Hiram Bithorn Stadium, San Juan, PR
Number of games: 2
Hiram Bithorn Stadium is no longer used for the major leagues as of the 2005 season.
First game: April 14, 2003 (Expos 5, Mets 3)
Last game: April 16, 2003 (Braves 3, Expos 2)
(Click on any image to see a larger version.)
All right–I’m officially hard-core. What started as a way to spend the summer of 1993 had, by 2003, expanded to serious dimensions with my trip to Puerto Rico and Estadion Hiram Bithorn. Why? Well, because I wanted some serious street cred among the (larger than you might think) going-to-all-the-baseball-parks crowd. Yeah, there are people who might have been to more than the 30 major league stadiums that my trip to Hiram Bithorn gave me. But, because there were only 22 Expos games to be played at Bithorn in 2003, I figured that, even among ballpark travelers, not too many people would be able to say they’d been to Puerto Rico for a Major League game. I think I crossed some sort of line here. Quoth one friend: “I can’t believe you’re flying all the way to Puerto Rico to see a baseball game.” My response: “No, no! I’m flying to Puerto Rico to see TWO baseball games!” The result, however, was very, very fun–one of my best-ever ballpark experiences.
The ballpark itself wasn’t at all special. It’s nice that it’s small: they expanded capacity to 19,000 for the Expos games. More seats are good seats and there’s more opportunity for fan/player interaction. But there was enough else wrong or missing that I can’t say Bithorn is a good ballpark. Their replay scoreboard was so small and distant that it was very difficult to read, which made it in some ways worse than having no replay scoreboard at all. They didn’t read lineups before the game. There were two pretty serious blunders in presentation as well. First, the PA announcer, at a critical moment of the game, announced “Numero doce, Orlando Cabrera!” when Wilfredo Cordero was at the plate. Second, and a particularly bizarre error, was a mistimed playing of music. As soon as Jeff Liefer made contact on a fly-out to center, they began playing the music for the next batter. So while the ball was in play, while Tsuyoshi Shinjo was in the very process of settling under the ball, we heard the opening drumbeats and first couple of riffs of Carlos Santana’s “Smooth.” On top of that, and worst of all–why a carpet? Why not grass? So my impressions of the stadium aren’t terribly good. This is, of course, very much beside the point, as the positives of seeing a ballgame in Puerto Rico far outweigh the minor negatives of a below-average ballpark.
First of all, the fans were tremendous. They were louder and more enthusiastic than any similarly-sized crowd that I can recall. To be sure, not all of their cheering was for Los Expos. They cheered for more or less any Latin player, and especially for any Puerto Rican player, regardless of the team he was playing for. A critical at-bat by Brave Javy Lopez or Met Roberto Alomar would be greeted with equal enthusiasm as one by Expo Jose Vidro. Indeed, so many Puerto Ricans had connections with New York City that there was a sizeable contingent of Met fans present. They’d start the “Let’s! Go! Mets” chant, but would be overpowered by the others, who would make high pitched “ooo” sounds, like children imitating ghosts. Much to my surprise, there were even a number of Braves fans present for the Montreal/Atlanta game as well, as noted by that infernal tomahawk chop. Does Ted Turner’s power spread over the Caribbean Sea? At any rate, they, too, were “ooo”ed at until they couldn’t be heard.
Appropriately enough for my first ballgame outside the fifty states, there was a decidedly international feel to the ballgame. For starters, there were three national anthems to get through before we could play ball: Canada, Puerto Rico, and the USA. The same guy, Angel Rosario, was responsible for singing “O Canada” and ”The Star-Spangled Banner.” He had a very powerful tenor voice, but screwed up the lyrics in each. At first, I thought he just blundered, but the second game, he made the exact same errors that he did the first. That’s when it occurred to me–it’s got to be difficult to find anyone who knows the words to “O Canada” in Puerto Rico, and probably about as hard to find a “Star-Spangled Banner” singer. I also got the sense that Angel didn’t speak English…it sounded like he was getting through the anthems phonetically.
