Pirates send two plane-loads of aid to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico
Standing on the field last week during batting practice at PNC Park, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting asked third-base coach Joey Cora what the team could do to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Cora, who grew up on the island and still has family and friends there, was quick with an answer.
“Get a plane,” Cora said. “We'll fill it up. We'll make it work.”
On Monday and Tuesday, team officials manned a collection point at PNC Park. Each day from dawn to dusk, a steady stream of Pittsburghers — baseball fans, people on their way to work, students and everyday folks — dropped off canned goods, bottled water, cleaning supplies and diapers.
The response was so overwhelming, the Pirates had to get a second plane.
“I couldn't be prouder to be part of this organization,” Cora said Wednesday morning as 340 pallets of supplies were loaded onto tractor trailers. “I cannot thank you enough.”
On Thursday, two DC-11 cargo planes packed with more than 450,000 pounds of supplies will fly from Pittsburgh to Puerto Rico. The material will be taken to Cayey and Caguas, Cora's hometown about 20 miles outside of San Juan.
“This is what Pittsburgh is all about,” Nutting said. “This is a community that will rally.”
According to Nutting, about 85 percent of the supplies that were gathered came from fans. Pirates Charities and FedEx spearheaded the collection process. Several local businesses donated food and medical supplies.
At one point Monday, general manager Neal Huntington saw the crowd at the collection point, doffed his sport coat and rolled up his sleeves.
“Neal was out there for about five hours, lifting and wrapping and moving things around,” utility infielder Sean Rodriguez said.
Many people dropped off checks along with supplies. Pirates players pooled their personal donations last weekend during the season-ending series against the Washington Nationals. The team raised $225,000 in donations, which Nutting said will go directly to disaster relief.
“What this city has done these last two days is unbelievable,” Rodriguez said. “We basically just asked, ‘Give anything,' and they gave a lot. I saw people coming back two or three times. It was beautiful.”
The mission of mercy has evoked memories of Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican who is revered as much for his humanitarian efforts as for his skills on the field.
Clemente died on New Year's Eve 1972 when his cargo plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente was on his way to Nicaragua with supplies for earthquake victims.
“My man basically planted the seed,” Rodriguez said. “We've got to just keep pouring water on it.”
Because Clemente's contributions went so far beyond what he did with a bat and glove, there has been talk for years about retiring his uniform No. 21 throughout MLB.
“You don't need to retire No. 21,” Cora said with a hitch in his voice. “His legacy is going to last forever.”
Cora, Rodriguez, Nutting, catcher Francisco Cervelli and team translator Mike Gonzalez will fly to Puerto Rico to help distribute the items. The group plans to stay until Saturday.
“We're not going to just leave it there and say, ‘Have at it,' ” Rodriguez said. “We're going to get our hands dirty. We're going to get in there and try to help out a lot.”
Corvallis still is rehabbing from a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss the last month of the season, which ended Sunday. He delayed returning to his offseason home in Miami to help out with the collection.
“I couldn't go home knowing people are suffering,” Cervelli said. “The important thing is to go there and give people hope. It's easy just to send stuff and that's it. I want to see what happened and be able to touch the people.”
Cervelli was deeply touched by the response from folks in Pittsburgh. As a way to say thank you, he promised a World Series victory in 2018.
“This city, when you need everyone, they're going to show up,” Cervelli said. “I think next year, we've got to do something special for them: win the whole thing.
“Next year at time, this (loading dock) will again be full of trucks, but they're going to be full of (television) cameras because we're going to be in the playoffs.”