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After the Storm: Againts All Odds

 

After the Storm: Against All Odds

Imagine any sports bar across the continental United States. That’s it. This is no different. The standard menu—the burgers, the fries, the wings, the nachos—the TVs all set to ESPN, the perfectly adequate service.

You’ve been here before. You’ve been in a million of these. And there would be nothing remarkable about this particular one if it weren’t located on the third floor of a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center.

Carlos Berroa orders a quesadilla and a Coke Zero from his seat by the window. He has time to kill, but not much. He grimaces as he stares at the soot-colored clouds rolling in over the mountains. He shakes his head and clutches his phone. It doesn’t look promising.

“We might be lucky,” he says, half believing it. “We’ll see. We never call off games. I don’t like calling off games. I was taught: You get to the park and then you see what happens.”

In times of normalcy, this FEMA Disaster Recovery Center is a baseball stadium, known as el Estadio Evaristo “Varo” Roldan. It’s about the size of a mid-major college Division I park, plopped onto a pocket of flat land in the mountainous municipality of Gurabo, Puerto Rico—just east of Caguas.

Other than this sports bar perched behind home plate, there’s very little flair to the place. A grounds crew works the field, trying every possible gadget to suck up the puddles that dot the infield. The ground is muddy and slick, the sky dense and gray. Every one of the stadium’s blue-back seats is dripping wet. This isn’t good. It’s 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, and Game 3 of the Puerto Rican League finals is scheduled to start in two hours.

The winter league’s championship series wasn’t supposed to be here, but Hurricane Maria forced the league’s hand. It’s one of the few stadiums that wasn’t damaged when the storm made landfall on Sept. 20.

“Most people on the island thought there was no way we were gonna play baseball this season,” says Berroa, the league’s director of operations as he juggles phone calls with team owners, managers and officials. They’re all asking him what the plan is going to be if this game is rained out.

Berroa is an imposing, well-built man, but there’s a calmness to him. He navigates each conversation with ease, in Spanish and English, between bites of his quesadilla.

What’s another difficult decision stacked upon thousands? This is nothing compared to the moments after Maria struck. Berroa’s family was unharmed, thankfully, but to him the island looked like it had an atomic bomb dropped on it. Trees scarred and burned, light poles down, roofs torn off, debris clogging the highways. No power, no light, no communication. Dead animals. Dead people.

The Puerto Rican League’s board of directors met three days after Maria hit. They could’ve called off the 80-year-old tournament and no one would’ve batted an eye.

“Obviously, we were all in shock emotionally with what had happened,” Berroa said. “But one of the questions that came up in the meeting was, ‘What would’ve Roberto Clemente done in this situation?’

“And we were like, ‘You know what? He would’ve done something special.’ ”

A plan quickly took shape: The board slashed the season schedule from 40 games to 18—all in January. Because of the lack of power, all games would be played during the day. The tournament would include just four teams splitting time at two different stadiums.

For the board, part of the motivation to continue the tournament was to be able to field a team at the Caribbean World Series in Mexico, which Puerto Rico won the year before and would go on to win again this February. But the more compelling reason was the sheer importance the league—and baseball in general—holds in Puerto Rican culture. The board decided to make all of the games free as a way to give back to the community—to generate hope.

Berroa himself was once a bat boy in the league, for the Santurce franchise, from age 12 to 17. He then went to college in Chicago and became a scout—a role he held for 20 years. Like many Puerto Ricans, Berroa has been inspired by the recent ascension of Puerto Ricans like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez to the big leagues, and he wants to help nurture more players like them. Before becoming the league director three years ago, Berroa headed the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy. He remembers a 16-year-old Correa looking him square in the eye and telling him, “I want to be a Hall of Famer.”

That’s the level of passion the island has for this game. That’s the Puerto Rican spirit. That’s why Berroa is sitting at this stadium now, fingers wrapped around his phone, finding any way to get this game played.

“We want to send a clear message to the world that we’re strong people,” Berroa says. “This thing hit as hard as we’ve ever seen as Puerto Ricans. But as bad as things were and still are, we’re gonna stand up.

“We’re gonna stand up and do whatever it takes to get our island back on its feet.”

Even with a four-hour time difference and the rigors of a 162-game major league season, Martin Maldonado finds time to call home almost every day. If baseball is the 30-year-old Angels catcher’s passion, Puerto Rico is his heart.