Far be it from me to criticize anyone for not speaking English, of course. I’m a stereotypical monolingual American. Of all the languages I could have taken in high school and college, I chose Russian, and I regret that now. Why not Spanish, the language I’m most likely to encounter? Oh well…I suppose it’s not too late. But in Puerto Rico, it didn’t matter, as just about every native I encountered had at least a little English. Often not more than a little–but usually a little.
And that’s part of what made this such a wonderful ballpark experience. When I remember these games, I’ll remember Juan and Efrain, the gentlemen I sat next to. I sat next to Juan at the first game–the Mets game. Juan had impeccable English–the result of his Army experience. “I learned English at Fort Benning, Georgia,” he told me. I struck up a conversation by focusing on the three retired numbers on the wall–21 for Roberto Clemente, 30 for Orlando Cepeda, and 22 for Gomez. Didn’t know who Gomez was, so I asked him. Turns out he’s Ruben Gomez. His lifetime stats aren’t too impressive, but his passion for the game seems to have been: Juan informed me that Gomez would pitch all summer and winter, summers in the majors, winters in the Puerto Rican league. And any way you can be mentioned with Cepeda and Clemente is impressive enough to me. Juan also let me know that Hiram Bithorn Stadium is named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the majors. (Indeed, there is a sculpture of him in front of the ballpark.) I did a little more research on him…Bithorn was a pitcher for the Cubs and White Sox. He debuted during WWII, five years before Jackie Robinson, when teams were very much in need of players. Still, although there were a handful of Latino players on rosters, the Cubs were not eager to sign their first Latino player. According to one account I’ve seen, Bithorn, because of his light skin and not-instantly-recognizable-as-Latino name, could pass more easily as white, which helped convince the Cubs to sign him. In a way, that’s a very sad story. That’s why I’m glad he led the league with 7 shutouts in 1943.
But next thing you know, and much to my surprise, I learned Juan and I share our favorite player in baseball. Mine is Edgar Martinez, designated hitter, Seattle Mariners. His is Edgar Martinez, third baseman, San Juan Senators. Here I am, 5,000 miles from home, and I’m having a conversation about Edgar’s penchant for hitting doubles that bounce on the foul lines. That blew me away. We even got a chance to talk a little politics when two war protestors ran on the field and unfurled a banner that read “No a la guerra” and featured drawings of a gun and an oil well. I was surprised at how negative the fan reaction was to them–for some reason I would have thought that Puerto Ricans, who don’t get a voting member in Congress, might not be so keen on that Congress sending their sons and daughters into harm’s way. I was wrong, as Juan let me know. “Now is not the time to protest. We’re already at war.” (Indeed, by the time these guys ran onto the field in April of 2003, Baghdad had already fallen.)
As much fun as I had with Juan, I had even more fun with Senor Efrain Rodriguez, with whom I enjoyed the Braves game two nights later. And what do you know? It all started with my scorebook. I’ve always liked the way that my scorebook gets people to talk to me, but I never, ever expected it to cross international cultural barriers, as it did on this night. Senor Rodriguez (because he’s 41 years my elder, I’m a little uneasy calling him Efrain) sees me get out my scorebook, and he asks me: “Do you do this every game?” His English is slow and labored enough that I can tell it’s an effort to think through each sentence. But I explain to him that yes, I do, and that I’m trying to make it to all of the baseball stadiums. We fall into watching the game, and next thing you know, there’s an Atlanta double play. Furcal to DeRosa to Franco. I’m jotting it in my book when Efrain leans over. “Six-four-three.” Amazing! The power of the scorebook! The next play is a grounder to third, so I lean over to Efrain: “Cinco-tres.” And we’re talking, as best as we are able, about baseball. I ask Efrain why he’s rooting for the Braves. He tells me. “Andruw Jones. He is the best…eh…” He struggles to find a word. I try to help: “Athlete? Athletic?” Efrain responds: “Yes, but…eh…Defensive. He is the best defensive player I’ve ever seen…”
Somewhere in the midst of this sentence it occurs to me: this very well could be my elderly friend’s first major league game! All those years of enjoying Puerto Rican ball, cheering for major league islanders from afar, and now, finally, a major league game in person! I have the whole overly-romanticized picture laid out, but Efrain sets me straight before the end of the sentence:
“…and I saw Willie Mays.”
