PITTSBURGH -- As their planes descended into San Juan, they witnessed the devastation. The island Mike Gonzalez loves was littered with debris, its people without power and water. Frank Coonelly saw entire towns leveled. Joey Cora struggled to see Puerto Rico, his home, "so destroyed" by Hurricane Maria."It was difficult,"
PITTSBURGH -- As their planes descended into San Juan, they witnessed the devastation. The island Mike Gonzalez loves was littered with debris, its people without power and water. Frank Coonelly saw entire towns leveled. Joey Cora struggled to see Puerto Rico, his home, "so destroyed" by Hurricane Maria.
"It was difficult," Cora said. "I know what Puerto Rico is supposed to look like."
The Pirates' traveling party could only do so much, but they knew they could help. Last month, the Bucs collected hurricane relief supplies outside PNC Park and delivered them personally to Puerto Rico, an effort by Roberto Clemente's team that reflected his legacy, his spirit of giving, for his homeland.
"What made personally delivering the needed supplies so special was that we were not only representing the Pirates, but even more importantly, our city, our fans and every single person who helped make it possible," Pirates owner Bob Nutting said in a statement. "To have that type of direct, tangible impact, from the people of Pittsburgh to the people of Puerto Rico who are in such dire need is something of which, I believe, Roberto Clemente would have been proud."
Cora, Gonzalez and Sean Rodriguez took it a step further. Cora, the Pirates' third-base coach, helped distribute goods in his hometown of Caguas. Rodriguez and Gonzalez, a special assistant in Pittsburgh's front office, went door-to-door with supplies in Cayey, Gonzalez's hometown.
What they saw then gives them hope even now, two months after the Category 4 storm swept over the island, as Puerto Rico continues to deal with the aftermath.
"It broke my heart to see the island in the shape that it was, but it also impressed me to see how motivated people were to continue living," Gonzalez said. "Even though there was devastation and heartbreak around them, they still carried the spirit that they're going to fight, battle and get back up."
At first, Coonelly considered the obstacles. The Pirates' president loved the idea his team -- led by Cora, Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Francisco Cervelli -- had conceived, yet it seemed audacious. FedEx promised the Pirates a cargo plane to deliver supplies, but the club didn't want to send down a half-full aircraft. Could they fill one?
The Pirates held a two-day supply drive on Mazeroski Way, and the people of Pittsburgh delivered beyond the Bucs' wildest expectations. They collected 450,000 pounds of supplies -- bottled water, canned goods, baby items, cleaning supplies and more -- and Pirates Charities secured generators, while raising more than $200,000 to assist with the relief efforts.
In the end, they filled two planes and an additional cargo ship.
"It absolutely blew me away," Coonelly said.
"That was all the people here in Pittsburgh," added Cora. "We expected people to help, but we never expected as much love as we got."
As part of their plan, the Pirates delivered the aid themselves. They wanted to make sure their supplies -- mostly donated by Pittsburghers -- reached people in need, Coonelly said, specifically smaller cities in the middle of the island.
"If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right," Gonzalez said. "We wanted to make sure things were handled personally."
The traveling party included Nutting, Coonelly, Cora, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Cervelli, Pirates alumni Omar Moreno and John Candelaria and FedEx officials. The first cargo plane carried supplies for Caguas and Cayey, the second for Comerio, Coamo, Guayama, Gurabo and Yabucoa.
They were greeted in San Juan by Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rossello and Luis Clemente, one of Roberto's sons. They handed out Pirates hats and Clemente's No. 21 jerseys to the airport staff as they unloaded the plane into 18-wheel trucks.
"Once we got on the ground in San Juan, you could see the true heart and soul of Puerto Rico," Coonelly said. "They were in significant need, but their spirit had not been broken. Puerto Rican people are very proud people, and they were going to rebuild despite all the odds against them."
Most of the party spent the day in the capital, ensuring the supplies were unloaded before flying home. Then Cora, Gonzalez and Rodriguez went to work.
Cora traveled to Caguas and met with mayor William Miranda Torres, a longtime friend. He delivered supplies to a distribution center, stunned by the long line of people there -- many of them familiar faces.
"That was kind of difficult, too, seeing the people you knew from when you were a baby getting in that line to get whatever they could get," Cora said. "That was the most difficult part of that time."
But Cora was also heartened by what he saw. People were getting supplies they desperately needed, thanking him and the Pirates, and promising to deliver more to their neighborhoods and communities.
"That was touching. They were struggling to get food, then when they finally got it, they said, 'I'm going to share it with all the people that couldn't come,'" Cora said. "That's what made it -- wow, that's what I mean by fighting. They're taking care of their brothers and sisters."
After spending the night at Gonzalez's grandfather's house, Gonzalez and Rodriguez met Cayey mayor Rolando Ortiz at a baseball field that was serving as the city's recovery center. Rather than hand out supplies there, the Pirates duo accompanied the mayor's team out into different sectors of the mountainous area.
They began in Mogote, Gonzalez's neighborhood and the area most affected by Hurricane Maria. They went from house to house, witnessing the impact of the storm as they provided what relief they could. Some homes had no roofs or furniture. Others had slanted floors and foundations sinking into the ground following mudslides. Families slept on the ground. Inside others, the flood water was several feet deep.
"Man, we walked into some houses that would break our hearts," Gonzalez said. "It was amazing to walk through these homes, and even though they were destroyed, the people would receive us as if their homes were in immaculate condition. … The people were so grateful and so loving."
They did the same in Rincon, then at a local hospital and nursing home-type facility, then in another part of the city. They helped distribute truckloads of food, water, medicine, diapers, generators and other supplies from about 8 a.m. until 7 p.m.
"I'm talking about hustling. We had a huge team of people knocking on doors, passing out groceries, giving supplies," Gonzalez said. "Sean and I are carrying stuff, knocking on doors, and people would receive us with hugs."
Cora has been back home a few times since the Pirates' trip, saying things in his hometown are "slowly getting better." Less than half of the island has electricity, NBC News reported on Monday, and one-tenth of Puerto Ricans lack potable water. Gonzalez said he receives occasional text messages from Ortiz, saying his staff is still distributing some of the supplies delivered by the Pirates.
"It brings me so much joy to know we were able to help so many people," Gonzalez said. "Even though it breaks my heart to know people are still living in these conditions, on their second month in these conditions, at least we were able to help some and give them a boost to continue fighting. It was a very, very special experience."
"They weren't giving up," added Cora. "That made it a little bit easier, at least for me, seeing that the people were trying to get back on their feet. … They weren't giving up. They were fighting."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.