Puerto Rican team riding strength of a hurricane

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A report by Hiram Martínez for ESPN.

Devin Ortiz watched as his home was destroyed. John Luis Lopez’s family lost its business. Some of their teammates’ families had to scrounge for food and water.

For the players from Radames Lopez Little League, their unlikely journey to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was borne out of the island’s worst natural disaster in more than a century.

Less than a year ago, Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Guayama, a small coastal town on the southeastern part of the island, was among the hardest-hit areas from Maria, which reached landfall only 25 miles to the east.

Yet its resilient Little League team of 11- and 12-year-olds, despite untold damage to their homes, their community and their baseball fields, went undefeated in the Caribbean regional tournament to qualify for its first trip to Williamsport.

Less than a year after two hurricanes caused widespread damage to the island, a Little League team from Guayama has persevered all the way to Williamsport.

For Radames Lopez, which opens play Thursday against South Korea (1 p.m. ET on ESPN), going to the Little League World Series was a way of giving thanks to baseball. The game provided a sense of normalcy for the people of Guayama as they tried to rebuild their lives amid the chaos and confusion in the aftermath of the hurricane.

“I never gave up,” said catcher Homircal Rodriguez. “We were hit by a hurricane, but baseball is my sport, and nothing was going to keep me away from my sport. I was going to play even if it was on the street.”


‘Their love for life’

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MAKING IT TO WILLIAMSPORT is the reward for a team that lived through the greatest catastrophe of its members’ lives. In its report to Congress, Puerto Rico included a $139 billion reconstruction plan and estimated that Hurricane Maria was likely responsible for the death of some 1,400 people.

In the days and weeks following the storm, drinking water and gas were scarce. Some went months without electricity. Cellphone communication was either nonexistent or spotty at best.

In Guayama, the only way to communicate with the outside world was a satellite phone in a town pharmacy. People trying to reach their relatives to let them know they were alive would wait in line for hours to call them. In addition, winds destroyed the main town supermarket, sparking fear of a food crisis.

In the midst of these dire circumstances, Luis Daniel Ortiz received a request from Radames Lopez Little League president Paco Cintron. Only two weeks after the storm, Cintron asked Ortiz, who coaches a team (the Twins) in the Guayama league’s 11-12 division, to gather his players and get them ready for a 13-and-under preparatory league, played during the first semester of the school year.

Forget using cellphones to call and organize the youngsters. Ortiz, a community leader in Guayama, visited each house and left written notes and talked to friends and relatives of the players as he encountered them on the streets.

“I visited their houses because no one was able to communicate over cellphone,” Ortiz said. “First, I visited those in [the nearby town of] Salinas, and on my way over, I started seeing houses without roofs and doors, and I thought, ‘This won’t be possible.'”

He reached 14 players for the first practice after Maria, held in the nearby town of Arroyo in the first few days of October. There was no gas for the cars to take the players to the field. There was a shortage of water to quench their thirst. There was no electricity to light up the baseball diamond to practice at night, when the stifling Caribbean heat gives way to cooler temperatures. Yet 13 showed up for the first practice.

“It was difficult to come back to the park, because several trees fell where I lived and everything was flooded,” said Eric Rodriguez, who plays first base and pitches. “But I made an effort to come because I like baseball.”

Parents had to figure out how to get their kids to practice, while coaches had to juggle providing water and ice for the training sessions.

“The dedication they have for their development, their love for life, led them to overcome everything,” said team manager Carlos Texidor. “Not complaining, not saying that they lack something, that they don’t have power, water, cellphones. With what we do have, we are going to do a lot. And that’s what I saw in the team, through the boys and the parents, and what they transmitted to others.”

The first game after the hurricane was in mid-October against a team from Yabucoa. In the early-morning hours of Sept. 20, the eye of Maria passed directly over Yabucoa, located east of Guayama, causing significant damage.

“I thought it would be difficult for Yabucoa to make it, because they were going through a very difficult situation,” Ortiz said. “But just as we were about to leave [the park], someone shouted, ‘Yabucoa is here!’ And we were able to play that first game.”

The Twins of Guayama won that game and then kept winning. Ortiz’s Twins later won the Radames Lopez Little League title in a close final, and seven of his Twins players now form half of the league’s tournament team. With Texidor, Ortiz and Alberto Moret comprising the coaching staff, Radames Lopez has lost only one game in all the qualifying rounds leading up to Williamsport.


‘Their life is baseball’

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DEVIN ORTIZ’S HOUSE is on a mountain in Barrio Carite, closer to the town of Cayey in the south-central part of the island than to Guayama. Getting home from practice was a harrowing, 45-minute ride with hairpin twists and turns on a road littered with rocks, branches and other debris. Reminders of Maria are everywhere, from lampposts broken in half to barely standing structures that once served as homes.

Devin, his brother and parents no longer live in their house. They did not ride out the 150 mph winds that blew off part of their zinc roof and left only a skeletal structure of their wooden home. Rather, they stayed across the street at a relative’s house, one made of concrete.

“When we found out what was coming and the path [the storm] was taking, we took refuge at my in-laws’ house,” said Pedro Ortiz, Devin’s father. “From a window, we saw how the winds were destroying our house.”

With roads blocked for several days in Carite, there was still one option for Pedro’s children: Pedro assembled a net so his sons could spend long hours practicing their batting and not lose their form.

“We spent many days practicing, since it was practically the only thing we could do in daylight,” Pedro said.

Once the roads were cleared of debris, the family had to move into another relative’s home, one that enabled the children to continue practicing. Still, things got complicated, particularly in the daily routine.

“I would pick up the kids and take them to practice. I had to have breakfast and lunch in the car, but the boys were able to get to practices and games. It was always a sacrifice, but we did it with a lot of love because [the players] love baseball.”Pedro Ortiz, father of Devin Ortiz

Pedro Ortiz works at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in the San Juan metropolitan area, about one hour from Guayama.

“I start early, so I would leave the house at 5 in the morning and I wouldn’t make it back until 5 in the afternoon, depending on the traffic,” Pedro said. “I would pick up the kids and take them to practice. I had to have breakfast and lunch in the car, but the boys were able to get to practices and games.”

Devin, an outfielder, never missed a practice. Later, in the Caribbean regional, he had several important hits even though he was suffering from plantar fasciitis for much of the tournament.

“It was always a sacrifice, but we did it with a lot of love because they love baseball,” said Pedro. “They do not believe in days off. Their life is baseball.”

‘A team effort’

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FOR JOHN LUIS LOPEZ, the most difficult part came several weeks after the hurricane. As the island struggled to recover, his parents lost their business when someone burned down their food cart, from which they sold fritters.

“There were some days I couldn’t come to practice because we were helping [my mom] to rebuild it,” said Lopez, who plays catcher. “But I kept practicing. That made me mentally stronger, gave me more motivation. For my parents, it was a respite to come with me [to practice].”

“Not only did [John Luis] continue practicing, he went from house to house looking for the other kids who lived in the neighboring town of Salinas to bring them to Guayama,” said Wandaliz Bermudez, John Luis’ mother.

“We suffered some losses because they burned the cart, but thanks to our older children, we were able to recover within a week. It was a team effort.”

Although it wasn’t easy for Bermudez, the 20-minute drive from Salinas to Guayama to watch her son practice and play was well worth it. After finding a way to get through the Little League season in Puerto Rico in the middle of a crisis, nothing was going to stand in the way of her making the trip to Williamsport, as well.

“There is no money in the world that changes being with your kids at this time,” said a very excited Bermudez. “We will be sitting behind home plate, supporting my son and the rest of the team.”


‘The hurricane taught us to be strong’

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ALBERTO MORET UNDERSTANDS what it’s like to be tested; Hurricane Maria wiped out his home and his belongings. Yet months later, Moret decided to test the players before they faced Aruba in the Caribbean regional tournament, held in July in Sabana Grande, nearly 70 miles west of Guayama.

At that point, Radames Lopez was unbeaten during round-robin play and already assured of a spot in the semifinal round.

“I insinuated that we were going to lose that game,” said Moret, whose home was eventually rebuilt by his church. “We had a long streak, we had not lost since the district playoffs, and I told them that I would rather lose … to Aruba and prepare to win [the final two games].

“Many of them gazed in disbelief with eyes wide open as if they had seen an extraterrestrial. … I know it was a risk because we were only two wins from Williamsport, but I wanted to see how prepared they were mentally for what was coming.”

“We learned to play relaxed. We no longer have pressure; we only know that we have to play at our level. The hurricane taught us to be strong.”Homircal Rodriguez, Radames Lopez player

In response to Moret’s test, the Puerto Rican team showed the depth of its character. Radames Lopez not only beat Aruba, but also the Bahamas in the semifinals and then Curaçao 5-2 in the regional championship game.

Going 8-0 in the Caribbean tournament, Radames Lopez scored 51 runs and won three games by shutout to become the 11th Puerto Rican team to advance to Williamsport and the first since 2014.

After living through a hurricane, the pressure of a baseball game was not going to faze this team.

“We learned to play relaxed,” said Homircal Rodriguez. “We no longer have pressure; we only know that we have to play at our level.

“The hurricane taught us to be strong.”


‘Never give up’

JOHN LUIS LOPEZ TALKS about Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar as if he is just another friend.

“I see him every month,” Lopez said. “I was with him … at PR 12 [a youth baseball tournament organized by Alomar at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan] and at his clinics. I spoke with his father [Sandy Alomar Sr.], too.