“At the Polo Grounds?”
“Yes. Remember, I’m 73!”
And that’s how we spent the evening–trying to have conversations about baseball. Succeeding. Saying: “He walked him because he wants a double play.” Saying: “No–I think he doesn’t want Sheffield to homer again.” Even saying: “That was a good throw.” Typical, momentary baseball stuff. And it was wonderful. Two guys, two languages, two countries, and two generations, and all the differences go away with the magic words: “Six-four-three.” I tried to get his wife to take our picture, but alas, the result was this extremely unfortunate photo:
Yup, that’s him with his arm around me…the guy whose face is behind his wife’s lens-obstructing fingers! What a bummer.
Anyway, I’ll never forget the end of the night. He went to leave after the eighth inning (I must really like this guy, since I can forgive a horrendous action like that…but traffic around San Juan really was God-awful), and shook my hand. He said “Well, brother, glad to know you.” I’m not sure I’ve ever felt better at a ballpark than that made me feel. Brother. What more can you ask? Is there anywhere else where brotherhood is attained that quickly and easily? It sounds sappy, kind of Disney-like, but the facts seem to bear it out: baseball overcame any differences we might have had. And I think it led me to understand a little bit better why I spend all of this time, effort, and money to go to all of these distant ballparks. I love the opportunity for moments like this one. I was surprised, amazed, and affirmed by the way my scorebook and baseball curiosity could strike up an international bond.
I want more of these games. I want to go global with my ballparks. I want to buy new scorebooks–one for each nation’s league–and score games, talk baseball, and shake hands with fans the world over. I want to win the lottery, quit my job, and hit the Venezuelan League, comparing notes with Carlos from Caracas on Andres Galarraga, a player we’ll both love. After a crisp DP around the horn, I want Takehisa from Tokyo to look at me and say: “Go-shi-san.” I want to hear Michael from Melbourne tell me about the early years of Craig Shipley, Graeme Lloyd, and Chris Snelling, all of whom I’ve seen. Just give me some money and give me some time, and I’ll have stories from all around the world.
Indeed, as I write these words in the mild Puerto Rican night after watching a one-run ballgame with my new baseball brother, I know I won’t ever stop these trips. I hope I am blessed with health and luck enough to be there for the opening of the first new park of the 2040s. Maybe by then I won’t be able to go global anymore, but I’ll still be there, still be scoring. I’ll be telling some kid next to me: “He’s the best defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen…and I’ve seen Ozzie Smith.” And you can rest assured I’ll be thinking of kind, welcoming baseball fans like Juan and Senor Efrain Rodriguez when I say it. Muchos gracias, mis hermanos.
***Update April 2006: I love the internet so much sometimes. I got a nice email from Efrain Rodriguez’s son, also named Efrain. He said the following:
“Well, here is the deal. My name is Efrain Rodriguez and I live in Atlanta. My dad lives in PR and goes by the same name. He also attended many games in that series and was 73 at the time. I can not make the face on the posted photo but I am pretty sure you sat next to my dad. Weird.
“A couple of weeks ago I flew to PR to watch the World Baseball Classic with him at the Bithorn. Took a photo of him celebrating a PR score with his flag. He no longer uses glasses and is 3 years older but looks similar as in 2003. Is this the same person you sat next to? If so, this is a very small world.”
Indeed it is, sir. And indeed he is. Thanks for the picture.
BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:
Javier Vazquez makes his first start in front of his countrymen. He’s clearly stoked–strikes out the side in the first inning. But he fades out a bit and doesn’t factor into the decision.
Vladimir Guerrero, Tony Clark, and Gary Sheffield homer.
John Smoltz picks up a save.(Written April 2003. Updated April 2006.)