Puerto Rico and Baseball

by Jake Kring-Schreifels
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Old San Juan, Bad Driving, and a Bullpen Conversation

I'm going to try to channel my inner Hunter S. Thompson here, and while I may not contain his Gonzo prose nor his dashingly portrayed good looks by Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary), I’m at least attempting to cover a facet he never did in Puerto Rico: Baseball.

But it’s not just the sport I examined, it was the culture. “Take your time, no one’s in a hurry.” “Puerto Ricans work to live, they don’t live to work.” “It’s lazy here.” The three quotes in order come from a hotel valet servicewoman, a Flavors of San Juan food tour guide, and current Major League reliever JC Romero (more on him in a bit). They, like many bilingual residents, must deal with inane questions, bad Spanish, incomprehensible Spanish, and dammit-I’m-American-speak-American cruise ship English. That last species probably enjoyed “Booty’s Sports Bar,” which I tasted on my first lunch alone down there. How couldn’t they love it? Popcorn appetizers, American burgers, and Carrie Underwood belting out “Jesus, Take The Wheel” over a muted widescreen of ESPN. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, which can be helpful, but is sometimes also a shame.

To be clear, I stayed a week in the neighborhood Viejo San Juan, the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico. I am also practically bilingual, except when the natives turn on their motor mouths, so this was an immersive experience and also a chance to feel superior to the overweight masses docking on their Carnival liners; though I probably already was, even without the Spanish. So while the bayside tourists scan a radius of two blocks and mark Puerto Rico off their check list, locals know Viejo San Juan and the rest of the island has much more to offer than Señor Frogs and Starbucks. Its bright colored houses, cobblestone streets, tight corners, and breezy humid air are enough to entice and also forget your next appointment. So little honks I heard towards cars holding up traffic nonsensically that I wanted to push driver’s horns for them. So many scrapes of cars parked millimeters from each other on side streets. Puerto Ricans are masters of the fifteen-point turn.

They are also terrible drivers. “900 accidents a week on average in Puerto Rico,” says my cab driver to me in Spanish. She is one of the few people I had extensive talks with in Puerto Rican as she drove me to one of the baseball stadiums. “Puerto Rico has the most cars, gas stations, and Walgreens per capita in the world,” adds another tour guide to me and three Icelandic students around my age. He’s Luis from the company Natural Wonders. Look him up on Facebook like he told me to do many times on our way to El Yunque Rainforest, the U.S. Forest Reserve’s only tropical rainforest. When I got in his van, he offered me “water, soda, beer, or rum,” Puerto Rico’s specialty- the Bacardi distillery is across the bay. I drank Rum and Coke on our descent after getting soaked in the forest with these three pale faces from Iceland. They had good English and their friends were in the only Icelandic movie I’ve ever seen. Who would’ve known? Clearly driving with alcohol is not a concern for people, nor is staying in your lane.

I found that out as I drove to El Estadio Municipal de Roberto Clemente (Roberto Clemente Stadium) in my taxi as a car nearly flipped, burning rubber and smoke in a complete 180 reversal near a freeway exit. That’s pretty typical in Puerto Rico, and unfortunately it would  probably prove to be the greatest spectacle of the evening. Let me back up. Knowing I’d be in Puerto Rico in January and on my lonesome (My dad was there on business), I knew there had to be some Winter league baseball to catch. I Googled and double-checked and finally found a stadium close by to our hotel- a quaint multi-courtyard slice of heaven with Macaws, Cockatoos, and Parrots guarding its posts amidst trickling fountains and a small pool. I had no idea if this game was real or if the teams would be there. I just conversed with my cab driver until bright light posts in the distance affirmed my suspicions. “It looks empty though,” my driver said, but I had done my research. Message boards are a wonderful thing sometimes, and the most recent one I visited claimed that tickets were six bucks general admission, and that no one showed up.

Well, it was mostly right. My ticket was seven and about several hundred fans inhabited the twenty thousand-seat stadium. “What is going on here?,” I said to myself, “there’s a baseball game, with some sparse major league talent- mostly double-A- and no one’s here.” It felt like a championship high school game where only the parents and fans of the schools nestle into the front section of a forty thousand seater, leaving a hollow, dead atmosphere. The top three teams were in a round robin playoff, though from the intensity of the crowd, or obvious lack thereof, it felt like an exhibition game. The first night I saw the Gigantes from Carolina host the Cagrejeros from Santurce, a neighboring village. It’s an outdoor stadium but it’s all astro turf, and at seven bucks a pop I don’t blame them. Who’s mowing a field everyday, seeding, re-seeding, watering, and tarping for teams who draw less than a thousand a night?

“It’s a shame,” says a Puerto Rican behind me as we casually discuss the state of Puerto Rican baseball. I am the only white person at these games, far away from tourist zones in the suburban boondocks of Carolina, a place no one should get lost in, and a place where having a taxi driver’s number is rule #1. I did care if I never got back. I entered the first night with one bar of battery and thus turned my phone off the entire game, waiting to make that ever-precious call to Valentin, the cab driver who understood half of my English and 25% of my Spanish. The cab driver I had the next night was worlds apart better, an American in school in Puerto Rico. We talked baseball the whole ride back. No sport is a better conversation starter.

