CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- "It's good we're flying in during the day,'' Alex Cora said from seat 6F on a JetBlue chartered flight that had left snowbound Boston on Tuesday morning and was on its final approach to San Juan. "When you look out the window,'' he said, "you will
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- "It's good we're flying in during the day,'' Alex Cora said from seat 6F on a JetBlue chartered flight that had left snowbound Boston on Tuesday morning and was on its final approach to San Juan. "When you look out the window,'' he said, "you will be able to see all the blue tarps.''
From 10,000 feet, the Puerto Rico landscape visible below was a patchwork quilt of blue, each of those tarps a calling card left by Hurricane Maria.
"Those are FEMA tarps,'' Cora said, "covering the houses that used to have a roof.''
It has been more than four months since Maria ravaged the island of Cora's birth, Puerto Rico, nearly three months since Cora became the 47th manager of the Red Sox. As he was wrapping up negotiations on his contract with Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, club president Sam Kennedy said, Cora made one last request.
"At the end,'' Kennedy said, "he asked for one thing. Not for him or his family. He asked the Red Sox for relief help for the people of Puerto Rico, and specifically for his hometown of Caguas.''
Cora recalled that conversation Tuesday.
"If I have this platform and people can help us out, why not?'' he said. "If they say no, they say no.''
The Red Sox had answered with a resounding yes, which is how it was that Cora found himself flying in the company of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and a party of roughly four dozen front-office employees headed by Kennedy, assistant general manager Eddie Romero and pitcher Rick Porcello.
"A no-brainer,'' Porcello said of his decision to come. The belly of the plane contained food, medicine and other necessities ticketed for Caguas, along with boxes full of baseball equipment that soon would be distributed among a waiting group of high school players who learned the game on the same fields on which Cora had once played.
Over the span of the next two weeks, JetBlue pledged to make room in the cargo holds of its regularly scheduled flights from Boston to San Juan for the nearly 10 tons of supplies collected by Cora and the Sox. The Red Sox Foundation also presented a $200,000 check to Caguas Renace ("Rebirth").
Awaiting the arrival of Tuesday's flight was additional star power: Sox catcher Christian Vazquez and coach Ramon Vazquez, both Puerto Rico natives, and pitcher Chris Sale, who had flown in from Florida for the occasion. After a brief ceremony at the airport in which Kennedy presented personalized Sox jerseys to Puerto Rico governor (and MIT grad) Ricardo Rossello ("I always dreamed of playing second base for the Red Sox") and Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marin, the traveling party boarded buses for the long and winding trip to Caguas, tucked in the central mountain range just 45 minutes from the capital.
There, on a covered basketball court, more than 300 families -- holding vouchers for a week's worth of rice, beans, other foodstuffs, water, and diapers -- broke into waves and cheers when the buses arrived. A drum corps smartly played as Cora and company came into view.
"You can read the news, you can see the pictures,'' said Sale, who as a native Floridian is no stranger to hurricanes. "But being here in person, I'm getting chills right now.''
Raul Rodriguez is the owner of the Caguas Criollos, the Puerto Rican Winter League team that is seeking to win its second straight Caribbean Series title. His general manager when Caguas won last winter? Cora. Rodriguez also has had Cora as a player, coach and manager.
He points to the immediate neighborhood cut into the hillside. "It has been four months,'' he said, "and this neighborhood is 100 percent without power.''
One of Cora's best friends, the manager said, works for the local power company. When a neighbor asked when she might expect her power to be restored, he quickly answered: "August."
"What can I say?'' Rodriguez said, his voice thick with emotion. "We are so grateful. We are so grateful. It's been very tough for the people of Puerto Rico, it's been very tough for Caguas.
"You don't know how grateful we are that you can bring in food, water and equipment and give these people time to forget for a moment about electricity and our other shortages.''
Rodriguez had ridden together with Sale on the bus to Caguas.
"He told me he couldn't even imagine what it would be like to have no electricity four months after the hurricane,'' Rodriguez said.
"But having him here and Rick Porcello," he continued. "There are a lot of Puerto Ricans who live in other parts of the United States, and they have given us a lot of help. But we have also received so much help from other Americans, which is why it means so much that they are here. It motivates our people. They recognize we are all Americans, and we have received so much help from the U.S.''
Mayor Walsh had sounded a similar message.
"After the hurricane,'' he said, "our hearts broke for Puerto Rico. Boston will always stand with Puerto Rico, our brothers and sisters. You are our fellow Americans.''
For some members of the Red Sox party, this trip was personal. Security guard Angel Santiago had not been home to see his father, Sixto, in four years. Sixto Santiago wiped tears from under his glasses as he described how Angel had arranged for him to purchase an electric generator.
Romero, whose father, Eddie Romero, Sr., played shortstop on the 1986 Red Sox that won the American League pennant, said his relatives lived on the other side of San Juan, but had not escaped the damage. They elected to join relatives in West Palm Beach, Fla. Romero had joined the players in passing out equipment -- hats, jerseys, gloves and batting gloves -- to the high schoolers, while Kennedy and Walsh were among the volunteers passing out boxes of food.
"It's tough to put into words,'' Romero said when asked what the day meant to him, "because when you leave Puerto Rico and go to the States, you always carry Puerto Rico with you. It's a small island, fiercely proud. It hits home when you go days without hearing from your family, and it's just tough.
"You can tell people are slowly progressing, and for them to receive much-needed supplies and Red Sox gear, there were a lot of smiles out there today. Alex did an amazing job and the organization did an amazing job. I'm just so proud of this organization.''
Saskia Gomez was among the locals who had come to claim her box of food, her pack of water, her diapers. "On the day of the hurricane,'' she said, "I was in the hospital having a baby.''
The hospital had generator-operated power, but there was no refrigeration. Saskia wound up spending nine days in the hospital. But she gave birth to a son, Jeray. They do not have power, she said. But he is healthy.
These are Cora's people. These are his neighbors. His father, Jose Manuel, was a sportswriter. He also worked for the recreation department and was among the founders of Caguas' first Little League in 1969. Cora was only 13 when Jose Manuel Cora died of colon cancer in 1988.
If possible, Alex's mother, Iris, was even more of a fixture in the neighborhood than his father. She was a secretary at the Colegio Baptista de Caguas where Cora attended both grade school and high school, and before that she worked in a bank. She also raised her two baseball-playing sons, Alex and Joey (now a coach with the Pirates) and two sisters, Lidia, who is a medical lab technician, and Iris, who works in promotions. When the hurricane hit, the three women took refuge in Alex's house. It wasn't until after the World Series, he said, he discovered that the house had sustained some water damage. But he was luckier than most.
"You can see this,'' Cora said, turning to the men who will be playing for him this season. "This is real. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.''
Gordon Edes is the Boston Red Sox historian.