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Dream of Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico has island abuzz
Carlos Velez knows the player salaries are high, the parking is expensive and the ticket prices are steep. But on an island where love for el beisbol runs deep, he sees little difficulty supporting a major league team.
"People are going to buy tickets," Velez said Thursday at Lupi's, the San Juan sports bar he manages. "They're going to buy souvenirs. We would appreciate a team here. It would be a matter of pride."
Benjamin Morales has his doubts.
"The fans' love for the game is not in question," said Morales, sports editor of the tabloid daily Primera Hora. "We have a group of people who love baseball. But the economical situation here is not the best."
Reports last week that a group of investors want to buy the Montreal Expos and move them to Puerto Rico have this baseball-mad island dreaming of the big leagues. But while the prospect of cheering on homegrown players against the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves and Mets in San Juan excites many, some question whether this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth can financially support a team of millionaire players through 81 home games.
"I don't see much possibility of it, to be honest," said Osvaldo Gil, president of the Puerto Rican Baseball Federation, which organizes the amateur Superior Baseball League and the island Olympic team. "All baseball fans including myself, we would like that, but truthfully, I'm not too hopeful about it."
Atlanta businessman Charles Vaughn said Wednesday he heads the group looking to purchase the troubled National League franchise and move it to San Juan in time for the 2004 season.
Vaughn's group is one of several that has submitted letters of interest to Major League Baseball, owners of the Expos. But it is the only one made public that has suggested moving the team outside of North America. Baseball officials say they are reviewing all proposals.
The idea of major league baseball in the birthplace of Roberto Clemente may not be so far-fetched. With a population of 3.9 million, the island would rank 12th in size among major league markets, behind Houston and ahead of Atlanta. Baseball is by far the most popular team sport here, and with no other professional sports franchises, a major league club would have no competition.
But with a per-person income roughly one-third of the national average, Puerto Rico would also be the poorest market. Since San Juan is about 1,000 miles from Miami, where the Florida Marlins would be the nearest team, travel to and from the island would be costly.
Also, a team in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico might face the same difficulties attracting American free agents that the Expos have had in French-speaking Montreal. And capacity at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which currently seats 20,000, would have to be expanded to hold at least twice that many.
"Frankly, I don't think it's going to happen," said economist Jose Villamil, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce. "The numbers are not there and the logistics are complicated."
And yet, from the storied Puerto Rican Winter League to current stars Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez, the island is steeped in baseball tradition. The 2001 major league season opened with a sellout game at Bithorn Stadium between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays.
When news of Vaughn's group hit the sports department at Primera Hora, editors and reporters were divided between skepticism and anticipation.
"It's very exciting to think about," said Carlos Gonzalez, who covers Puerto Rican players in the major leagues for the paper. "But it would be very difficult to maintain a team in San Juan. You can't start charging people $20 to $25 for a ticket. People here are not going to pay $4, $5, $6 for a beer."
"When you look at parking, food, tickets, luxury boxes, at the prices they charge in the major leagues, maybe you can go once or twice a year. Not to 81 games."
The walls at Lupi's, which is owned by former major league pitcher Ed Figueroa, are covered with photographs and other mementos from Puerto Rico's baseball past -- hall of famers Clemente and Orlando Cepeda -- and present: Alomar, Bernie Williams and Carlos Delgado.
"Having a baseball team would be a good way for Puerto Rico to be better known," said Nancy Perez, a pediatric nurse. "There are places where they still think we live like Indians. A team would be good for tourism and the economy."
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