“Calmate.” “Recuerda sus mecánicos” (Calm down, remember you mechanics), I pretend to audibly dub what the mound sessions are like between coach and pitcher during the games. It’s pretty quiet except for the two idiots pumping their airhorns that are available for purchase at a souvenir stand. My dinner consisted of a coke and a hotdog de pollo, a chicken hotdog wrapped with knockoff cheese in a tostada. Other audible facets include the constant “Piña, Piña” from a Piña Colada vendor, Puerto Rico’s signature drink. Then there’s the knockoff “Mr. Met,” known as “Gigantin,” an out of shape pelvic thruster who “pumps” up fans by holding up signs of applause and does rhythmic shuffles to the Latin pop between innings. The same guy behind me, after watching this dugout dancer, remarked, “What the f%$#?” after Gigantin’s seductive moves and strange body language aimed toward our direction during an interlude. Yes, in Puerto Rico, Mr. Met can be an overweight sex symbol.

“¿Quien está el entrenador?” (Who is the coach?) I ask the Carolina ballboy during their second game against a team from Mayaguez. I swore it was Edwin Rodriguez, the former Marlin coach a few years back. I swear to you it was. The “ballboy,” really ballman (that’s a precarious title), pretended I didn’t exist, completely ignoring a perfectly sane Spanish question from a Gringo. I thought the people behind me were laughing that I had been rejected. No matter, I was still riding high from my encounter in the previous innings. Let me explain. The only recognizable Major League player between the teams was Felipe Lopez (former infielder with the Blue Jays, Nationals, and most recently Brewers), but even he was out of the league and on the verge of retirement. The next night however, out pops a player from the dugout I hadn’t seen the night before and I recognize him instantly. It’s former Phillies’ reliever JC Romero. I’m from Philly. I’m a Phillies fan. I’ve travelled all the way down to Puerto Rico, all the way down to Carolina in some middle of nowhere stadium, and I’ve got to take advantage of this.  I peer down to the foul line bullpen and he’s just chatting up a storm with another player. So with the game far from intriguing I fast-walk down the foul line, probably to the befuddlement of the remaining fans. Fabolous’s “It’s my time” trickled into my brainwaves.

“Hola JC, Soy un aficionado de los Phillies, gracias por dos mil---“

“For 2008, definitely man, good to see you!”

I was fully prepared to address him in Spanish and then I remembered this guy has been playing in the bigs for a while now; he has pretty good English. He paused his hitting instruction (A lefty reliever knows all about swing mechanics) with Carlos Corporan, who I also greeted, a current Houston Astros catcher. JC addressed me like an old friend, popping me questions as any rational Puerto Rican who sees a white tourist in Carolina like, “What’re you doing here for?” But then we get into talking baseball, or should I say, I begin listening to JC complain about how the Phillies organization mistreated him.

“After my surgery man, Dubee (current Phillies’ pitching coach Rich Dubee) didn’t help me with my mechanics.”

“Yeah,” I reply, trying to show empathy but really just wondering where he goes with this. He continues.

“Fans were giving me a hard time. It’s like, I just had surgery, I’m not gonna hit my spots perfect. They cut me with an ERA of 3.3, and Baez (referring to reliever Danys Baez) stays on with something over 6!?”

He talks to me like I’m his lawyer trying to help build his own case, even divulging about his steroid suspension in which he says he bought medicine with estrogen blocker in Cherry Hill, NJ. I nod and just think- no other Phillies fan is getting this information but me right now! But then I change the subject because I’ve got to figure this out- why no one’s here, why not much talent from Puerto Rico has emerged since the early 90s glory days of Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado.

The loudspeakers come on and he interrupts himself. “It’s this, man,” pointing to the speakers. “Everyone wants to be an artist, these kids grow up so tall now too they want to play basketball or volleyball instead.” It’s a real problem, and one chronicled in a recent Yahoo! Sports article, coinciding tremendously with my trip. The reason Dominican and Venezuelan players are the face of the MLB is because they have loose regulations. Because Puerto Rico is under the commonwealth of the U.S., players have to complete high school until they can get drafted. The problem is there are only two main baseball academies, and very little facilities, something that’s slowly trying to get better again.

Romero is getting ready for the World Baseball Classic. The winner of this Puerto Rican league playoff goes to the Caribbean series, but I have a feeling Puerto Rico won’t fare too well. Like he says, it’s a lazier culture. Some player’s jerseys are way too big, like they got to the box of uniforms and all that was left were X-larges. The nostalgia of the 90s and of baseball past emanate from the imperfect hot pink name scoreboard graphics, Shea Stadium organ noises, and fans’ Roberto Clemente T-Shirts and caps.

It seems like Clemente might be disappointed if he were living today. Youth and baseball aren’t mixing as much as they used to. It almost seems antithetical in a place like this, with beautiful weather every day of the year. There is no off-season, it’s always a great day to play catch. But as my cab driver told me, her sons liked baseball, but they just can’t play. With a working husband, too, she just doesn’t have time to drive to practices and games far away, and the public transportation is poor; no subways, just roads. I hope someday baseball can give back to Puerto Rico what Roberto Clemente gave it.

But here I was. Off the beaten path in Puerto Rico watching baseball, my favorite game, a beautiful game. Now I know why Hunter S. Thompson was so privy to Puerto Rico. Hot weather in January and lots of rum. Add the sport of baseball however and that’s quite a fine mix. I’ll drink a mojito to that!