"We welcomed this arrangement because frankly, we needed the revenue," says team president Tony Tavares. "If we didn't have it, we wouldn't have been able to hold on to one of our star players, and that would have been disastrous." Although the Mets series drew well—65,657 for the four games, just 8,343 short of capacity—there are doubts about the drawing power of teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds, who followed the Mets into Puerto Rico this week and had presold just 8,000 and 7,000 tickets per game, respectively. Club officials have suggested that a benchmark for success for the 22 games would be drawing 90% of capacity, but that target will be difficult to reach, especially given that ticket prices range from $10 to $85; many local fans say the upper range is excessive.
MLB is monitoring attendance and corporate sponsorship in Puerto Rico ( Radio Shack is one such sponsor) while it also weighs the proposals from the three relocation candidates: northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Portland (a decision is expected by the All-Star break). Though San Juan's hopes of landing the team full-time are seen as a pipe dream—in addition to needing a new stadium, the city doesn't appear able to support a club for 81 games (its per capita income is less than one third the U.S. average)—the Expos could return next season if they aren't relocated by then or are moved to a city where a stadium isn't immediately available. Said Alberto Lopez, a mortgage banker, at Friday night's game, "As long as there are Puerto Ricans playing baseball, we will support baseball."
There is concern, however, that fewer Puerto Ricans are playing baseball these days. The sport hasn't been played in high schools since 1973, and the island has produced less and less talent since the major leagues decided in 1989 to make Puerto Rican players subject to the amateur draft. "The development of youth baseball in Puerto Rico has stopped, has gone backward, ever since the draft," said former major leaguer Tony Bernazard, now a special assistant to the players' union. That move came on the heels of large signing bonuses given to Puerto Rican teenagers like Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez. Big league scouts increasingly turned their attention to players in the Dominican Republic, who were not covered by the draft and could be signed more cheaply and at a younger age; this helped make the Dominican Republic the primary source of foreign-born Hispanic talent in the major leagues. Even interest in the Puerto Rican winter league has slumped; a decadelong attendance decline continued last year, when some games drew only a few hundred fans.
That seemed unimaginable on Friday night, two thirds of the way through an April blowout between two teams that are long shots to contend for the postseason, when Hiram Bithorn remained full, chants persisting as exuberantly as during the first inning, Vi-dro! morphing into Ol�! As pushcart vendors manned the stadium concourses, ringing bicycle bells and selling E-lados ice cream in paper cups, and concessionaires poured shots of Cutty Sark and blended pina coladas, there was a palpable sense of spirit.
It was the same the next morning at Francisco Polanco Field in the San Juan neighborhood of San Patricio, on a spacious diamond with a dirt infield where Deya beat the Titanes 9-2 for the championship of the 11-12-year-old division of the Summit Hills-Altamira Peque�as Ligas. Fathers and grandfathers hollered instructions (largely ignored) from the shaded cement bleachers, while their children and grandchildren joyously mobbed Jorge Rosali after an inside-the-park home run. "Baseball starts in the neighborhoods," said Evelyn Batista, mother of 12-year-old Jorge Batista, Deya's catcher. "Children play together, on the same teams with the same teammates, throughout. Baseball here is a community."
Imagine being part of that community this season, watching the Expos play in their island home. It's the seventh-inning stretch, the loudspeakers are pumping a conga rhythm into 18,000 sets of eardrums through the muggy Caribbean night, and though the words sound unfamiliar, you know what they mean all the same. So you stand up and sing along: Y ah� va un, dos, tres strikes panchao en el viejo juego!