A seven-year big league veteran, Maldonado was on the phone with one of his best friends on the island just before Maria made landfall. It was about 11:00 p.m. in Anaheim—3:00 a.m. Puerto Rico time—following an Angels home game. On the other line, Maldonado’s friend described the ferocity and sheer power of the winds already belting the coast. Those winds came roaring in at 155 mph when Maria struck three hours later, at 6:15, just south of Yabucoa Harbor. And then—nothing. Silence. Darkness.

It was as if the island had been swallowed whole. Maldonado had no way of contacting his mother for almost a week. All he had were the images of devastation on TV and the fear they stirred within him. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. Baseball became secondary.

“We didn’t know anything,” said Maldonado, thinking back to that week of agonizing silence. “It was kind of hard to play the game without knowing about your family back home.”

The Category 4 hurricane (out of 5) pummeled the island, frying its entire power grid and leaving 3.5 million people without electricity. About that same number of people had no cell service, making communication a near impossibility. Less than half the island had access to running water. Governor Ricardo Rosselló estimated that Maria caused at least $90 billion in damages. The official death toll was 64, but a study by The New York Times suggests a much higher total of 1,052. As Puerto Ricans saw their homes destroyed and municipalities decimated, their loved ones in the U.S. were left largely in the dark. They could only stand by in horror.

Francis Marquez, an agent with Magnus Sports, represents a number of Puerto Rican pro players and experienced that fear along with them. A Puerto Rican who now lives in Miami, Marquez couldn’t contact his parents until three days after Maria’s landfall. “And those were 72 of the longest hours I’ve ever had,” he said.

Marquez and his agency helped where they could to facilitate communication between their anxious clients and their families, but that was no easy feat. “We had to send people to drive to some players’ families’ homes and just knock on the door and find out if they were OK,” Marquez said.

Many of those drives entailed cross-island treks—40-minute trips that took twice as long due to debris clogging the roads. Once they’d track down a client’s family, the next mission was to, somehow, find a cell signal. Some of Marquez’s clients lost their homes. One pitcher Marquez represents, Jean Cosme in the Padres organization, had to find a way to move his mother to the U.S. so she could continue her chemotherapy sessions.

As for Maldonado, all of his family was accounted for except for one member: his future daughter. Maldonado and his wife, Janelise, had planned on returning to Puerto Rico days after the end of the major league season. The plan was for Janelise, then pregnant with the couple’s first child, to deliver the baby at home. Instead, the Maldonados rented an offseason home in Arizona, where their daughter, Anaiah, was born on Dec. 1.

During that time Maldonado joined in the relief efforts of fellow catcher and countryman Yadier Molina of the Cardinals, who started an online fundraiser that gathered $180,000 in donations in four months. They weren’t alone. The Astros’ Carlos Beltran and his wife, Jessica, pledged to donate $1 million just days after the storm. “It’s something that needed to be done,” Beltran told The Associated Press in September. “I think the only way that I can motivate people to contribute and help my country is by me acting the way I act.”

Beltran’s teammate, Correa, did some fundraising of his own, sending a plane of supplies to the island and wearing specially designed cleats that bore the Puerto Rican flag. And Astros team owner Jim Crane followed both players’ leads and sent three planes to the island—two carrying 300,000 pounds of supplies and one that brought the families of his players and coaches, as well as cancer patients in need of treatment, to the U.S.

“With Carlos Beltran helping, Yadier Molina helping, me helping, Lindor helping, Correa helping, I think that shows how much we love our island,” Maldonado said. “We have that pride . . . You see that pride when we play in the (World Baseball Classic), you see that pride when you’re playing in the World Series. We know we have thousands of people looking to us.

“But even though it’s getting better in Puerto Rico, we still need more help. Everybody can help us to get back to where we were as quick as we can.”

Only recently, in January, was Maldonado able to return home—a quick trip before reporting to spring training. There, he could finally see the catastrophic aftermath with his own eyes.

“You go there, after living there your whole life, and you see the stuff there, and it’s like, ‘Woah,’ ” he said.

“And people are telling me it’s way better now than it was. I can’t imagine how it was.”

For Alex Cora, there was something unsettling—heartbreaking—about looking through his airplane window.

In the months following Maria, Cora has made the flight to his native Puerto Rico multiple times. But not until mid-January did he dare to make that trip at night.

