At Lupi’s, a seaside restaurant in the Isla Verde section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a worker arranged wooden chairs on the terrace ahead of a World Series game this week.
With the island still digging out from Hurricane Maria, Lupi’s is one of the few places in the trendy tourist district that has power. Huge crowds have been packing the patio to watch the baseball playoffs.
“If you want a table,” a waiter said, “you better get here early.”
Baseball has always been popular in Puerto Rico, and never more so than now. The Houston Astros have three native sons on their World Series roster, including All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa. The Dodgers have Enrique Hernandez, whose three home runs in a game against the Chicago Cubs ignited the club’s win in the National League Championship Series.
In Wednesday night’s wild Game 2 of the seven-game World Series, Correa blasted a home run in the top half of the 10th inning to give the Astros a two-run lead. Hernandez responded in the bottom of the inning by lining a run-scoring single into right field to tie the score and force another inning.
Those types of highlights have helped lift spirits around the island, and doing it on the game’s grandest stage has allowed the players to keep a spotlight on the dire conditions and need for help back home.
The damage was well documented when 155-mph winds and torrential rains from one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record left more than 50 dead in late September. But it’s now been more than a month since the region was devastated, and even though the news coverage has waned, 80% of the island’s 3.4 million people are still without power and hundreds of thousands lack access to clean water.
So, while they compete for baseball’s biggest prize, the players are also working on behalf of their homeland. Together, they have helped collect more than 200 tons of supplies and $1.5 million in donations.
“The people in Puerto Rico still need a lot of help. We’re not done yet,” Correa said this week. “We’ve sent help, but we want to send a lot more. Obviously this takes a lot out of you, but we don’t forget our people back home.”
On Sept. 20, the night the full force of Maria struck, Hernandez drove in a run for the Dodgers with a pinch-hit double against Philadelphia. In Houston, Correa scored the first run in a win over the Chicago White Sox.
Two days later Hernandez, who is from the northern coast town of Toa Baja, still had not been able to reach family members. Correa, from Santa Isabel on the southern tip of the island, tried to calm his mother, who had grown frantic with worry after losing contact with her parents.
The uncle of Juan Centeno Jr., an Astros catcher, lost his house, as did the mother of Alex Cintron, a former big league infielder who now works for Houston as an interpreter. Veteran slugger Carlos Beltran’s family had no water or electricity. Bench coach Alex Cora was the only Astro who could reach relatives by phone in the days after the storm.
With the playoffs so close, no one could leave their team to help in person, so they did the next-best thing, collecting money and supplies.
Hernandez joined his fiancé, Mariana, in starting an online fund-raising campaign, setting a goal of $100,000.
“Not only is it difficult to be there, it is difficult to be far away,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “You see photos and hear what people tell you. You imagine the worst. I want them to know they are not alone.
Correa donned two pairs of custom cleats with Puerto Rican flags on them, then began soliciting donations of food, water and clothing, eventually gathering 50 tons of supplies for Santa Isabel.
The effort got a big boost from Astros owner Jim Crane, who packed three planes with 300,000 pounds of supplies and sent them to Puerto Rico just a couple of days before his team’s playoff opener. On the return flight, Crane, who weeks earlier donated $4 million toward hurricane relief in Houston, offered seats to the families of Astros players and people who required special medical attention.
Hernandez, who was originally signed by the Astros and made his big league debut in Houston, also benefited from Crane’s largesse. His parents and sister and fianceé’s family were invited to join the group headed to the U.S.
Correa thanked his boss by banging out four hits and driving in four runs in a playoff win over the Boston Red Sox a couple of days later.
“There are people that are starving over there. People just don’t get that because you don’t see it in video, you don’t see it on the news,” Correa said before the start of the World Series.
“We’ve helped, but we’re not done. It’s still a work in progress. We’re not giving up.”
In Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros defeated the New York Yankees on Beltran’s two-out, pinch-hit double in the ninth inning.
By then, he and his wife Jessica had pledged $1 million to start a campaign that had collected more than $1.3 million by the start of the World Series.
During the National League Championship Series, the black T-shirt Hernandez wore beneath his game jersey was emblazoned with a Puerto Rican flag and the slogan “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” — Puerto Rico Will Rise. Hand-written on his blue game cap: the words “Pray for PR.”
Before Game 5 in that series, Hernandez considered halting his fund-raising efforts during the playoffs because he feared it might become a distraction. At the time, he had one hit, a single, in five at-bats against the Cubs.
By the end of that game, he was happy he had not. Hernandez turned in one of the greatest playoff performances in the Dodgers’ long and storied history, slugging three home runs and driving in seven runs in an 11-1 rout that vaulted his club into the World Series.
In the next 24 hours, the money pledged to Hernandez’s YouCaring account more than doubled, sending it well beyond the goal of $100,000. Many of the donations came in increments of $10 and $20; one fan gave nearly $900 — the price, he said, of a World Series ticket — choosing to watch the games from home instead.
“I made the right decision about leaving that open,” Hernandez said this week. “Hopefully I can have a few good games in the World Series to where fans feel like they can donate a little more so we can help out more people.”
After Correa and Hernandez exchanged heroics during Game 2 on Wednesday, the Astros escaped with a 7-6 victory in 11 innings, evening the best-of-seven World Series at one game apiece.
The next three games will be played in Houston, beginning Friday, and while the patrons back home will gather around places like Lupi’s to watch, Hernandez is hoping he can continue to contribute for the Dodgers and also something bigger.
“Everything I do from now on is for them,” he said of the people of Puerto Rico. “I am only trying to put a smile on their faces, even for five minutes, so they can forget what is happening there.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11