Puerto Rican team happy to be at the Freeport Invitational
Puerto Rican baseball players participating in the Freeport International Baseball Invitational this week are excited and grateful to be in the Alle-Kiski Valley enjoying the game they love, instead of focusing on all of the devastation and destruction caused by Hurricane Maria back home.
“In Puerto Rico, because of the hurricane, things haven’t been easy,” said player Fernando Gonzalez, 18, of Arecibo, one of 15 athletes on the team from the U.S. territory. “Here, we have some time to have fun.”
The FIBI, which is in its 24th year, kicked off on Tuesday. Sixteen teams are participating.
The Puerto Rican team, led by Eddy and Jeannie Arroyo, wasn’t going to come this year because of challenges caused by the hurricane, but were blessed when the FIBI offered to pay the travel expenses and accommodations for 15 players and four coaches.
“It works both ways: We’re helping them out and the players are really excited to be able to come where they probably wouldn’t be able to afford to, and it gives us an international team, as well,” FIBI president Chuck Sarver said.
The Arroyos, who live in Arecibo, said they are thankful that the organization stepped up to help them. They’re staying in the area until Sunday.
“The people from the United States, they’ve been helping us a lot in different cities and different towns, but the organization itself … went further in order to make it possible to come here,” said Eddy Arroyo, who serves as a team coach and a head manager. “It was something we never expected to happen.”
Puerto Rico still is reeling from the effects of the hurricane, which made landfall on the island Sept. 20. The storm caused billions of dollars in damages, killed hundreds of people and destroyed up to 75 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity transmission lines. Power outages remain a problem.
“Back home things are still very, very bad. Still, the electricity’s not that good. Even though we patched it up very good, we’re still not ready for another hurricane or anything like that,” Eddy Arroyo said. “We could go collapse again right away if anything happens.”
Baseball fields across the island sustained damage from the storm. Many are still without power, which makes it impossible for teams to play night games. And, of the roughly 40 ballparks near Arecibo, only two or three can be used during the day.
“We cannot use the ballparks because of the conditions (they are in),” Eddy Arroyo said.
The Arroyos have brought teams to the FIBI in the past, most recently in 2015. This year they brought five pitchers and 10 utility players.
Third baseman Jhensen Malave, 19, of Hatillo, said he is grateful for the opportunity to get off the island and compete with Pittsburgh-area baseball teams again. He came with the team in 2015.
“It’s a pleasure and a privilege to play in this district and come to Pittsburgh once again,” he said. “It’s a great city.”
Fernando Gonzalez came to the tournament with his dad, Fernando Gonzalez Sr., who had a six-year major league career, including four years with the Pirates in the early 1970s. Gonzalez Sr. is expected to play in the tournament’s annual Old-Timers game.
Gonzalez Sr., 68, of Arecibo, said it’s important for young baseball players to play ball in different countries because it exposes them to other cultures, gives them confidence, and shows them where they rank with other players.
“It’s a great experience,” he said. “You learn a lot.”
The team was set to play the Springdale 59 Sounders at 11 a.m. Tuesday, but a bought of rain ended up cancelling the game. Sarver said the tournament will try to make up that game possibly on Thursday.
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.