Ponce de Leon named this island well, sailing into San Juan harbor in 1508 - "Que puerto rico." Literally, What a delightful port.
For baseball players, too, it is the most delightful of winter harbors. This city and its three local teams - Caguas, Bayamon and Santurce - are the Ritz of winter baseball.
For major leaguers like Ken Griffey, Dan Driessen, Manny Sanguillen, Sixto Lezcano, Ed Figueroa, Jose Cruz, Mike Cuellar, Juan Beniquez, Felix Millan, Willie Montanez and many oters, olaying "beisbol" in San juan is the epitome of a working vacation.
There are many other professional winter teams - nine in Mexico, eight in Venezuela, four in the Dominican Republic and three others on this island in Ponce, Mayaguez and Arecibo.
But San Juan, the players vow, is second only to playing baseball in paradise,
Mesico has awful bus rides. The Dominican Republic is hardly cosmopolitan. Venezuela has a bit of both drawbacks, plus a reputation for violence.
But, here the big leaguers find the sun bursting through their high-rise apartment windows along Condado Beach and Look out to see the pure green Altantic crashing on the barrier reef a mile out to sea. Tropical birds fly past their 20th-story balconies.
A mile of luxury hotels stretches from the ancient ruins of Castillo del Morro to the coral reef of Isla Verde Now, in the depths of Puer to Rico's winter, the temperature is 85 degrees every day, 70 degrees every night.
Here the manager of league champion Caguas, Doc Edwards, wears a silk black-jack dealer's shirt to the ball park. "Que passa (What's happening), dude," says the hip blond skipper. "Ain't no place else to play this game."
Winter ball in Puerto Rico has many faces, many moods.
It is as exotic as the Ponce manager bringing a teen-age religious mystic from New York to sit on his team's bench during the playoffs. Just for luck.
It is as volatile as the Santurce ground crew charging, en masse, into the box of seats to pummel and swat fans who had heckled them for removing the tarpaulin too slowly.
It is as fannatical as the Santurce and the Caguas fans ("fanaticos") dividing the stadium in half, so that on every play one side of the stands rises and roars gesturing to the other half of the crowd, which sits mute.
But for the players it is above all a chance to make $1,500 to $2,500 a month, escape the chill factor of the state side world, and work on their games.
Why aren't more Pete Roses and Catfish Hunters here? Because rules forbid it. Without restrictions, the Condado strip casinos would be so full of ballplayers in white James Bond dinner jackets that no one would be able to move.
A limit of eight "imports" from the mainland is placed on each team. The fans here would not stand for a "gringo" team. As it is, they yell, "Yankee, go home," at Edwards when he pulls a Puerto Rican pitchers.
"I can't understand it," says manager Edwards. "I'm with the Cubs, not the Yankees."
Those eight imports must fall into three categories: 1) minor leaguers with enough promise to be recommended by their clubs, 2) young major leaguers ith no more than three full years experience, 3) marginal or injured big leaguers ith less than 186 at bats or 60 innings pitched.
Any Puerto Rican, major leaguer or not, Can play.
"This is a tremendous proving ground for the top minor league prospects, a chance to gain experience at a level somewhere above AAA but below the majors," says Santurce manager Jack McKeon, who will direct the Oakland A's next season. "For a young major league player the conditions are ideal here to learn to field a new postion or work on an off-speed pitch or learn to steal a base," said McKeon. "It's no pressure cooler. "Here you have room and time."
And much, much more. For John Wockenfuss, a journeyman catcher for the Detroit Tigers, winter ball means a coral reef off secluded Isla Verde Beach where he can skindive all day with his spear gun among the tropical fish.
"The grouper are this big. I just shot a 30-pounder," Wockenfuss said while holding his arms far apart, grinning through his bushy off-scason beard. "Sometimes the fish are so huge you think a shark has gotten through the barrier reef."
For Lezcano, the brilliant young Milwaukee outfielder, this 60-game season from late October to early February is a chance to some home to the fern and orchid filled rain forests of the mountainous, undeveloped interior where be grew up.
"I walk and walk into the mountains and breathe the air. It's like when you were 10 or 12" said the 23-year-old who last week officially joined his idol, Roberto Clemente, as a winter ball batting champion - 361.
As for so many other big leaguers, Puerto Rico means a partial escape from Lezano's fish-bowl life in the United States.
"I hitchhike from town to town to the games," Lezano says. "Nobody knows who you are. You feel like another human being. You see, "Tato" Lezcano is nobody."
But for others - like Orlando isales, 18, and Ruben Gomez, 50, - winterball is a chance to be a somebody, either for the first time or the last time.
At Hiram Bithorn stadium here, the children from the housing projects sit on the fence beyond center field to watch their former playmate - the teen-age Isales - hit home runs and drop fly balls for Santurce.
Isales sneak into this pretty 18,000 seat stadium that looks, from a distance, likea marble Chavez Ravine, many times since it opened in 1961. He had come, of course, to see Clemente.
Now, he plays Clemente's old position - right field for Santurce. It sounds like a fantasy until manager mckeon breaks the spell by saying, "I've tried to hide Isales' glove everywhere, but they always find it. He does the least damage in right field."
If winter ball is primarily a proving ground for the likes of Isales, and a place for lezcano to polish his skills, it is also a preserve for aged Latin baseball legends.
Gomez - he is called "El Divino Loco," the crazy God - has found the Fountain of Youth here.
The ex-Giant pitcher of Polo Grounds days is now in his 29th season hurling for Bayamon, the team located just down the road from the Hacienda of Ponce de Leon.
Gomez may be the spirit of baseball in Puerto Rico. He gets up at sunrise every day - he is too full of life, he says, to sleep much and thus he keeps his weight down - and goes to the pier to fish.
In the morning he plays golf; in the afternoon he builds cars from the frame up, selling some, renting others, but always keeping the fastest for himself. Toward sundown he heads for the ball park, negotiating the deserted beachside highway at 120 miles per hour.
"I have never cared about my safety," says Gomez proudly, perhaps forgetting that day 20 years ago when the sight of Joe Adcock approaching the mound with an upraised bat induced him to flee through the center field gate of the polo Grounds.
If the police stop him, Gomez simply blurts, "I am hurrying to may wife."
Only once did a policia dare to tell the island's venerable celebrity, "Senor Gomez, all Puerto Rico knows that your wife died seven years ago."
"In that case," said Gomez, switching to his change-up, "I'm giing to the cemetery."
These days, the old junkballer only pitches once through the batting order. That is his only concession to a half-century. Nevertherless, when one considers the batting orders he faces, it is amazing.
Caguas, led by Lezcano and Cruz, batted a record 307 as a team this season. The lineup includes major league regulars Millan, Jerry Morales (Cubs), Kurt Bevacqua, Montancz, and a starting rotation of Figueroa, Cuellar, Ed Rodriquez (Montreal), and Baltimore AAA phenom, Dennis martinez. On the bench is Jose Morales, who set a major league record for pinch hits last season in Montreal.
This week Caguals and Bayamon reached the Puerto Rican championship, beating Santurce and Ponce. Next week they meet to see who will go to the four-team Caribbean World Series in Caracas with its 40,000 -seat stadium.
That will be some clambake. "Fans down here go to war over their ball clubs," said veteran catcher Elrod hendricks who has played winter ball for 17 years. "They take defeat much harder than the players."
As revered Bayamon picher Gomez discovered years ago the night he returned to his beloved, handbuilt Eldorado in the Mayaguez parking lot and found all its windows smashed. Gomez opened his trunk, took out an old bat, and retaliated against every windshield in the lot. Rather than be arrested, he was given a police escort as far as Arecibo (half way around the island) at which point the pursuing Mayaguez fans finally turned back.
Ironically, Puerto Rico's charms include a reputation as the least-dangerous of all the winter leagues.
"Usually, your experiences here are memorable, rather than fatals" says veteran major leaguer Rorick harrison, now of St. Louis. "You don't play here for money. it's a break-even deal at best, even if you stay away from the roulette wheel. You play for the experience.
But in winter ball, experience is a word that needs a broad definltion. In most players' cases, the memory does not dwell the longest on a game won or lost, but on something that happened along the way - something exotic, perhaps like Julian Gotay.
"Frank Robinson was the Santurce menager and Gotay was playing second," says Harrison.
"Montanaz and Millan got together for us (Caguas) and made a cross out of tow tongue depressors and a shoelace. They left it out at second base. Well, when Gotay saw it, he wouldn't go near his position. He stood on second base and wouldn't move, yelling 'Don't touch."
"Robinson went out and cussed him for being a backward, superstitious fool. And Hendricks picked up the cross and stuffed it in his hip pocket.
"On the next pitch, the hitter whipped the bat back on a checked swing and hit Hendricks (the catcher) in the head and knocked him out cold. Both teams gathered around Ellie, except Gotay. He's back standing on second base shouting "I told you. I told you. No touch. Evil.'"