier baseball academies. “Basketball has a stranglehold on kids, and a lot of kids don’t want to sweat out baseball unless their parents make them.”

Eric Edwards, sports editor of the San Juan Star, also pointed to a disconnect between the generations. He said baseball has lost much of the 30-and-under set to other activities, including movies, video games and cable television imported from the United States.

“There’s so much more to do here than there was 20 or 30 years ago, when baseball was big,” Edwards said.

Cable TV certainly contributed to the Expos’ undoing.

Twenty-five years ago, a professional baseball team in San Juan would have provided a rare treat, but now fans can watch the Atlanta Braves on TBS, the Chicago Cubs on WGN and the New York Mets or Yankees on any number of New York stations beamed to the island.

Against those odds, the Expos played to mostly sellout crowds in their first season here. But attendance dipped from roughly 18,000 in the first year to 11,000 in the second as the novelty wore off, ticket prices became too much for most families and the Expos made moves unpopular with San Juan’s Latino base. Javier Vazquez, who makes his offseason residence in the southern town of Ponce, was traded to the Yankees, and Dominican star Vladimir Guerrero departed via free agency.

Moreover, it became increasingly clear in 2004 that the Expos were a rental property rather than a permanent option. Meanwhile, the team lost, repeatedly and often badly.

“The money spent on Bithorn, I’m sure, was a worthwhile investment as far as tourism goes,” Edwards said of the $14million renovation. “But it has done little to generate fan interest. It should have, but it really hasn’t, especially in San Juan.”

• • •

So where does that leave baseball in Puerto Rico? Edwards and Rodriguez believe someone will take a shot at depositing a professional team here in the future.

“We can have a major league team in Puerto Rico,” Rodriguez said. “It is just a matter of putting everything together and getting all the owners and politicians on the same page. I believe we will have a big league team in 10 or 15 years.”

Rodriguez’s vision appears unlikely after the mixed success of the Expos’ experiment.

“To have a major league team, you have to spend a lot of money, and this is a small island,” Baerga said before Santurce’s game against Carolina. “I don’t think we’re prepared for that. It takes a major league city to have a major league team.”

Pausing to scan the empty stands at Bithorn Stadium, he added, “I think it’s going to be hard. The fans would love it, but they can’t afford to pay that kind of money to come to a game every day.”

In the end, not even the Expos could halt the decline of a sport that once was king here. Monserrate and Baerga have said they plan to refocus their efforts, hoping to entice fans with family-friendly Winter League activities modeled on the minor leagues in the United States. Already, Baerga has brought various types of live music to Bithorn and manufactured a mascot in Jodi, an oversized stuffed animal in the mold of the Phillie Fanatic.

He hopes the combination of song, dance and baseball can repopulate the stands the Expos jammed to capacity, albeit briefly, just 17 months ago — the ones Puerto Rico hopes it can fill again one day.

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