“To not see any lights for a while—and knowing you’re (flying over) the island—that was an eye-opener,” Cora says.

The affable 42-year-old has just arrived here at el Estadio Evaristo “Varo” Roldan in Gurabo for Game 3. It’s about 2:30. The sky is just as threatening as it was an hour ago. Berroa finished lunch and is now roaming the field, checking the conditions, discussing options. The game has already been pushed back an hour, to 4:30. Meanwhile, Cora and his family have set up camp in the stadium’s lone suite. If all goes well, he’ll be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch today.

Cora is unquestionably one of baseball’s budding stars—and busiest men. As the Astros’ bench coach, he claimed a World Series ring in October. A month later, the Red Sox named him their newest manager. All the while, he’s kept abreast of the news in his homeland.

He never expected to be here now, at a baseball stadium, for the winter league’s finals. It’s been four months since Maria, and half the island is still without electricity, running on gas-powered generators. Vast pockets of darkness cover the land. Homes, offices, schools and roads are still being repaired. There are Puerto Ricans still looking for consistent sources of food and water.

“In the beginning it was tough for me to understand why they were going to play (this tournament),” Cora says. “I wanted to make sure it was for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons, and obviously the municipalities didn’t spend money in the project because there’s other needs right now, as we know.

“In the end, the league president, Hector Rivera Cruz, did an outstanding job putting together the tournament . . . And I think the players—they did an outstanding job accepting what was given. Some of them, they were playing in other leagues making a lot of money and then they have to come here for a month and make a lot less money.”

So why do it? Why here? Why now?

For Cora—and likely everyone else in the ballpark—the answer is simple. Winter ball is all he’s ever known. The league has been one of the island’s greatest spectacles and cultural touchstones since its inception in 1938. It catapulted the likes of Clemente and Orlando Cepeda to stardom; it gave Negro Leaguers like Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella a chance to compete on a grander stage. Some of baseball’s legends played in the league as young up-and-comers: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, to name a few.

Growing up in Caguas, Cora went to the ballpark every day with his late father. The elder Cora was a writer for the Criollos de Caguas; he was the man supplying the San Juan Daily Star with the team’s box scores. When Alex’s older brother, Joey, signed for Caguas in the ’80s, Alex was able to live vicariously through him. It was his first exposure to life in the clubhouse. Then, in 1996, Alex finally had the chance to wear the Criollos uniform for the first time, and it meant something. He continued to play for Caguas throughout his 14-year big league career. Now, he’s the team’s general manager, eyeing a second straight championship. They could win it today. Caguas enter Game 3 up two games to none on Santurce.

To the outside world, the Puerto Rican League doesn’t carry quite as much mystique as it did in the days of Cora’s youth. Teams are composed primarily of Class A minor leaguers that big league clubs send to the island for additional seasoning. But there’s been a glimmer of a resurgence in recent years as the new wave of big league Puerto Rican talent—Correa, Lindor and Baez—has passed through it.

Punting on a 2018 tournament, in some aspects, felt like wasting that progress.

“I love it,” Berroa says of directing this year’s tournament, despite the gargantuan obstacles. He just got power back at his own home two weeks ago.

“It gives me an opportunity to give back to my country and to be part of keeping professional baseball alive and trying to get back to what we were in the ’80s,” Berroa continued. “It’s going to take time. It is taking time, but just to see what has happened the last five years or so with Correa or Lindor, it’s exciting.

“We’ve become a developmental league. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem saying that. I’m not worried about Molina or Beltran or Lindor. I’m not worried about those guys. I’m worried about the guys who are trying to make it from A-ball to Double-A.”

One of those Class A prospects, Padres outfielder Aldemar Burgos, is about to be honored as the league’s rookie of the year in today’s pregame festivities after batting .583 (7-for-12) for Carolina. The 21-year-old couldn’t be more thrilled. Burgos’ family urged him to leave San Juan and go back to the States after Maria, but Burgos wanted to stay in order to lend a helping hand in the aftermath.

Even more, he prayed the winter league wouldn’t be canceled; he told all of his friends that he was going to participate, no matter what. Burgos would never turn down an opportunity to play for the Gigantes. As a kid, playing for the Gigantes was his dream. He has pictures he took with past Gigantes like Yadier Molina and Juan Gonzalez hanging prominently on his bedroom wall.

