San Juan Series special for players, fans

San Juan Series special for players, fans

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- On the outdoor artificial-turf field, salsa and reggaeton blared in a constant loop from the stadium speakers during batting practice. In the concourse level, concession stands were elaborately decorated with tropical fruits just below a sign that read "Platitos de Frutas Naturales" ("natural fruit plates" in English).

And right outside of a Hiram Bithorn Stadium that had pretty much been unoccupied all year, hundreds of fans strolled around a lawn decorated with giant inflatables, slides and mascots, while a group of teenagers marched around beating on bongos and blowing on trumpets in celebration.

Yes, this was one of 18 Major League regular-season games between the division-rival Mets and Marlins.

But it was different.

Different because an island that still holds baseball in the highest of regards -- regardless of the many issues that currently make the sport a cause for concern in Puerto Rico -- got to once again witness the game they love being played at the highest level.

And different because coaches Edwin Rodriguez and Jose Espada of the Marlins, and players Alex Cora, Angel Pagan, Pedro Feliciano and Jesus Feliciano of the Mets, were home again.

"It means a lot -- just having the opportunity to play in front of your people and enjoy it," said Cora, the reserve infielder who grew up about 25 minutes away from this stadium and had about 25 family members and friends visiting at the ballpark. "It's not only a three-game series. It's more than that for me."

It was fitting, then, that the first Major League regular-season game in Puerto Rico since 2004 ended with a 10-3 Marlins win.

Rodriguez, who was leading a Triple-A New Orleans team less than a week ago and is now Florida's interim manager, was the star here, because he's a trailblazer: The first Puerto Rican-born skipper in the big leagues.

At the start of the game, he took the field to a raucous cheer. At the end, he notched the oh-so-perfect win.

"A lot of feelings, a lot of sentiments," said Rodriguez, who grew up about five minutes away from the ballpark that gave him his second Major League victory. "I can feel the country, the people here in this stadium sharing that feeling. It was huge."

The majority of the Hiram Bithorn Stadium crowd of 18,073 -- the stadium's capacity is 19,232 -- were Mets fans, considering four players on their active roster are Puerto Ricans (not to mention Carlos Beltran, who couldn't make the trip because he was still on rehab assignment) and none on the Marlins' side were born in this U.S. territory.

That was evidenced by emphatic applause when Cora stepped out onto the on-deck circle to pinch-hit in the sixth -- eventually striking out -- and a chant of "Let's go Mets!" that broke out with New York trailing, 7-3, in the top of the eighth.

"It's something really big in here," Pagan said, "and it's only helping my country."

Pagan is battling muscle spasms in his right side, which meant he couldn't be in the lineup to play in his hometown. But the 28-year-old outfielder said he expected to be in there on Tuesday, and his absence meant another Puerto Rico native, Jesus Feliciano, got the start in center field.

"Wearing a big league uniform and playing in front of your country, it's something you can not even explain," Feliciano said. "Everybody's excited to be here, playing in Puerto Rico. And also the American guys, they're really excited, too."

Edgar Felix is a lifelong Mets fan. But 10 years ago, he moved from New York to San Juan. On this night, Felix was just happy to see his Mets again -- especially since they're in the middle of a pennant race.

"That's a gift. That's a gift, man," Felix said. "You can't go to New York, that's a gift for them to come over here. They should do it more often."

Hiram Bithorn Stadium isn't new to Major League Baseball.

It hosted Opening Day in 2001 between the Blue Jays and Rangers. It housed the Montreal Expos for 22 games apiece in '03 and '04, before the club's move to Washington. And it has served as the home for several World Baseball Classic games in '06 and '09.

Other than that, though, the stadium is rather empty year-round, since the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rico Baseball League didn't play here this past season and aren't scheduled to return at the moment.

"I know people here have been looking for this for a long time," said Hall of Famer and Marlins special assistant Tony Perez, who was born in Cuba, but makes his offseason home in Santurce, P.R. "Every time a Major League team comes here and plays, they love it. You can see the music, people around the ballpark early. I think it's going to be a great series."

Game 1 came with much anticipation, continued with an outdoor celebration a couple of hours before the first pitch and officially kicked off when Major League Baseball Goodwill Ambassador Vera Clemente -- wife of the most important Puerto Rican baseball player of all, Roberto Clemente -- threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Then, after players were introduced on the field -- and the six Puerto Rico natives on the Marlins and Mets drew loud cheers -- the Marlins used three home runs to beat R.A. Dickey and snap a four-game losing streak.

When Rodriguez got out of the airport on Sunday night, about 150 people awaited his arrival. More were then waiting when he got to the team hotel. And many others sought him out after the Marlins wrapped up the victory about 24 hours later.

In this town, there may be nobody more important than Rodriguez.

"It's big -- not only for him, but also for Puerto Rico," said former Mets second baseman Jose Valentin, who now coaches in his native Puerto Rico. "To have a guy out of Puerto Rico managing in the big leagues, it's something that is amazing. We can say that we're right there with the Dominicans and the Venezuelans."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.