[Editorial] Qué Lindor
Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared Thursday, in the April 19-25, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.
When Francisco Lindor, the All World phenom at short, hit his shot heard ’round the Caribbean, a two-run homer before a packed home crowd in the first game of the MLB Puerto Rico Series at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, more than national pride brought our people to their feet. It was a cathartic moment for the 19,512 fans witnessing the two-run homer in the stands and the more than 1 million viewing the game on local TV, a group-encounter celebration for so many who had suffered through so much for too long.
On the scoreboard, Lindor’s blast in the 5th inning was only the beginning of the Cleveland Indians rout of the Minnesota Twins—one more win at the beginning of a very long season. In the hearts of all who “love pelota dura—but are tired of getting bolazos—the cuadrangular symbolized a stand, the will to triumph.
Truth be told, the game itself, the first of a two-game set, is part of a larger achievement, as it was the first Major League Baseball (MLB) game held in Puerto Rico in more than eight years. Sadly, games between the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates scheduled for 2016 were canceled because then-Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and his debt–restructuring advisers decided to push rhetoric that portrayed a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico as a strategy to secure the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act. The zombification of Puerto Rico gave the island the debt-restructuring measure it sought, but cost the island’s tourism industry dearly when those games were canceled by Major League Baseball Player Association (MLBPA) reps who cited the zika epidemic as a health concern for MLB players’ wives.
Indeed, Puerto Rico has overcome many obstacles in hosting MLB games over two decades. In 2003, when the Montreal Expos called Puerto Rico home, prior to becoming the Washington Nationals, the players union had to agree to allow the Expos to play 22 of their 81 home games pending site inspection of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Even as that hurdle was cleared, the MLBPA had to negotiate to reduce taxes for player income for those games. At the time, the tax on income generated by entertainment events held in Puerto Rico was 29 percent, which was nine percent more than players were used to paying on checks earned for games played in jurisdictions across the United States. Ultimately, the law was amended to reduce the tax on MLB events to 20 percent.
Apparently, the complexities of hosting MLB events are loaded. To be fair, there is also huge pressure on MB Sports, the local organizer of MLB events, which had to pay handsomely to host the Expos games in 2003 and 2004—the break-even threshold at the time demanded an attendance per game above 14,000 fans. The most recent MLB Puerto Rico Series tasked the MB clan to pack the stadium with more than 19,000 fans. Play to an empty stadium and lose your shirts.
Hosting MLB games comes with significant financial risk and exacting regulatory standards. Prior to the Expos’ two Puerto Rico stints, the MLB and MLBPA insisted on renovating Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The upgrade called for building state-of-the-art locker rooms and installment of prescription turf—sod and sand in layers beneath blades of grass interspersed with rubber pellets—to reduce injuries.
When the final out had been called in the Expos home-away-from-home series, a legacy was in place—Puerto Rico met the financial thresholds and brought its Stadium to a world-class standard and, in the process, put thousands of Puerto Rico’s people to work.
The latest version of MLB’s roadshow came with its set of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Although the MLB had already secured the Minnesota Twins’ blessing to move home games to Puerto Rico, the municipality of San Juan had to contend with repairing severe damages to Hiram Bithorn Stadium caused by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20. Lighting and electric infrastructure underwent structural repairs and testing, clubhouses were completely overhauled and prescription turf was reinstalled.
In so doing, the municipal and state governments achieved something significant, demonstrating what we can accomplish when we work together. All told, the economic impact of these games for Puerto Rico’s economy was projected at $17.1 million by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló during a press conference last Sunday. Puerto Rico will get back on its feet through hard work—together. A private sector backed by a government that facilitates economic development—that is the most significant game in town.