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P.R. club using Caribbean Series to bring joy

MLB.com @JesseSanchezMLB

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The search for cellphone service forced former Major League outfielder Luis Matos to drive at least 30 minutes away from his home on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. If he got lucky and found a wayward signal, the phone usually registered only one bar, rendering the device mostly useless.

"You couldn't really call anybody on the island because everyone was without electricity and towers were down," said Matos, who is in town this week managing Puerto Rico's Criollos de Caguas in the Caribbean Series. "Personally, I was without [electricity] for two months. Sometimes, you still wonder how we were able to survive a Category 5 hurricane. You really don't grasp what it's like to go through it unless you lived it."

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The search for cellphone service forced former Major League outfielder Luis Matos to drive at least 30 minutes away from his home on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. If he got lucky and found a wayward signal, the phone usually registered only one bar, rendering the device mostly useless.

"You couldn't really call anybody on the island because everyone was without electricity and towers were down," said Matos, who is in town this week managing Puerto Rico's Criollos de Caguas in the Caribbean Series. "Personally, I was without [electricity] for two months. Sometimes, you still wonder how we were able to survive a Category 5 hurricane. You really don't grasp what it's like to go through it unless you lived it."

Last September, Hurricane Maria, the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico since the San Felipe Segundo hurricane in 1928, devastated the island and left the 3.5 million U.S. citizens who live there without power or phone service. The global relief efforts continue across the island, and Matos' team is also doing its part.

The Caguas squad is not just here to defend its Caribbean Series title. It's in Mexico to honor its social commitment to the people and fulfill its responsibility as one of the oldest institutions on the island.

"Puerto Rico se levanta" is one of the many rallying cries that have permeated the island since Hurricane Maria hit. In English, the phrase means, "Puerto Rico rises up."

"There will be a new Puerto Rico and we have to be part of it," said Ricardo Valero, who works as the media director for Puerto Rico's professional baseball league. "Baseball is part of our culture and we had to find a way to play and inspire. Baseball brings joy and fun. Nobody needs that more than the people of Puerto Rico right now."

Finding a place for the teams to play was a problem.

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Hurricane Maria destroyed the Caguas home stadium and caused millions of dollars worth of damage to Roberto Clemente Stadium, home of the Gigantes de Carolina. The strong winds and rain also heavily impacted the historic Hiram Bithorn Stadium, home the Cangrejeros de Santurce. Games were eventually played at Hiram Bithorn, but the lack of power limited the facility to day games only.

When the Puerto Rico professional baseball league resumed in an abbreviated 18-game schedule in January, games were held at 1:30 p.m. six days a week, with doubleheaders Sundays at 1.

Caguas eventually found a home at nearby Estadio Evaristo Roldan, a minor league park in Gurabo. The only fully functioning stadium in the league was Isador Garcia Stadium, home of the Indios de Mayaguez.

"It's a miracle to be here because nobody thought that we would play because of what happened," Matos said. "It was extremely difficult and there are still a lot of people suffering and need help."

Last week, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy and Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who is from Caguas, led a group of Red Sox players and Boston officials to his hometown to deliver 10 tons of food, water and other essentials to around 300 families. The group was accompanied by Caguas team owner Raul Rodriguez, who has played a key role in the island's restoration. Rodriguez also coordinated relief efforts by the Pittsburgh Pirates and other teams last year.

"In the beginning, we helped the municipalities get food and water and basic supplies in a massive way, and now what we are doing is going directly to the mountains and going door-to-door to help people who have not been able to go down for help," Rodriguez said. "We still have areas that are 100-percent without electricity, and that leads to a high unemployment rate because businesses are not opened. There's also a need for medicine, so we created mobile pharmacies. But we really need to get electricity and generators to everyone so the island can function better."

Rodriguez has inspired his players to become more involved in the island's rebuild. Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo, who plays for Caguas, was among the group to deliver supplies with Cora last week. Phillies Minor League second baseman Jesmuel Valentin wanted to be there, too, but could not attend because of a scheduling conflict.

"We have the opportunity to give the fans something they can watch for a couple of hours and not think about the problems and everything they lost," Valentin said. "We are not just playing for Caguas, we are playing for Puerto Rico. We want to win for them."

Video: Jesmuel Valentin on representing Puerto Rico

There are a few reasons for the team to be optimistic. Puerto Rico (1-1) has won the Caribbean Series 15 times, including last year's championship by Caguas. Overall, Caguas has four Caribbean Series titles, with championships in 1954, '74, '87 and 2017.

If Caguas wins the tournament, Matos would become the first manager to win consecutive Caribbean Series titles since Napoleon Reyes won back-to-back championships with Cuba's Tigres de Marianao in 1957-58.

Last year's championship was its first since 2000.

"How much sadder would it have been to win the Caribbean title after all those years and not be able to come back and defend it because of the hurricane?" Matos said. "We were not going to let that happen. The league did and great job and everyone did their part to make sure we played baseball."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.