Puerto Rico series very special for Mets
Players like Pagan, Cora excited to play in front of countrymen
NEW YORK -- Each day, Angel Pagan would set off from his home in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, past the temptations of his impoverished neighborhood, past the drugs, past the violence. Eventually, Pagan would arrive at his local field, play baseball for a few hours and head back home. He did not stop in between.
"It was a poor neighborhood -- a lot of drugs, a lot of criminality," Pagan said. "But my parents always taught me the right way. They kept me away from all that, and I was able to be who I am right now -- a good person, a good human being. And they always kept me in baseball."
Now, many of Pagan's family and friends will have the opportunity to see him play meaningful games for the first time in his career. Unlike many of his countrymen, Pagan did not play in the World Baseball Classic at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, nor in Expos games previously played at the site. So when the Mets and Marlins meet for three games in San Juan next week, "pretty much all" of Pagan's family will be in attendance.
"This is a great opportunity to represent Puerto Rico and the Mets organization," said Pagan, who missed the 2009 World Baseball Classic in order to concentrate on making the Mets. "I'm looking forward to it. The people in Puerto Rico are looking forward to it. It's going to be great for our country."
The first indications that the Mets and Marlins would be playing in Puerto Rico came earlier this week, when infielder Alex Cora's cell phone began buzzing incessantly.
"That phone has been blowing up the last three or four days," Cora said. "Uncles I haven't talked to in years."
Cora plans on having at least 25 friends and family in attendance each day, with perhaps twice that number showing up if he starts a game at second base. Backup outfielder Jesus Feliciano, who grew up 15 minutes away in Bayamon, figures he'll have more than a dozen friends and family in attendance each day.
"All Puerto Rican people are waiting for this," Feliciano said. "They're going to be real excited. We've got a lot of Latin players in this ballclub, plus we have big stars like David Wright, so people have been waiting for this for a long time."
On their active roster, the Mets employ four Puerto Rican players: Pagan, Cora, Feliciano and relief pitcher Pedro Feliciano -- and those are in addition to Carlos Beltran, who will miss the San Juan games to continue his Minor League rehab assignment. The Marlins have no active players from Puerto Rico, though their interim manager, Edwin Rodriguez, is a native of Ponce, P.R.
Three Mets -- Wright, Jose Reyes and Pedro Feliciano -- remain from the team that played the Expos in San Juan back in 2004. Numerous others have played there during the '06 and '09 World Baseball Classics, as well as in winter ball.
Yet for many Mets and Marlins -- Pagan included -- the series will provide their first opportunity to play meaningful games in front of their home crowd.
"It's going to be fun playing in front of my mom back home, and my family, my daughter," Cora said. "It's going to be very emotional. At the same time ... we're not going down there to go to the casino and go to the beach. We're going down there to win a series."
Still, as part of a historically diverse clubhouse with players hailing from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Japan and the United States, the four Mets from Puerto Rico take a fierce pride in their heritage.
For Pagan, the source of that pride is baseball.
"Baseball was one of the reasons I kept out of trouble," Pagan said. "Pretty much all my friends are either in jail or dead. If I kept that line, I might have been in the same place, so I'm very glad that my parents gave me the education they gave me to be who I am right now."
For Jesus Feliciano, who spent more than a dozen years floundering in the Minors before making his big league debut this season at the age of 30, playing in Puerto Rico represents an opportunity to give back to all those who supported him along the way.
"It's something that you cannot even explain," Feliciano said. "It's real great. I had the chance to play in the World Baseball Classic in Puerto Rico and it was awesome. I can't imagine wearing a big league uniform and playing in front of your friends, your family and your country."
For Rodriguez, the games will provide an intriguing twist to his first full week on the job. With the Marlins actively searching for a permanent manager -- Bobby Valentine is going to interview for the job Friday -- Rodriguez may not still be at the helm when the series begins on Monday.
He's pining at least to be in attendance.
"Hopefully, I can go there as a manager," Rodriguez said. "Worst-case scenario, I hope they invite me to go there. It's special time for me and a special time for the country."
And it's special, too, for Cora, the 34-year-old veteran now in the latter half of his career. For Cora, the opportunity to play meaningful games in front of a Puerto Rican crowd never grows old.
"Not everybody can say that they played in their country in front of their fans," Cora said. "It's a dream come true."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.