“[Roberto] motivates and teaches me. I hope to practice with him, since he invited me. He tells me to never give up, to keep on training and working hard. He remembered me through a photo he saw in the newspaper and told me he had never seen me work out in the infield, just as a catcher. He motivated me to keep working in the infield.”

This interaction between a Hall of Famer and a 12-year-old from the Barrio Cocos de Salinas neighborhood isn’t anything unusual in Salinas, Guayama or in areas to the south. The strip of towns that stretches from Ponce to Cayey — including Guayama, Arroyo, Salinas, Santa Isabel and Juana Diaz — has produced Hall of Famers, more than 20 Gold Glove winners and other All-Stars. That includes Roberto Alomar and his brother, Sandy Alomar Jr., Benito Santiago, Orlando Cepeda, Javy Lopez, Jose Cruz, Ricky Bonesand, more recently, Eddie Rosarioand Carlos Correa among many others.

Roberto Alomar has started clinics backed by Major League Baseball in his native Salinas, and Correa begins his preparations for the MLB season in mid-December at a park in his hometown of Santa Isabel.

Like Bones before him, Rosario remains attached to his youth league in Guayama and gives advice to the youngsters.

Bones, who played 11 major league seasons and is now the New York Mets’ bullpen coach, started in baseball with Texidor and Texidor’s father.

“My dad had a team in Guamani,” Texidor said. “He ran the team, and I was the coach. [Bones] played in all the categories until he turned 16, then moved to San Juan to get more exposure. He always comes and speaks with the kids, and not just about motivation. He shows them specific things.”

In Williamsport, Texidor will meet up again with Bones, whose Mets play the Philadelphia Phillies in the second annual MLB Little League Classic on Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

“Life is full of twists and turns. Look where we’re going to meet up,” Texidor said.


‘You’re not alone’

ROSARIO, A STAR OUTFIELDER for the Minnesota Twins, is well aware of his hometown team’s accomplishments. He follows the team through Moret, who forms part of his circle of friends from their youth baseball days. Rosario gets scores daily and even communicates with the team using FaceTime.

“When we won the state championship, I called him and he didn’t answer, but when I got through, he already knew and sounded more excited than we were,” Moret said. “When we won the Caribbean [regional], he FaceTimed us with [major league pitcher] Fernando Rodney and was very excited. He even said he wouldn’t rule out taking a day off to go to Williamsport, but I think that would be difficult because they’re in midseason.”

“[Rosario’s] presence inspires them. For a major leaguer to come here to their ballpark, coming from the same place where they are now, he motivates them to give just a little more effort.”Radames Lopez manager Carlos Texidor on Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario, a Guayama native

“[Rosario’s] presence inspires them,” Texidor said. “For a major leaguer to come here to their ballpark, coming from the same place where they are now, he motivates them to give just a little more effort.”

In addition to Rosario, Edwin Rodriguez, Puerto Rico’s manager at the World Baseball Classic, has followed Radames Lopez and sent the players a message saying that others are tracking their progress.

“I want you to know that you’re not alone,” said Rodriguez, a native of Ponce. “The entire team is well aware of what you’re doing in Williamsport.”


‘The big chance’

THE MAJORITY OF THE RADAMES LOPEZ PLAYERS have played either with or against each other since they were about 5 or 6. But there was one thing the Guayama team hadn’t done before.

“We had never traveled [outside of Puerto Rico],” Moret said. “We reached the [district] finals, but we would stay [on the island] because the minor categories in Little League wrap up with the finals in Puerto Rico.

“For these kids, this was the big chance.”

The hurricane was not going to get in the way of that goal.

“Ever since I knew what it was, I always wanted to play in the Little League World Series,” said Eric Rodriguez, who pitched an inning in relief against the Bahamas in the semifinals and pitched a complete game the next day against Curacao without reaching the pitch limit.

“I started playing when I was 6, but at 9 I saw my first [Little League World Series] game and told myself, ‘I want to be there.’ It’s like the major leagues but at a smaller level. Like the World Baseball Classic, another goal of mine.”

In Williamsport, the games will air nationally on ESPN, and the coaches know Puerto Rican fans who live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York will come in droves to support the team.

The young players are aware of their country’s rich baseball history. Puerto Rico has played in the past two World Baseball Classic championships, has won the Caribbean World Series in two of the past three years and has produced a new generation of major leaguers who are among the game’s best players.

Even without their country’s baseball heritage, the players from Guayama are more than prepared for what lies ahead in Williamsport. They have Hurricane Maria to thank for that.

“There’s pressure,” said Yadiel Delgado, who plays right field, first base and pitcher. “But when I get there and see all those people … we’ll be ready.”

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