Nine kids and eight adults from the Kenai Peninsula went to Puerto Rico from May 26 to June 4 for the baseball. They came away impressed with the hospitality.
"Whatever we needed, all we needed to do was ask," said Kenai's Gary Oliver, the manager of the Kenai Baseball Club. "They gave us things we didn't even ask for."
The group of nine 13- and 14-year-olds were all from Kenai Little League, but the Kenai Baseball Club was formed for the trip and was not affiliated with Kenai Little League.
The trip was the brainchild of Oliver. Oliver has coached the last couple of years with Hector Rivera, who now lives in Kenai but grew up in Puerto Rico.
"I came up with the idea and Hector said, 'Let's go for it,'" Oliver said. "I decided to see if we could get a commitment from parents and kids to do it."
Once nine players committed, and Oliver saw that plane fares were far too expensive during spring break, the trip was planned for as soon as schools closed for the summer.
Meanwhile, Rivera was working old connections in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, in order to set up an itinerary for the team. He had no trouble finding baseball and hospitality in the city of 224,000.
"We had teams from all over the island calling us every day," Oliver said. "We had to say, 'Come on guys, we've only got nine guys and our pitchers are the same players as our catchers.' Plus, it was a vacation. We wanted some beach time."
The Kenai Baseball Club got word from Ramon Luis Rivera Jr., the mayor of Bayamon, that transportation and accommodations would be taken care of. The city gave the Kenai players a 15-passenger van to use, and also a city-owned house complete with bunk beds, mattresses and sheets.
When the team arrived, some of the adults were sent to the grocery store to stock up on food, but there was no need because the city had already stocked the house with food. Oliver said that meant the travelers had to spend just $11 per day on food for the first five days of the trip.
The baseball games brought an added layer of hospitality. Kenai Baseball Club played four games, and the opposition brought bags of gifts for each player. The Kenai players had city of Kenai pins from Mayor Pat Porter to give to the Puerto Rico players. The team also was fed after each game.
The first game, against Bella Vista in Bayamon on May 28, featured a public-address system, a television reporter and a newspaper reporter. A May 30 game in Comerio, a city of 20,000, was played in a stadium where big league ballplayers used to suit up for winter ball. The Comerio team also presented Kenai with a nice plaque.
"Roberto Clemente played on that field when he played winter ball there," Oliver said. "Most of the kids don't remember Roberto Clemente."
The height of the hospitality came on June 1, when the team met with Mayor Rivera. The mayor had wanted to meet on May 30 or 31, but the team had games on those days. The mayor then cleared his morning schedule to meet with the team on June 1. The mayor sat at a conference table with the team and gave even more gifts.
When the mayor found out the team was going to the west end of the island for some beach time, he tried to arrange a 27-passenger van so the whole group could ride together. When the Alaskans turned that down, the mayor offered to arrange a rafting trip on an underground river on the way over, but that park was closed on Mondays. The team thanked the mayor for his generosity and finally got on the road.
Hector Rivera, who moved to the peninsula in 2005, said one reason the Kenai team was welcomed is because the island loves baseball.
"Puerto Rico is baseball," Rivera said. "They thought, (the Kenai team) tried their best and played hard, so they wanted to make them feel good."
Oliver said Puerto Rico's culture also led to the generosity.
"That culture is big on family and very big on wanting to do cultural exchanges," Oliver said. "It was a great opportunity for kids that may never get off the island."
Added Rivera: "They just wanted us to feel welcome and to spend time with us. People in Puerto Rico think Alaska is just a block of ice. Lots of people here probably think Puerto Rico is a couple of palm trees and beach. This was more than a baseball adventure."
Even the baseball portion of the trip was adventurous because the players from Kenai didn't have experience with lights and heat. The first two games were played under the lights. The next two games were played in temperatures over 80 degrees.
The Kenai players practiced under lights when they first arrived in Puerto Rico, then lost the May 28 game to Bella Vista under the lights. Oliver said the May 29 game also was under lights against Bella Vista's 13-year-olds. The game was called a tie at 11 p.m.
"They had brought us some food," Oliver said. "I think everybody just wanted to eat."
The May 30 game in Comerio was tied at 0 in the fourth inning, but Comerio ended up winning 7-2. Rivera said the quality of Kenai's play dropped as the temperature rose.
"This team just started to melt down," he said.
That didn't stop the Kenai squad from attending a pig roast held by Rivera's relatives after the game. The party went from 5 to 11 p.m. The next day, the Kenai squad played the Bella Vista 13-year-olds again at 10 a.m.
"It was wonderful," Rivera said. "Everybody was hitting. We won by the 10-run rule. All they needed was some of that pig."
Oliver also said the pitchers benefited from the heat. The coach usually only lets his pitchers go for three innings, but during one game Jesse Eide went for four innings. Oliver asked Eide how his arm felt, and when Eide said it was fine, Oliver asked Eide if he was sure.
"He said, 'No, my arm feels really loose. It's never been like this before,'" Oliver said. "I said, 'This is what I've been telling you guys. Baseball is a different game when it's not played in the wind and cold we have at home.'"
Oliver would love for some Puerto Rico players to find out what it's like to play in Alaska, and he'd love for more Kenai players to experience Puerto Rico.
"Hector said that we may be setting ourselves up for something that could go on for years," Oliver said. "I'd love to do it again, sure. It was just a blast."
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