Major League Baseball, Puerto Rican Style
By Dan Jung
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; 12:27 PM
The Montreal Expos are playing the New York Mets on a warm, breezy, summer-like night – in April. Unlike the rest of the league where rain, and even snow, still mar early season play, the weather at game time at Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium is a humid 70-degrees. I am sitting in an excellent seat a dozen rows behind home plate, watching major league play in a unique tropical setting. Yet by the third inning, I am inexcusably bored.
My fiancé Delaney and I planned our trip to the Caribbean island so that we could catch the Expos start their season in San Juan. It was also a chance to scout D.C.'s next baseball team, and hopefully, to see my favorite sport injected with some Latin flavor.
But this game is actually too, well, American. The Star Spangled Banner is followed by a rendition of Oh Canada, and a Spanish ode to Puerto Rico, but other than that, the experience seems much the same as any other game I’ve been to. After spending a week on the island eating alcapurrias, various meats stuffed in fried plantain fritters, we are hoping to find some local fare, but instead all we have is KFC, Taco Bell, or Pizza Hut. And the ballpark bears too much resemblance to Shea Stadium and the concrete monstrosities popular in U.S. in the 1960s.
But after a while something changes. I remember what novelist Michael Chabon wrote about the sport: "A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day." So I start taking stock of all the little details. During our walk around the ballpark’s concourse, which takes about five minutes since the stadium only holds about 19,000, I notice the differences in cultures embodied beautifully in the selection of alcohol.
While they only sell one beer, Heineken at $3 a pop, they do offer vodka, Johnny Walker Black, and no less than three different types of rum. They also sell pina coladas, and even though I can’t tell whether they are truly alcoholic, they are amazingly delicious. In fact, pina coladas are so popular that vendors run around the stadium yelling "PEEN-Yeah! PEEN-Yeah!" interspersed of course with shouts of "Agua Fria" (cold water), and "SIR-vay-SAS, SIR-vay-SAS," in this case, cold Heineken.
As Delaney and I down our first PEEN-Yeah, I start to notice some of the other quirks of Major League Baseball in San Juan. Despite the stadium’s grim facade, it holds certain unique charms as well. Sporting no upper deck, Hiram Bithorn has a roof made of concrete slabs shaped in a zig-zag pattern that looks like corrugated cardboard. Perched atop the slabs are the stadium's lights, hanging over the roof like a man dangerously peering over a cliff's edge.
The people in the ballpark are mostly Puerto Rican, but there are a certain number of tourists, including the obligatorily obnoxious drunk in our section who had to be asked several times to sit down and not wave his towel around his head. His friend next to him is wearing a Yankees cap and I hear the drunk shout, "I'm from New Yawk."
We try to strike up conversations a few times with some of the locals around us, but Delaney’s high school Spanish gets us only so far. We find out the two teenagers to our right like the Expos. The old man by himself to our left likes the Expos. The family in front of us likes the Expos. We give up and go back to eating the Maraschino cherries atop our PEEN-Yeahs.
It is the middle of the seventh inning, the score is still tied 0-0, and the children in the stands are getting restless. I stand up for my obligatory stretch, but am surprised when I hear salsa music. I listen a little longer and it appears that in Puerto Rico, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is cut with a strong base of salsa drums. I love it and order another PEEN-Yeah.
The Mets start the eighth with a double that brings some excitement to the game, as the "hometown" Expos try to protect a one-run lead. What followed was the best showing of a stadium wave I have ever seen.
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
Jerry Rivera, 12, eats cotton candy during the seventh inning of a game between the New York Mets and the Montreal Expos at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(Dan Jung - washingtonpost.com)