Friday, April 20, 2018

Should they have played in San Juan?

As it became evident last September how badly Hurricane Maria had damaged Puerto Rico,  I expected MLB to cancel the planned Indians-Twins series in San Juan. They didn't.

Those games were played Tuesday and Wednesday -- the second one in the midst of an island-wide blackout, with literally millions of Puerto Ricans in the dark and backup generators powering Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The stadium itself needed extensive repairs after the storm to be ready for these two games.

And I ask myself: Was it worth it? Should the needs of MLB have been a priority in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico? Is it right that the ballpark is fixed when blue tarps remain on rooftops all over the island? Or did the games provide a useful dose of escapism, pride and hope for the island's beleaguered residents?

The image of the ballpark as a brightly-lit oasis in the blackout darkness of San Juan is both repugnant and attractive. My instinct, despite my obvious fandom, is to declare that the trivialities of  sports must be far down the list of priorities in a disaster such as Maria. But it's also true that people need some relief from constantly facing grim reality; a joyous diversion is helpful in stressful times.

As a practical matter, diverting the stadium generators to a different use would not have solved the blackout. The rickety, outdated and undercapitalized power grid is one of Puerto Rico's major drawbacks; no amount of backup generators can resolve that problem.

Michael Lananna of Baseball America this winter wrote of the determination on the island to play its winter league. It was a shortened season, and there were no night games, but there was a winter league, and Puerto Rico went on to win the Caribbean Series. There is reason for pride in that accomplishment.

Baseball is part of the pattern of life in Puerto Rico (and here). How much a part depends on one's personal tastes. Playing two major league games in San Juan doesn't mean the island is back; it certainly doesn't fix the problems. But it probably represents a small step forward, and if nothing else for a few days reminded the rest of the country that a portion of our fellow citizens are still hurting.

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