SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – After a five-inning, 14 strikeout, no-hit performance, Roberto Joubert stepped off the mound and made his way toward the Puerto Rico dugout.
An emphatic roar filled Volunteer Stadium, as miniature Puerto Rican flags waved in tandem with fatheads of each player. The Puerto Rico faithful consisted of no more than 60 or 70 people, yet their passion could be felt throughout the 3,000-seat ballpark.
At the front of the crowd was Pedro Ortiz, whose son Devin is a reserve outfielder. Ortiz has watched this Radames Lopez Little League team from Guayama win championships together at every age level since they were 5, and on Monday he saw another happy moment, a 3-1 win over Panama in an elimination game.
But even he struggled to picture this scene 11 months ago.
“It’s been a really really really tough year,” Ortiz said. “For us to be here after Hurricane Maria, we really didn’t know whether or not we were going to play baseball.”
Last September, Hurricane Maria smashed Guayama, a coastal town of around 40,000. In the weeks that followed, the Ortiz family didn’t have a place to call home. Star catcher John Lopez had to scramble to rebuild his family’s fritter business. Because the island’s entire power grid was knocked out, pitcher Yadiel Delgado couldn’t contact his father in Florida for weeks.
For nearly a month, Guayama was forced to come to grips with its new reality, a tall task for any kid. As families searched for water, gas and other necessities, the Little Leaguers dedicated themselves to whipping their local baseball diamonds into shape.
By mid-October, they were finally ready, and a momentary distraction had arrived.
“The first goal was to bring some recreation to the kids, not to think about what happened at their houses,” manager Carlos Texidor said through an interpreter.
Communicating without a functioning power grid and traveling through debris proved to be difficult, and once the players arrived at practice, they had to cope with fields that were in anything but pristine condition. To make matters worse, they could only play during the day – which is generally avoided in the hot Caribbean climate – and had to share the fields with many neighboring communities.
Yet practice after practice, the determined group of 11- and 12-year-olds kept showing up, and almost a year later, they’re the first team in Radames Lopez Little League’s rich history to make it to the Little League World Series.
“I learned don’t stop, just go ahead,” Delgado said through an interpreter. “Every time.”
The team has lost just twice this summer and went undefeated throughout the Caribbean Regional, scoring 51 runs in the process. They will face another win-or-you’re-out game on Tuesday, and still have to string together three victories to get to the tournament final Sunday.
Lopez said he isn’t ready for it all to end, at least not yet.
“I love to be here,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m really comfortable here and if it’s up to me, I want to stay here.”
He’s not the only one invested in the team.
In the midst of a breakout season, Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario has followed the story of his former league diligently. The Guayama native video chats with coaches and players on a near-daily basis, and was on hand when Major League Baseball donated $75,000 to Little League International in April.
“I feel really proud for my guys and for Puerto Rico, and my city,” Rosario told The Associated Press in Minnesota last weekend. “I’m so happy for them.
“The coaches are my friends. Everybody over there is good people. They’re very close to me.”
When asked about their favorite part of this journey, Lopez, Delgado and the team’s ace, Eric Rodriguez were all in agreement. It wasn’t a particular game, play, or interaction with a major leaguer that stood out.
“Jugar,” each said. Or, in English, “to play.”