Puerto Rico Looks To Capitalize On Return Of MLB Games

What: The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians battle in a two-game series at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium in this week’s Puerto Rico Series.
Why it matters: Talk of MLB’s first expansion since 1998 has been growing, and a strong showing this week can put Puerto Rico in the mix, which would be a huge boon to Puerto Rican companies and other international marketers.

In 2003 and 2004, Puerto Rico got its first extended taste of Major League Baseball on the island when the Montreal Expos, playing out their final seasons before moving to Washington, D.C., called Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan for 22 of their home games. Though efforts to make the city the permanent home for the troubled franchise didn’t prove fruitful, MLB has returned intermittently to the venerable 55-year-old facility, hosting World Baseball Classic games in 2006, 2009, and 2013 and a three-game regular season set between the Florida Marlins and New York Mets in 2010.

This week, the sport returns to Puerto Rico as the Central Division rivals Cleveland Indians (@Indians) and Minnesota Twins (@Twins ‏) square off in a two-game set at the historic venue on Tuesday and Wednesday. Puerto Rico Tourism (@SeePuertoRico) is banking on the enthusiasm of fans of those teams, whose home games so far have featured cold, damp weather, as well as baseball fans in general to add to what has been a strong recent showing for the island in hosting major sporting events.

Puerto Rico continues to produce top-level Major League talent, which will be on display in the two games. Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Jose Berrios and Eddie Rosario of the Twins are among the most recent crop of stars, with Houston’s Carlos Correa and the Chicago Cubs’ Javier Baez leading the roster of young Puerto Ricans on the rise. Four P.R. natives are in the Hall of Fame, with a few other likely candidates in the next few years.

But it’s not just about baseball there. In addition to the Indians-Twins series, Puerto Rico has been the site of the Divas Half Marathon and 5K and IRONMAN 70.3 this year and is set for two more years as the PGA TOUR’s Puerto Rico Open host in 2019 and 2020.

“Hosting the Major League Baseball organization, its executives and players for two series games is important for Puerto Rico,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares in a statement. “We thank the MLB organization for their continued commitment to host this highly regarded event on our Island that is bringing thousands of fans to our historic ballpark where many MLB players of Puerto Rican descent started their very own professional sports careers.”

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The influx couldn’t come at a better time for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September. The series had been announced before the hurricane arrived, and was an easy sellout in the 18,000-seat stadium, which took on some damage to the dugouts, bullpens, playing field, lights and more during the storm. The two games are the first played under the new lights at Hiram Bithorn.

Brands have taken notice as well, as Anheuser-Busch, JetBlue and T-Mobile among the international partners joining Rum Puerto Rico, Ashley Furniture Berríos and other locals.

Now the question is, what’s next? MLB executives have talked about the league’s potential first expansion since 1998. Would San Juan be a candidate? Two games in April aren’t going to be the deciding factors, but a strong showing this week can go a long way towards making it a viable option, which would change the face of the island for not just the sporting public, but local companies and international brands with Puerto Rican ties.


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cover image: Hiram Bithorn Stadium, credit: Flickr/Bryce Edwards