SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Mention major league baseball to Puerto Ricans here and their eyes and mouths get wide and their silence indicates you should know the reverence islanders hold for the sport.
That doesn't mean everyone here loves baseball or can afford one of the pricey tickets to the 22 "home" games the Major League Baseball-owned Montreal Expos play in San Juan this season, starting tonight against the New York Mets.
But Mike Moran has already snatched up an $85 ticket for tomorrow's game.
"I was raised in New York," said Moran, owner of a convenience store and a nightclub across from Plaza de Mercado, a fruit and vegetable market in central San Juan. "I follow the Mets and the Yankees."
Looking to increase revenue and capitalize on the expanding number of Latin players in the game, Major League Baseball decided to move more than a quarter of the Expos' home games from poorly attended Olympic Stadium in Montreal to Puerto Rico. The 2001 season opener here between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays was warmly received.
The games, which include a series against the Florida Marlins in September, are also expected to re-ignite a passion that has waned among locals as winter league baseball no longer attracts the game's superstars and the San Juan team has moved to a new stadium in nearby Carolina, named for baseball Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican favorite son Roberto Clemente.
"People here like baseball, but they don't go to the stadium. Sometimes it's totally empty," said Manuel Rivas, who runs an upscale food shop near the Mercado. "It's difficult to explain. They say the best players don't play here. ... With the Expos, people will go there."
Frank Ortiz Viera, who displayed his paintings outside the Mercado, said locals have saved their dollars to see some of baseball's best Latin players.
"The big leaguers will bring a new rebirth of baseball in Puerto Rico. Most likely it's going to be good for Puerto Rico," Viera said. "Whoever came up with this enterprise will do very well."
Baseball held meetings last month to hear from communities interested in luring the Expos and hopes to make a decision by July's All-Star Game.
The Washington-Northern Virginia area is the front-runner to gain a team, but baseball could decide to keep the Expos another year while it irons out a move. If that occurs and the San Juan experiment is successful, don't be surprised if Puerto Rico doesn't play host to more games next season.
Despite the prices, which range from $10 bleacher seats to $85, only a few thousand tickets remain for the opening series against the Mets and organizers expect an average of 15,000 a game in the 18,200-seat stadium.
Puerto Ricans, who don't tend to buy tickets in advance, have purchased season packages for the 22 games.
The games are expected to pump $4.5 million into San Juan's economy and bring baseball officials, players and their families as well as tourists, who will use 8,000 hotel room nights. Tourism officials have been pushing travel packages in the eight major league cities sending teams to San Juan.
"I know people are extremely excited about the opportunity of having real major league baseball in Puerto Rico," said Jose M. Suarez, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company, an arm of the government.
The stadium where the games will be played is named for Hiram Bithorn, who in 1942 became the first Puerto Rican-born player to break into Major League Baseball. The park, which has been undergoing a makeover, opened in 1962 and looks like a 1970's Triple-A park or an older spring training stadium. It has no upper deck, short power alleys and a distinct zigzag awning with leaning light stanchions. The numbers of Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ruben Gomez hang on the outfield wall.
Workers have installed new seats, 4,000 outfield bleachers, batting cages and new carpeting and shower heads in the clubhouses. They have been working around the clock to prepare the artificial turf, which hadn't been cleaned since its installation seven years ago.
Local stations broadcast more than four major league games a week and Puerto Ricans have numerous outlets on cable television, including TBS, WGN and ESPN, to regularly see teams, including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Mets and Marlins.
"There will be a lot of people rooting for all the teams," said Luis Murphy, who handles operations for MB Sports, the local promoter of the games. "When Sammy Sosa comes [in September], everybody is going to root for him."
Sarah Talalay is a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.