Expos 10, Mets 0
Cans of pina colada mix were stacked beneath the right field grandstand tonight as Major League Baseball arrived in Puerto Rico. Salsa thumped against the stadium overhang, three national anthems were sung and then the Expos took the faded AstroTurf field in their home whites -- thousands of miles from their actual home in Montreal.
And thus began baseball's latest experiment for the Expos, lost boys of their sport. Major League Baseball tried to fold the team in 2001, purchased it for $120 million last year and is now renting it out to San Juan for 22 games this season to raise money until deciding whether to move the club to Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, or Portland, Ore.
Montreal drubbed the New York Mets, 10-0, in its home opener at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but it didn't feel much like home. The final score glowed beneath the words Municipio de San Juan. The Expos won't actually play in Montreal until April 22, and it was clear that although baseball is counting these as home games, few here were buying into it -- not the players, and not even the fans.
The crowd of 17,906 -- about 1,000 shy of sellout -- chanted "Let's Go Mets" in English, then cheered equally hard when Montreal's Brad Wilkerson crushed a grand slam off Mets starter David Cone in a seven-run third. It booed when Expos star Vladimir Guerrero, a Dominican, was called out on strikes, cheered wildly when Mets second baseman Roberto Alomar, a Puerto Rican, made a spectacular play and cheered again for Expos starter Tomo Ohka, who gave up just one hit in eight innings.
"It certainly wasn't all a home crowd of the Montreal Expos; there were a lot of New Yorkers out there," said Expos Manager Frank Robinson, who once played and managed in the Puerto Rican winter league.
In the eighth, Montreal second baseman Jose Vidro, a native of Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, came to the plate. Vidro is a five-year veteran, an emerging star, but his mother, Daisy, had never seen him play in the major leagues.
"To tell you the truth, I was more nervous than in my first game in the big leagues," he said.
With his mother in the crowd, Vidro clubbed a two-run homer. "When I was coming around second base, I had tears in my eyes," he said. "I had thought about what it would be like, to hit a home run in front of my mother, in front of my family. For it to happen . . . it's hard to explain."
The Puerto Rican players regarded the game as a watershed. "I think this is a very important game, not just for baseball but for our island," Alomar said. But other Expos seemed to regard the series as the continuation of a 19-game road trip: "It's hard to call it a home game when you're staying in a hotel," said pitcher Tony Armas Jr. As compensation, Expos players received double meal money -- over $150 a day -- and the opportunity to bring their families, according to Steve Fehr of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was as unique as one would expect for a game played between a Canadian team and an American team in a U.S. commonwealth situated in Latin America. For more international flavor, Montreal's starter, Ohka, was from Kyoto, Japan. The Expos were snowed out Tuesday in Chicago and played Wednesday in 32-degree weather. The temperature in the Caribbean tonight was 79; beads of moisture congealed on the air-conditioned press box. During the seventh-inning stretch, "God Bless America" was played, and then a group of dancers took the field for a "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" rumba, realized in Spanish.
The concourses were taken over by American fast-food chains: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken. They were flanked by makeshift bars serving $3 beers, $4 Bacardi-and-Cokes and $7 margaritas. Everyone in the stadium seemed to have a badge for their specific role: Ana Sanchez (Pina Colada), Johnny Cruz (KFC), Cecilia Montesinos (merchandise).
Leslie Gatambide, a black-jack dealer at the Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino, stood in the aisle of the $35 seats -- Preferencia B -- nursing a Budweiser in a plastic cup. Gatambide wore a Roberto Clemente replica jersey and seemed as excited as his 10-year-old cousin, Manuel Ramos, who stared at the green plastic field, mesmerized.
"Major League Baseball -- I had to go for it," said Gatambide. "There's nothing like this."
Baseball already has called the series a success, if only because the games will bring in at least $6.5 million in revenue -- at least $4 million more than if the games had been played at Olympic Stadium. However, there were hundreds of empty seats tonight in the mid-level price range, raising more questions about whether baseball had priced the games out of the market.
Thousands of seats were still available for the final three games of the Mets series, including some 4,000 for Monday afternoon. The average ticket price -- $33.47 -- is more than double the major league average, even though monthly per capita income in Puerto Rico is $682.08. The highest-priced ticket is $85.
Expos pitcher Javier Vazquez, a native, said he thought the prices made it difficult for many Puerto Ricans to attend. "Even general admission is 25 bucks," he said. "For 22 games, if you really want to see baseball, that's a concern."
Baseball officials initially acknowledged that the pricing was made jointly by the league and the Puerto Rican promoter, but MLB appeared to be distancing itself tonight. "We left the pricing decisions essentially to the promoter," said John McHale, baseball's executive vice president of administration, who negotiated the Puerto Rico deal.
Baseball had hoped that a last-minute walkup would sell out tonight's game. But those hopes appeared to be dashed by rain throughout the day.
Baseball officials have indicated that the Expos might return next year if the team remains in limbo, but a failure to fill even a modest-sized stadium might bring second thoughts.
Asked how success for the series would be measured, Expos President Tony Tavares said, "Like everything, it will ultimately be attendance."
There are other measures, though. Before the game, veteran Mets reliever Mike Stanton was dressing in the renovated clubhouse. New blue carpeting covered the floor. In front of the room, two new televisions were tuned to the war and Latin music videos.
"I'll tell you what," said Stanton, when asked what he thought. "It's better than Montreal."