Puerto Rico workers save ballpark for MLB games

When Murray Cook visited this capital city Dec. 1, he encountered an island still reeling from two hurricanes, with 45 percent of its residents without power and more than 300,000 lacking tap water.

At the time, Cook’s vocation — he’s Major League Baseball’s longtime consultant on playing fields — seemed trivial. This was not merely prepping a facility for the World Baseball Classic or one-off games staged on military bases or at Little League Baseball’s Williamsport, Pa., home.

“The first hurricane left us loopy,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told USA TODAY on Tuesday, “and the second knocked us down completely. It was certainly a humanitarian crisis.”

Still, Cook had a job to do: Get Estadio Hiram Bithorn ready for the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians to play two regular-season games in April.

His work paid off Tuesday, when Caguas native and All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor led off the game for the Indians. Wednesday, Twins ace Jose Berrios, the pride of Bayamon, will start in front of friends and family members.

Cook had prepared Estadio Hiram Bithorn for nearly four dozen games over the past two decades, from the big-league opener in 2001 to scheduled “home” games for the in-limbo Montreal Expos and numerous WBC games. After storms that killed at least 68 and caused more than $115 billion in damage, his task would be far different.

“In coming from the airport to the ballpark, you saw a lot of debris all around,” he recalled of that visit in December. “Hotels hadn’t reopened. Only some of the streetlights were working. They were still in full recovery then.”

Roberto Clemente Coliseum next door to the ballpark was the FEMA staging area, and hundreds of repair vehicles were coming and going at all hours, making merely accessing the stadium a challenge.

He wasn’t prepared for what he found in Hiram Bithorn.

“The batting tunnels were totally demolished. The lighting system was shredded,” he says. “Basically all 500 (light) fixtures were broken. Some were laying in the field, some dangling from the poles. Pieces of the video board were scattered around. Debris was all over the field. All of the ceiling tiles and air-conditioning venting in the press box had been blown out. That gave us a lot of work to do.”

But who would do it? Cook serves as the president of BrightView Sports Turf Services, and the company had 100 employees already on the payroll at its Puerto Rico offices. As recently as January, 70 of them were still without power at home. That didn’t stop them from coming to work.

“Your heart goes out to these people here,” Cook says. “They’ve suffered so much. I mean, the infrastructure here was never the best. And when you get massive storms like they had, it’s 10 times worse.”

Adding more pressure to the timeline was something that couldn’t wait: Winter League. Puerto Rico’s winter circuit was insistent that the games would go on, even with just two stadiums weathering the storm in a fashion that made them playable.

So the four winter ball squads would play a shortened schedule and share the facilities — Hiram Bithorn and Evaristo “Varo” Roldan Stadium in Gurabo.

It seemed like a major victory when Cook’s staff made sufficient repairs to the artificial playing surface at Hiram Bithorn for winter ball.

And it seemed like fate when, at the end of the winter season, the team representing Puerto Rico not only competed in the Caribbean World Series in Guadalajara, Mexico, it also won the title.

“When Puerto Rico won the Caribbean World Series, it was a very, very important thing for the people here,” says Carlos Marin, the administrator of Bithorn Stadium. “We have a real passion for the sport.”

By no means was the work on the ballpark finished. To prepare for the MLB games in April, Cook and his crew provided oversight for a new lighting system, clubhouse and press box repairs, dugout expansions and replacement of the backstop netting system.

And they had to give the playing surface a major overhaul, not merely the removal of the debris they’d done for the winter league.

The field is ready for the big-leaguers. And the stadium is ready for two capacity crowds.

“They sold out quickly because of how people here feel about Major League Baseball,” Marin said. “We follow the teams that have Puerto Rican players, and both the Indians and Twins have them.”

Some $2 million, half of that for new lights, went into the renovation, along with immeasurable effort.

“We want the world to see what work we’ve done, because there are so many stories of hope here,” Cruz said. “And there’s nothing more infectious than hope.”

MLB itself and scores of players and owners — most notably Houston Astros stars Carlos Correa and retired Carlos Beltran and owner Jim Crane — provided money, supplies and their own labor to the island.

Cook believes he knows why.

“Major League Baseball has always had a strong relationship with Puerto Rico,” Cook says. “So many players have come from here. It’s just the right thing to do, to take care of our friends in the sport of baseball.

“I’ve heard it over and over here, that the island needs these games. And it’s the island’s way of saying ‘Hey, we’re back!’” – by Joe Mock, USA TODAY