Díaz pitches in with Puerto Rico relief efforts

January 19th, 2020

NEW YORK -- When a catastrophic earthquake struck his native Puerto Rico early on the morning of Jan. 7, felt nothing as he slept in his home in Maunabo, a small town near the island’s southeastern coast. He awoke to phone calls from his parents and siblings, who filled him in on the tragedy unfolding elsewhere on the island.

Soon after, Díaz decided to do something about it, gathering his family members together to hatch a plan. He and his wife shopped for supplies and recruited a small army -- Díaz’s parents, his siblings, his niece and nephew and lots of friends, about 40 people in total -- to make the two-hour drive west to Peñuelas.

There, Díaz saw the extent of destruction that a series of earthquakes and aftershocks have wreaked in Puerto Rico since late December. Some houses were destroyed, others badly damaged. People nursed injuries. Many prominent Puerto Ricans -- including former Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado -- milled about, helping in whatever ways they could.

“When we first got there, it was really impactful,” Díaz said last week in a telephone interview, speaking through an interpreter. “It’s good to be able to use your resources and be able to help other people, because it’s definitely a sad time. It feels good to see people put a smile on their face when they see you.”

The earthquakes marked the latest natural disaster in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering in many ways from the destruction of Hurricane Maria in Sept. 2017. Díaz, who was on the Mariners when that storm struck, rushed home after the season to take part in relief efforts.

While the recent quakes may have affected fewer Puerto Ricans than Maria did, they have still caused significant damage, uprooting families and turning lives upside-down. Even in relatively unaffected areas, much of the island lost power after the Jan. 7 quake, which was followed by a rapid series of aftershocks. The entire episode lasted weeks; even today, the island remains on alert. For those in the hardest-hit areas, recovery efforts won’t end anytime soon.

When Díaz arrived in Peñuelas, a local politician assigned him to the Caracoles barrio -- or neighborhood -- where his crew wore orange-and-blue “Team Sugar” t-shirts as they handed out supplies, including water, paper towels, toiletries and first-aid kits.

“I don’t feel a responsibility [to help] -- it’s something that comes from the heart,” Díaz said. “I know that if we were in the same situation, other people from other towns nearby would be helping us out. And luckily for us, we have the resources to be able to gather ourselves, and we are able to go help other people out. We are all Puerto Ricans, so at the end of the day, if we can help each other out, that’s what’s best.”

Díaz has spent most of the winter working on himself, altering his offseason routine after posting a 5.59 ERA with seven blown saves in his first year with the Mets. That has included one-on-one time with new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, as well as other Puerto Rico-based coaches. It has also meant throwing bullpen sessions earlier than he normally would, with the intent of reporting to Florida next month as confident as ever.

“I feel like I’ve really improved a lot on what I needed to fix,” he said. “A few weeks out now until we go to Spring Training, I feel like I’m at 100 percent of my capabilities. That I can really have a good season going into it. And I feel 100 percent that I will have a good year.”