SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The devastation from Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in shambles. To this day, large pockets of the island remain without power. So playing a winter league baseball season seemed impossible.
“When I heard they were seriously thinking of playing the season, I thought they were crazy,” said Carlos Baerga, the former MLB All-Star second baseman and general manager of the Mayaguez Indios. “I seriously thought there was no way possible.”
But on Friday, that’s exactly what began, with a doubleheader in the western city of Mayaguez: Santurce vs. Carolina in the opener and Caguas vs. Mayaguez in the nightcap. The 80th version of the Puerto Rican winter league returned, albeit under difficult circumstances. Only two of the island’s stadiums are able to host games, Mayaguez’s Isidoro Garcia Stadium and San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where they will only play day games because they are unable to light the field.
The main entrance to the stadium in Mayaguez will be inaccesible to fans because it is being used as a FEMA disaster assistance center.
“Baseball is baseball, and that’s what the people want to see again,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who moved to Puerto Rico from his native Cuba in the early 1960s.
Instead of the usual 40-game season, this season will consist of only 18 games, which will still allow Puerto Rico to send a team to the Caribbean Series in Mexico next month.
Puerto Rico has enjoyed a baseball renaissance of sorts in recent years. A pair of second-place finishes in the past two World Baseball Classics and a championship in last year’s Caribbean Series have helped catapult the game back to the fore among Puerto Ricans.
None of those players are scheduled to play this month, as the four-team league will be dominated by younger, up-and-coming players and a few veterans clinging to the hopes of returning to the big leagues.
“The sport is alive and well again here,” Baerga said. “This season is going to be for the fans. It’s going to be for the people of Puerto Rico. There are a lot of people without lights here or water. At least you can be there for the people, be fresh there, not think about what is going to happen the next day or the money to pay for this and for that. That’s why we are doing this.”