Not everyone likes the prominence of sports here. Puerto Rico might be prosperous compared with other Caribbean islands, but its per capita income is less than half that of Mississippi's. There are no first-rate libraries in the Connecticut-sized commonwealth, Father Pico complains.
"We're always spending resources on basketball courts and such, and not on things that would foster research," the priest and professor says. "When the Nobel Prizes come and we don't get anything, no one says a word. But if the Olympics come and we don't win medals, there's an outcry."
Since Hiram Bithorn threw his first pitch for the Chicago Cubs in 1942, more than 200 Puerto Ricans have made it to the major leagues of baseball. With Latin Americans accounting for about one-quarter of all players, Puerto Rico's share has dipped slightly as other regions, especially the Dominican Republic, have produced more top players. On Opening Day this year, 38 major leaguers hailed from this island, according to researchers at the Hall of Fame.
On one recent evening when the Expos met the Anaheim Angels, fans seem to yell and pound their inflated Thunderstix to a salsa beat to encourage any player with a Spanish name. Waitresses circulate through the stands, selling rum and Cokes for $5 a cup.
The Expos might be back in San Juan for more games next year if they remain in Montreal. Some Puerto Ricans hope to bring the franchise here permanently, but others doubt the island can support it financially, especially with general admission seats selling for $28.
For some Puerto Rican ballplayers, the Expos' foray into the Caribbean gives them a chance to show off their stuff to friends and neighbors. On one Sunday, Texas Rangers right-fielder Juan Gonzalez, who now has more home runs than any Puerto Rican, hits No. 423 in the top of the fourth inning. The crowd at Hiram Bithorn goes wild.
"I just thank God for the opportunity to play in front of my family and friends, and in front of all the fans that have followed my career," Gonzalez, 33, tells reporters. "Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente never had the chance to wear a major league uniform here."