GUYABO, Puerto Rico (AP) — Cleveland star Francisco Lindor held a baseball in his hand, ready to pitch, and asked the young boy standing at home plate if he knew how to swing a bat.
The kid said no.
The kid might have been fibbing. Lindor’s soft-toss pitch became a line drive, and the kid at Escuela Villa Marina — the same grammar school that Lindor attended years ago — looked at the All-Star shortstop and grinned as onlookers applauded.
“This is what it’s about,” Lindor said.
Cleveland and Minnesota are in Puerto Rico to play a two-game series in San Juan starting Tuesday night. But the Indians and Twins also know they’re serving a larger purpose on this trip, which is why many of the players from both teams ventured out among the Puerto Rican people today to give back to an island that was robbed of so much by Hurricane Maria last September.
Lindor went back to his first school in Guyabo, his hometown. Minnesota’s Jose Berrios, who will start on the mound for the Twins in his homeland on Wednesday night, visited a children’s hospital in San Juan and was flanked by many of his teammates. Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario, like Lindor, also went home — he was headlining a clinic in Guayama, the city where he grew up.
“It’s an honor. It’s a privilege,” Lindor said at the school where some local residents were standing outside the chain-link fence more than an hour before he arrived, hoping to just catch a glimpse of Guyabo’s favorite son. “I’m blessed to be here. It’s a dream and I’m excited. Stuff like that is something I always wanted to do. As soon as I was a professional baseball player, I always wanted to come back and do something like this special for the kids — not for me, for the kids, for the community.”
Berrios knows exactly what Lindor is feeling. On Wednesday night, the right-hander from Bayamon — located just south of San Juan — is expected to become the second Puerto Rican pitcher to start a regular-season big-league game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Javier Vazquez started four in 2003, when the park was used as an alternate home field by the Montreal Expos.
“It’s emotional,” Berrios said. “I feel it already. The stadium where we’re playing, Roberto Clemente played there. My dad watched him play there. Growing up, I watched baseball there. And now we’re going to play there.”
Part of this trip is about giving, and the Indians elected to give a full playoff share, roughly $37,000, from last season to causes in Puerto Rico. Some of that money is going to the Nuestra Escuela school, which was hit hard by Hurricane Maria. The wives of Indians players collaborated on a separate donation as well.
“Absolutely honored,” said Ana Yris Gusman Torres, the school’s principal, as she clutched the check that was brought in an Indians envelope. “We will make the best use of it that we can.”
Much more is coming over the next couple days on the donation fronts.
Tuesday, a cargo van and truck that will serve as mobile response units — financed by MLB — will be delivered, both vehicles outfitted and loaded with supplies to assist in the ongoing home-repair and construction efforts in Puerto Rico. Wednesday, another check from MLB will be delivered to give more than 2,000 Little League players new uniforms and apparel, as well as a donation from the MLB Players Association and Players Trust to Feeding America.
“Sports, it’s underrated,” former big-league great Bobby Bonilla, who was born in New York but is of Puerto Rican descent, said as he watched Lindor interact with hundreds of kids — with a tattered blue tarp blowing off one roof in the distance. “Sports heals. Big time.”
Hiram Bithorn has hosted about four dozen MLB regular-season games over the last two decades.
There was a Texas-Toronto game in 2001, then 43 more in the 2003 and 2004 seasons when the Expos relocated there on occasion, and a three-game set between the then-Florida Marlins and the New York Mets in 2010. The Marlins and Pittsburgh were to play a two-game series in San Juan in honor of Roberto Clemente Day in 2016, but the games were relocated to Miami over concerns about the Zika virus.
But the scene Tuesday night is expected to just be different.
“Extremely emotional,” Lindor said. “It’s something that I don’t take for granted. Take in every little second of it. I’m blessed. I’m blessed to see how everything’s coming along … it’s a dream come true.”