“It’s been crazy. It’s been a blast. Like boom!” Burgos exclaims, eyes wide, from the stadium concourse as he readies to walk onto the field and accept his award. “This is the first time I’ve performed like this in my entire career as a baseball player.”

It’s now a little after 4 p.m. A rainbow, just visible beyond the first-base foul line, cracks the gray mass above the mountains as pregame ceremonies begin. Plaques are handed out. Players on both teams—including big leaguers like Kennys Vargas, Rusney Castillo and Rey Fuentes—are all introduced.

Cora and his family walk onto the field around 4:15 to a rousing applause. The Criollos are retiring Cora’s No. 13 today, much to the delight of the hometown fans who crammed their cars into the tiny, muddy, overflowing parking lot outside. Standing at home plate with the entire Caguas team, Cora holds up his jersey for everyone to see, his light-blue button-down shirt moistened by the constant rain drops.

At 4:30, under a light drizzle, the first pitch is delivered. A live band plays traditional Puerto Rican music on the concourse, and the game pulses along with the drum beat. Children in the stands toot their own individual toy horns, making a piercing sound that reverberates for miles. A man, sitting behind home plate, has painted his face to look like a baseball—red seams and all—underneath a straw hat known as a pava. He’s carrying a giant Puerto Rican flag and a bag of props. Later, he’ll wave that flag while standing atop the Caguas dugout.

Today, this FEMA center is back to just being a baseball field.

Today is an attempt to be normal.

Only time will dictate just how much of a socioeconomic impact Maria will have on Puerto Rico.

There are the obvious widespread structural damages that need to be repaired. Countless business owners will have to decide whether to rebuild or retire. Even more employees no longer have a building to report to. The population shift over the last few months has been drastic. Reports on the exact number vary, but Florida governor Rick Scott said in December that nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the state. If that figure is correct, that’s roughly 8.5 percent of the island’s population. Those problems are very real and create a daunting set of challenges that Puerto Ricans will need to overcome—likely over many years.

And then there’s the 16- or 17-year-old Puerto Rican baseball player. His problems are real, too. Everything he’s ever known was ripped to shreds by 155 mph winds. He’s the kid who’s been working daily to become the next Correa or the next Lindor, who’s already had to scratch and claw to get the respect and scouting attention that his peers in the continental U.S. receive. His already-uphill climb has risen to Everest heights. Just imagine the psychological toll.

“You take a kid who’s 17 years old and he’s been focused on the draft and working toward the draft and that’s all he’s been thinking about for the last year,” Marquez said. “Storm hits. He loses his home. I had a kid who lost his home, roof was completely ripped off. He had to run to his neighbor’s house. So, all of a sudden, you have that despair—that they don’t have a roof to live under, they don’t have running water, they don’t have electricity. It’s tough for them to get a meal. Restaurants are closed. There’s no supermarket.

“Plus, you add to the fact that the one thing they really love, the one thing that has really been their driving force the past year is baseball. All of a sudden, that vanishes for a month. That’s a hard blow.”

No one, understandably, put any thought into baseball in the weeks following Maria. But once kids were ready to return to some sense of daily normalcy, they had no baseball fields to play on. Baseball practice took place on the streets. Want to work out? The gyms are destroyed, too. There are no indoor facilities. The only viable workout plan is running loops around neighborhoods.

Many underclassmen joined in the exodus to Florida in order to continue playing baseball there. But what about the high school senior, on pace to graduate, who doesn’t speak a word of English?

“That was a tough decision for them,” Marquez said. “I can tell you that the guys we advise, it was something that we really thought long and hard about. And they decided to stay just because the change academically was going to be a challenge in their senior year.”

For the ones who have stayed, their daily routine this spring looks something like this:

Go to school from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Travel to a usable field, which for many kids means an hour or hour-and-a-half drive. Share the field with kids from 15 other schools. High schoolers take ground balls and take batting practice with 12-year-olds. The sun starts setting around 6:00 p.m. The lights at 95 percent of fields on the island are still not operational. Once night arrives, practice must end. Drive home. Depending on where home is, the night could be spent doing homework by candlelight. Go to bed. Do it all again the next day.

“It really has impacted their development,” said a scout for a major league club who lives on the island. “By this time of the year, you should’ve seen Puerto Rican kids starting to blossom, show more finished tools, better at-bats, pitchers showing some velo at this point. It’s not hard to scout, but you have to take into consideration all the time these kids have been without facing pitchers or throwing in the bullpen or playing games. Those are problems that the kids have right now. They’re not in game shape right now. They may not be in game shape until late March. In the process of scouting, this year, the kids from Puerto Rico are going to be like the kids from cold-weather states.”

