Willy González drove five hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, past blown-out stoplights and battered hillsides, to watch his beloved Houston Astros and their Puerto Rican star, Carlos Correa, play on a big screen in the depths of San Juan’s darkness.
The 70-year-old insurance salesman didn’t want to risk missing the game while searching for a sports bar in his hometown of Bayamón, where even fewer businesses have access to generators, so he set out early Wednesday morning on a drive that used to take less than 30 minutes but has turned into what he described as a nightmarish journey since the hurricane.
After more than a month without power and other basic necessities, watching the Astros play the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the World Series outside his favorite sports bar was “free therapy,” González said Wednesday evening as he nursed a beer near San Juan’s iconic La Placita de Santurce marketplace.
And what a game it was. The Astros won 7-6 in the 11th inning, after a wild extra-inning home run derby and blown saves by both team’s closing pitchers.
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Like many of the several hundred baseball fans gathered around the plaza, González said his decision to root for the Astros had been a simple one: “First because there are boricuas,” he said, using the affectionate island slang term for Puerto Ricans. “There’s the guy who’s a superstar, Correa.”
Others, like local business owner Miguel Morán, were lifelong Dodgers fans and proud of rising star Kiké Hernández, a utility player who hit three homers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, vaulting the Dodgers into the World Series. He later told the MLB network his mother had been watching from the island, from the generator-powered TV at his grandparent’s house.
In a text message before that game, Hernández had promised his mother a home run.
“Make sure you get there before the game starts, because I’m going to hit a homer,” he said.
On Wednesday, Hernández and his fellow Puerto Rican players did not disappoint.
Correa’s solo home run in the top of the 10th inning gave the Astros a 5-3 lead and prompted the 23-year-old from Ponce to flip his bat in the air and stick his tongue out in joy. An Hernández two-out double tied the game in the bottom of the 10th. The Astros’ George Springer, whose mother is Puerto Rican, homered with a man on base in the 11th and made it 7-5.
On the Spanish-language TV broadcast, Fox Deportes’ Rolando Nichols gave a shout-out “to all the Puerto Rican community that has tuned in.”
“The beautiful isla del encanto is obviously going through very difficult times,” he said, referring to Puerto Rico’s motto as the island of enchantment. “We send fraternal greetings in solidarity to our Puerto Rican brothers who are beisboleros at heart.”
For fans across the island, a World Series that pitted two teams with star Puerto Ricans — even if it didn’t feature the team beloved by so many locals, the New York Yankees — was perhaps the only bright spot in the long weeks since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island on Sept. 20.
But with three-quarters of the island still without power, and many small businesses unable to pay for a full-time generator, finding a place to watch the World Series proved a challenge.
In the area around La Placita de Santurce, only a handful of bars had managed to reopen. Along one edge of the marketplace, Calle Orbeta was dark except for two sports bars broadcasting the game on flat-screen TVs.
One of the bars, Toñita’s Café, was powering four flat screens with a generator. The bar had drawn customers from as far away as Utuado in the island’s central mountain region for last week’s playoff games, said owner José Luis González, standing below a giant Puerto Rican flag framed by neon Budweiser and Bud Light signs.
At the other end of the street, a giant TV screen wrapped around the corner. It was one of three big screens on the island set up by a local TV station, WAPA, to broadcast the game outdoors for free. For Puerto Ricans who felt cooped up in stifling hot apartments, many still without running water, the big screen provided a welcome chance to get some fresh air.
William Matos was one of the lucky few who had a generator to power his home, but he had come to La Placita de Santurce because he wanted to dance salsa before the game. El Trifongo Taíno, the bar where Matos was drinking a beer with his friend Octavio Sanjurjo, had a salsa singer on Wednesdays, and she kept the sports fans entertained while they waited.
“I wanted to get out of the house,” said Matos, a retiree who had been watching the same movies over and over again since the storm.
Standing among a crowd of eager sports fans, Matos said Puerto Rico’s unshakable love of baseball was something that not even Hurricane Maria could destroy.
“Never, never,” Matos said. “Not even a hurricane. Not sports, not music.”
But for some, the game was bittersweet.
William Fernández Mascaró was sitting on the concrete steps in front of the big screen, cheering for Correa, whom he affectionately called “Carlitos.” Seated next to his son, William Fernández Chambers, the elder Fernández said he was reminded of the joy he felt as a child watching baseball games at the drive-in movie theater with his father.
Wednesday’s game could be one of the last baseball games father and son watch together for a long time. Just days after the World Series, Fernández Chambers is moving to Boston. He had recently returned to the island after a stint as a nightclub manager in South Florida, hoping to build his life in Puerto Rico. With the hurricane and the island’s deep rooted economic troubles, however, Fernández Chambers had been unable to find work.
Although he’s a die-hard Red Sox fan, seated next to his dad on one of his last nights in San Juan, Fernández Chambers was all-in for the Astros. Asked which team he wanted to win the game, he said: “The one my dad wants.”
Mazzei reported from Miami.