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What the return of Major League Baseball means to Puerto Rico

"They want to show the world that we're okay. We can overcome this terrible tragedy."

Fans watch the Cleveland Indians play the Minnesota Twins at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium. CREDIT: Ricardo Arduengo/Getty Images
Fans watch the Cleveland Indians play the Minnesota Twins at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium. CREDIT: Ricardo Arduengo/Getty Images

It’s been a hellish seven months for Puerto Rico.

After Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last year, residents have endured months without basic services such as electricity and potable water. A woefully mismanaged recovery effort brought one outrage after another, and fostered the feeling that Puerto Ricans were viewed as “second-class citizens,” in the words of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

Today, everyday life hasn’t returned to normal. But, for the first time since 2010, Major League Baseball is back in Puerto Rico for a two-game series featuring the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins — offering fans of the national pastime both an important reminder of the unfinished recovery effort as well as an opportunity to showcase Puerto Rico’s resilience.

No matter how strong the desire to instill a sense of normalcy, however, Maria’s devastation is a constant presence. The exuberance from Tuesday night’s game was dampened Wednesday when the entire island was hit with a blackout. Officials estimate it will take between 24 and 36 hours to restore power, but the second game of the series will be played as scheduled, thanks to multiple generators.

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ESPN analyst Marly Rivera hails from the island. The MLB series marks her fifth trip to Puerto Rico since Maria hit, and, prior to Wednesday’s blackout, she said she was finally seeing clear signs of progress. “There are these little reminders that tell you how much there still is left to do,” she told ThinkProgress from San Juan Tuesday. “For example, there are a lot of places that still don’t have traffic lights.”

Outside of the San Juan area, roads remain in dire need of repair. Residents frequently lose power. And communication can still be a challenge (as if to underscore this point, our call was dropped four times during the course of the conversation).

While life in Puerto Rico continues to slowly improve, Rivera can still observe the toll the disaster continues to take on residents. “It is depressing,” she said. “There’s a sense of, what do we do if this happens again? Especially as hurricane season is about to start again.”

That anxiety is coupled with “a sense of resignation,” according to Rivera. “That this is just how things are. And that has been very shocking for me to see that.” She said she doesn’t hear complaints from Puerto Ricans about what they’ve endured and the challenges they continue to face; to her, it seems they’ve accepted this as their new normal.

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Those feelings seem to have pushed some Puerto Ricans to desperation; from November 2017 to January 2018, the number of reported suicide attempts more than tripled.

Baseball isn’t a cure for the tragedy that befell Puerto Rico, but it can be a salve. On Monday, Rivera traveled to Gurabo with the Indians’ Francisco Lindor, where the star shortstop made an appearance at his old elementary school. She said that the cheerful way he was greeted by the school’s students and teachers left a profound impression. “It was so extraordinary to see the way they reacted to it and how much joy it brought to them,” she said.

This small island has produced countless famous baseball players over the years — from Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente to one of the stars of the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros, Carlos Correa.

“People are still suffering over there,” Correa said last week. “And to be able to bring baseball, the sport that we love the most, back to my hometown — it’s going to be amazing. A lot of people are looking forward to it.”

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This week’s series is more than just another game. Puerto Ricans take great pride in producing standout players like Lindor, Rivera said, as well as emerging talents such as pitcher Jose Berrios, who started for the Twins on Tuesday.

The league seems to grasp how important baseball is to Puerto Rico, and vice-versa.

“The Puerto Rico Series is another step to support the island’s recovery,” Tom Brasuell, MLB’s vice president of community affairs, said in a statement to ThinkProgress. It’s representative of the league’s “commitment to support a region that has always supported baseball as fans and as producers of some of the game’s greatest players, past and present.”

The league donated $1 million to recovery efforts, and chartered a cargo plane with supplies, food, and water that was delivered to affected families last October. Several teams and players organized their own efforts, as well — raising money, sending supplies, and leading relief trips back to the island in the offseason.

Just three weeks ago, Rivera wasn’t sure Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named for the first Puerto Rican player to crack the major leagues, would be ready for this week’s series. The stadium suffered significant damage in the storm, and Roberto Clemente Coliseum next door was used as a staging area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

But as officials have focused intensely on the stadium and surrounding area, Rivera said she arrived this week to find hardly any indication of the damage left behind by the catastrophic storm.

While much remains to be done to not only restore the island to its pre-Maria state but also to increase its resilience as a new hurricane season fast approaches, hosting their beloved baseball gives Puerto Ricans a respite from the tragedy and a chance to show how far they’ve come.

“The hashtag or theme when this happened was ‘Puerto Rico Se Levanta,’ Puerto Rico gets back up,” Rivera said. “That’s why it’s so important to Puerto Ricans. They want to show the world that we’re okay. We can overcome this terrible tragedy.”