It was January 12, 1936, and the Newark Eagles, of the Negro National League, were in trouble. They were in San Juan, Puerto Rico for an exhibition series against the Cincinnati Reds, and their star pitcher, Leon Day, had come down with appendicitis. The Eagles had seen Hiram “Hi” Bithorn on the mound during practice games earlier that week (at that time there were no organized baseball leagues in Puerto Rico, but it was played locally throughout towns across the island), and were impressed enough to invite him to step in and act as an emergency starter. Bithorn held the Reds to one run through seven, but fell apart in the eighth, exiting the game after giving up three runs in the inning. This did nothing to deter Ted Norbert, a scout for the New York Yankees. The Eagles won the game, and Bithorn earned a contract with the Class B Norfolk Tars.
Six years later he debuted as a reliever for the Chicago Cubs, and became the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. 324 Puerto Ricans have since followed Bithorn’s path to the majors and, in 1962, the island memorialized the trailblazer by naming their new stadium in his honor. Hiram Bithorn Stadium is the regular-season home to Los Cangrejeros de Santurce (the Santurce Crabbers) and Los Senadores de San Juan (the San Juan Senators), and has played host to the World Baseball Classic and Caribbean Series, as well as a number of visiting teams from the majors. Three numbers decorate the outfield wall - 21, 22, 30 - in honor of Roberto Clemente, Rubén Gómez, and Orlando Cepeda, respectively. Mayor Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first woman to be elected as mayor of a major city in the Americas, helped facilitate the construction of the stadium during her tenure and the game-watching experience at Hiram Bithorn is like no other.
Tonight the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins will convene at Hiram Bithorn Stadium for the first part of a two game series. Baseball has always been popular in Puerto Rico but it has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, between an incredible second-place run in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and unprecedented back-to-back Caribbean Series championships. Some of the best and brightest major league stars, such as Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor, hail from the island. Not even Hurricane Maria could stop Puerto Ricans passion for the game - the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, Puerto Rico’s winter league, season was shortened to 21 games but carried on, despite the fact that less than half of the island’s power grid was operational. All the games were played at 1:30 PM, at one of two stadiums, due to electricity concerns, and ticket fees were waived for everyone. As Juan Antonio Flores Galarza, an RCPBL team owner, said this winter “Sports has always been an instrument to unite people, and during this historic moment, when we are in the midst of a crisis, I believe that the league should fulfill its social responsibility by providing diversion and fun, and helping the Puerto Rican people through this crisis.”
It’s been eight years since Puerto Rico last hosted an MLB series, although two years ago a Pirates-Marlins series was planned but subsequently cancelled due to concerns over the Zika virus. Last season saw a record number of players in MLB born outside of the US and as the number of non-US born players continues to grow, particularly players born in Latin American countries, so too should the frequency of series’ beyond the US/Canadian borders.
The Mariners are already reportedly scheduled to open the 2019 season on foreign soil, playing the A’s in the Tokyo Dome, just as they did back in 2012, but they’re also uniquely well-suited for a future series in Puerto Rico. There’s Edgar Martínez, of course, a star in MLB and a member of the famed “Dream Team” that represented Puerto Rico in the 1995 Caribbean Series, and Edwin Díaz, who helped Team Puerto Rico advance to the championships of the World Baseball Classic in 2017, but it’s also the way this Mariners team plays the game. They don’t play the “right” way or the “wrong” way, because there is no right or wrong way, but they play with heart, and with a joyous passion that would resonate with the Puerto Rican fans. Or, heck, with fans across the globe.
Important details for the series:
Game 1 - Tuesday, April 17, televised on FS1 at 7:10 PST. Corey Kluber vs Jake Odorizzi.
Game 2 - Wednesday, April 18, televised on ESPN at 7:10 PST. Carlos Carrasco vs José Berríos