As a result, the draft stock of Puerto Rican players could potentially take a hit, because scouting departments won’t be seeing them at their peak. In general, evaluating a Puerto Rican high schooler will require more projection than a Floridian high schooler playing all season long. This year’s Puerto Rican class was already a bit raw to begin with, featuring athleticism as its key attribute. The class’ strengths lie at shortstop and catcher. As it stands, shortstop Kevin Vargas—at No. 156—is the only Puerto Rican to rank among the top 200 draft prospects.

Still, as much as baseball has been negatively impacted by Maria, now that players are at least able to practice again, the sport has provided a spiritual boost. For many kids, baseball is a form of escape from the last few months of turmoil. And those hardships have made them all the more motivated to work toward their aspirations—and to represent their home while doing so.

“What really drives the Puerto Rican players after all this happened is the pride for them to become big leaguers or to get drafted from the island,” the scout said. “There’s a lot of kids who probably could have gone to Florida, but they said, ‘I want to be one of the guys who makes the big leagues out of Puerto Rico, out of the draft. I want to get drafted from where I’ve played my whole life.’ They want to get better, and they’re helping fix the fields so they can play on them. I would say the motivation of these kids is at a very high level.”

For any of those kids to stand a chance, it has to be.

Wwhen Luis Matos was in this same situation last year—at the edge of the bench, his team seconds away from winning the Puerto Rican League championship—he didn’t sweat. He was stoic. Calm.

Right now, under the soft glow of the still-working Estadio Varo Roldan lights, it’s taking all of Matos’ strength not to cry.

The Criollos manager—and former big leaguer with the Orioles—has pushed all of the right buttons tonight, made all the right moves. Caguas is up 2-1 and just an out away from claiming a second straight winter league title.

Despite the ominous forecast, Game 3 has been mostly seamless. Early on, a few waves of precipitation forced fans to seek shelter on the concourse. But not a single spectator has left. The air has been dry for a few innings now, and enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Kids are still tooting their horns. The band is still playing. Young children have been running back and forth from their parents to the dugouts, trying to sneak a close glance at the players and chat with them as they prepare to bat.

Now, with the end imminent, everyone is standing with their phone cameras pointed toward the field. The stadium sounds have swollen to rock concert-level decibels. The seats are shaking. Every Caguas player is leaning over the first-base dugout railing. A few have bypassed the railing entirely and are already standing on the edges of the diamond, their bodies tense like compressed coils waiting to spring into the air.

WHACK. The thump of the bat briefly interrupts the persistent horns—but only briefly. They resume as soon as the thousands of eyes recognize the ball’s parabolic trajectory. It’s nothing more than a harmless pop up, and it falls easily into the right fielder’s glove.

Then, pandemonium.

These Criollos unleash their own storm, spewing energy drinks and firing off streams of champagne as they cluster in a circle around second base. It only takes seconds for the baseball-faced man to leap out of the stands and carry his full-sized Puerto Rican flag into the center of that circle. Children scream. A few work their way onto the field and start running the bases. Adults climb on top of the Caguas dugout and film the action on their phones.

Berroa and the rest of the board set up a table on the first-base line to present the trophy—a clear glass cutout in the shape of Roberto Clemente’s face. Never has the symbolism of that award been more apt. In between sprays—and sips—from bottles, the Criollos take turns posing for pictures with that trophy. They’ve all put on black championship shirts emblazoned with “2PEAT” in all caps. Cora, the general manager, is wearing one, too. He’s joined the on-field carnival.

“Pretty awesome, right?” Cora says, laughing.

Matos, meanwhile, zips all over the field, exchanging hugs and handshakes by the dozen. In about a week’s time, he’ll be doing this all over again, in Mexico, where he’ll lead Caguas to a second straight Caribbean World Series title by defeating the Dominican Republic. Even still, there’s no greater victory than right now, here at home, in Puerto Rico, in the wake of a crippling disaster, in a championship game at a FEMA center, at the end of a tournament that most viewed as an impossibility.

With an unbridled light in his eyes, Matos grins through the first words he can think of. The only words necessary.

“I call this season,” he says, “The Miracle.”

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