Lending a hand in Puerto Rico

Curve player, broadcaster help rebuild fields after hurricane

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017, causing an estimated $90 billion in damage. Tens of thousands of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, and so, too, were countless baseball fields across the island.

Baseball is a way of life in Puerto Rico. Kids everywhere play the sport, dreaming of becoming the next Roberto Clemente. The U.S. territory has produced more than 200 major leaguers, and it currently has the fourth-most MLB players of any Latin American nation or territory.

Curve outfielder Jared Oliva knew a little bit, but not much, about Puerto Rico’s rich baseball heritage. That was until October of last year, when Oliva was part of a group that traveled to the island to help rebuild youth ballfields and, in the process, see first hand just what baseball means there.

“Really, really fortunate I was able to go,” Oliva said. “You can hardly put into words the impact the kids had on us, and we were there trying to support them, support their city. The baseball really unites the community.”

First-year Curve broadcaster Michael Marcantonini also took part in the rebuilding effort in Puerto Rico, along with others in a non-profit group called More Than A Game (MTAG). Marcantonini had been to the island a few times before, since his mother, Angela, has worked there extensively with various baseball groups.

“After going on this trip, I really for the first time felt the impact of baseball in Puerto Rican culture,” Michael said. “Baseball is a lifestyle on the island, and it’s what brings families and generations together.”

The director of marketing and development for MTAG, Sawyer Gieseke, played college ball with Oliva at Arizona. The group’s outreach program has had it do projects around the world — in places such as Taiwan, Colombia and Panama — and Oliva was more than happy to be part of the trip to Coama, Puerto Rico.

But this eight-day trip was no vacation.

“For five days, it was hard labor going out there, really starting from square one rebuilding a field,” Oliva said. “Taking out weeds took almost 2 ¢ days. We were making our own rakes with nails.”

Oliva, in his third minor league season, has played with players from Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries in pro ball, so he knew some about about their culture.

“You get a good experience playing with guys here from the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Venezuela,” Oliva said. “But until you’re really in their culture, you can’t describe it. You can hang with them here in the States. But until you’re down in their home country, baseball takes on a whole new meaning.”

Games, even at the youth level, are a big deal to the small communities around Puerto Rico.

“There’s people playing music in the stands at Little League games, it’s almost like a party that’s going on,” Oliva said. “These kids, they live, eat, breathe baseball.”

The MTAG group spent four full days helping rebuild three ballfields at a complex in Coamo. When they were done, it was time to play ball.

“On the fourth night, after we finished all the field work, there was a game on one of the fields, the first since September 2017 when the hurricane hit,” Marcantonini said.

“We all got to sit down at night, flip the lights on and watch a Little League baseball game,” Oliva said.

It was a wonderful feeling for everyone involved, from the visiting MTAG group to the locals who were so appreciative of their efforts.

“You could really tell with the people walking up and saying ‘thank you,’ which really meant a lot,” Oliva said. “The manual labor, the work it took to go from square one to seeing the kids play on the field again, that’s the whole goal of More Than a Game. It’s uniting the community through baseball.”

“It was so cool to see kids back out on the fields and families and fans in the stands with smiles on their faces having fun,” Marcantonini said. “They hadn’t been able to do that since the hurricane, and it was really humbling for our whole group to see our work mean so much to an entire community.”

One of Oliva’s lasting memories came after a few days when the fields had started to get into playing shape.

“This father and his daughter came, and he was just hitting her groundballs on the infield,” Oliva said. “She was all dressed up in her softball uniform, and we all literally stopped working and just watched her take groundballs for 20 minutes. And it was like, this is why we’re here.”

Many parts of Puerto Rico are still in rough shape from Hurricane Maria. A report out a few days ago revealed the territory suffered its largest population decrease ever in the wake of the hurricane — losing 4 percent of residents, which included deaths and people fleeing and never returning.

“The big tourist parts of the island where the resorts are, like San Juan, are doing well, but the remote areas in less visited parts of the island, like Coamo in southern Puerto Rico where we were, there is still a lot of work to be done,” Marcantonini said.

“There were still areas without clean running water, without power, some houses are still damaged and don’t have roofs or windows. It was disheartening to see because Puerto Rico is a United States territory, and Puerto Ricans are such loving and caring people. They don’t deserve all the pain the hurricane caused.”

Marcantonini’s mother has spent many years going to Puerto Rico with her baseball work, so her son wanted to do his part to help out the island in any way he could.

“As soon as I heard about the goals and plans for the trip, I was sold,” Michael said. “My mom has spent years going to Puerto Rico to do non-profit work and changing lives through baseball, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that with her. But things always got in the way when I was in high school and college, and I was never able to go.

“This was a chance to finally make a trip like that, make a difference and give kids a chance to play baseball again at their field complex. Baseball has given me so much in my life, and I’ll do anything I can to give back and pay it forward.”

There is no greater baseball icon in Puerto Rico than Clemente, a Pittsburgh Pirates legend and Hall of Famer who died tragically on New Year’s Eve in 1972 in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua.

The visiting members of MTAG got to see first hand how beloved Clemente is in Puerto Rico.

“He still has lasting impact there today,” Oliva said. “There’s kids and dads walking around with his jersey, so you realize how big he was and how his legacy continues.”

“I’ve idolized Roberto Clemente for a long time, and it was incredibly special to make a difference through baseball in his homeland of Puerto Rico,” Marcantonini said.

“Fast forward a few months, and I’m broadcasting for a Pirates minor league affiliate with Jared, who I met on this trip, playing on the team. Everything happens for a reason. All of this didn’t just randomly happen.”

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