When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September of 2017, the entire island felt the devastating impact. Families were torn apart, homes were destroyed, there was no power or clean water, and hope became a struggle to find.
Natural disasters bring on unthinkable physical, mental and emotional effects. When they occur, people turn to something that can help them momentarily forget about all the negatives: a short-term relief from reality.
For many, that outlet is sports, and for many Puerto Ricans, that sport is baseball.
But what do you do when that outlet from the real world is also taken away from you?
You see, baseball isn’t just baseball in Puerto Rico… It’s life.
For the city of Coamo in the southern part of the island, baseball was lost. It was taken away by the hurricane that ripped through the Alberto Ortiz Aponte youth complex, a contingent of three fields that were regularly used for huge local and international tournaments before the hurricane.
Safety was the biggest concern; baseball was an afterthought.
Non-profit organization “More Than A Game” was ready to lend a helping hand to revitalize the complex and get those fields back up and running. With help from Coamo youth baseball leaders Jerry Santiago and Jose Martell, funding from New Balance, Turface Athletics and other outlets, and support from the Coamo community, the MTAG crew got to work.
The positive impact that followed was unthinkable almost 13 months ago when the hurricane ran its course.
But it didn’t come easy.
The MTAG crew arrived in Coamo around 10 a.m. on Monday, October 15th, and witnessed the hurricane’s sobering effects. The storm left the infields blanketed with a layer of weeds, fences down, nets torn apart, a damaged roof, and unplayable conditions.
“Those fields were a mess before we got here,” said Baltimore Orioles minor league pitcher Nick Gruener.
“Day 1 I was like, ‘man, I don’t know if I can do this for another four days, this is hard work,'” said Ryan Fitzgerald, an infielder in the Boston Red Sox minor league system.
No one expected it to be easy. After seeing the challenge in front of them, the MTAG guys got to work.
For a project of this magnitude, thinking outside the box was a necessity.
That meant digging up what seemed like an endless amount of weeds, using a rental van to pull a homemade nail drag across the infield, bringing in a backhoe to move countless bags of turface, and finding a working power-washer to clean the stands in the complex, which MTAG member Clayton Brown did wonders with.
You name it, they did it, and they did it efficiently.
“The challenge is stop looking around and going, ‘I need someone to tell me what to do,’ instead just making your own decisions and I think the guys picked up on that quick,” said MTAG Director of Marketing, Sawyer Gieseke.
Breakthroughs often occur when a group comes together, when an entire unit works as one, when the team comes before the individual.
Despite most of the group being unfamiliar with each other before the trip, everyone became a leader, and that’s why things got done.
“I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know what I was getting into," Fitzgerald said. “The people I met were just unbelievable. The people that I worked with, I don’t even know how to describe it, they’re just such high-character people and good people overall, every single one of them.”
Gieseke, who led the trip to Coamo along with MTAG Founder and CEO, Marshall Murray, knew he was bringing some dependable people on the trip, but he also knew he had some wild cards.
He wasn’t sure how the entire group would mesh, but that potential concern vanished pretty early in the week.
“I was really impressed with the group of guys, Gieseke said. “I had so much pride in this group and every guy is really special to me, and to see them just put their head down and work hard for a week, I mean 15 guys putting 10 hours in a day can get a lot done, and we saw what we were able to accomplish.”
In just four days, the MTAG team got the entire Alberto Ortiz Aponte complex up and running and all three fields in safe playing condition. The progress made in such a short amount of time was inspiring.
Not only did the MTAG team get to see their progress from Day 1 through Day 4, they witnessed all of their hard work actually making a difference.
Just after 6 p.m. on Thursday, October 18th, the fourth and final day of work, two youth teams from Coamo--the Mets and Orioles--suited up for the first baseball game at the complex in just over a year.
It was a real game, but it almost didn’t feel real. The game’s first pitch was one of those magical moments that doesn’t sink in right away.
Kids on the field. Fans in the stands. Lights on.
“It’s literally like the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie, that’s what it felt like this week. All the first three days no one was here, a couple people coming to practice and today it got completed, and all of a sudden families, parents, all these teams, all these kids out here, it’s crazy, such a good feeling. I love it,” said David Lopez, former University of Arizona infielder and national champion, during the action that unfolded Thursday night in Coamo.
While the first game at the complex since the hurricane took place on one of the three fields, a local 13-to-14-year-old team--the Astros--practiced on another field with MTAG members.
Rio Gomez, a minor league pitcher in the Red Sox organization and University of Arizona graduate, worked with the team’s pitchers during the practice.
“It was a long week. Very long week, but very rewarding at the very end. It was a lot of work Monday through Thursday logging in the hours transforming a field from nothing into something. It all paid off being able to watch all the kids be able to play and practice, the smiles and watching them enjoy themselves on a baseball field,” Gomez said.
Jared Oliva, one of Gomez’ teammates at Arizona and current Pittsburgh Pirates minor league outfielder, felt the impact right away from practicing with the kids.
“When we first came up here obviously there was a lot of work to be done. Now that we’re here, four days of work being put into it, the field looks really nice,” Oliva said during the practice. “It’s cool to see all the kids out here playing on it, so you can tell they definitely appreciate what we’ve done, so that’s a cool part.”
Koa Marzo, who previously worked with Gieseke and Murray on an MTAG trip in his native Hawaii, was the group’s biggest leader in Puerto Rico according to Gieseke. He got straight to the point when asked about his favorite part of the week.
“Really getting my hands dirty, putting in the work to get the complex back to where the kids can have practices, games, just get the families back out there and give them hope,” Marzo said.
Seeing a smile on a kid’s face is special. Being the reason for that smile is overwhelmingly special.
All the dirty shoes, sweat-soaked shirts, paint-splattered shorts, sweat-drenched faces, calloused hands and tiring days served a purpose.
It all became worth it when the fields were filled with kids and not weeds, the stands filled with proud families and not hurricane debris, and the parking lot filled with cars and not construction equipment.
Faith was never lost, and hope was restored.
Baseball is back in Coamo, and it’s there to stay.
“I just hope the fields get used and they get maintained. It’s nice to have somewhere as a kid to spend time and to play and to hang out and have a place like that,” said Gomez. “Before, that field was in no condition to be that kind of place, and now, I feel like we’ve given this town of Coamo that place.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini