For the Love of the Game: Where Fraternity and Faith Meet

May 17, 2018

SpiritBlog

Eddie Rosario

Fr. Ubel with Puerto Rico native and Twins Left Fiedler, Eddie Rosario

By Father John Ubel

Like all grade school students of my era, I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Of course I assumed then that he touched foot on what is now American soil. I would later learn that Leif Erickson and Viking explorers were likely the first Europeans to set foot in North America proper, landing on the northern tip of Newfoundland around the year 1000 A.D. But Columbus did anchor near San Juan, Puerto Rico for two days in November 1493 A.D. on his second voyage, and when I gazed upon the tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon, known as the discoverer of Florida, in the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, suddenly the travails of the early explorers felt real. By appointment of the Spanish Crown, he was its first Governor in 1508-09.

Traversing the streets of old San Juan is reminiscent of many old European cities, with El Morro, the massive six-story 16th century fortress dominating the old city. The morning of our Cathedral visit coincided with the arrival of a giant cruise ship in port. The narrow streets were packed by 9:00 a.m. Our “tour guide” from the parish staff was José Lara Fontánez, who clearly loves his Cathedral as much as I love ours. We had mailed 345 pounds of medicines, to be distributed to the needy in San Juan and beyond. The island wide power outage delayed the post office pick up by a day or two, but they arrived safely. On top of that, I was delighted to present a gift in the amount of $25,000 to be used for Cathedral restoration, following Hurricane Maria. Ten minutes into our visit, my phone rang–it was Premier Bank. I gave authorization for the immediate transfer of funds and we all cheered when the transfer was final. What a thrill for me! I received a heartfelt thank you note from the rector, Fr. Benjamin Perez Cruz, who invited me to visit again in 2021 for the 500th anniversary celebration of the Cathedral!

Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

Fr. Ubel presents gift check to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista

With a typical high of 85 and low of 74, it is not difficult to plan for the day, unless it rains! And it did briefly, but powerfully one day. The cab driver lamented– “You see this? When it rains, the roads become a river!” And trust me, when the sun re-appears, it’s like a steam room! In its infancy as a territory, Puerto Rico relied heavily on its sugar crop, but by the mid-20th century, that shifted to manufacturing and tourism. Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico officially became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952. There are signs that tourism is slowly, very slowly coming back. I suspect this is one reason why Major League Baseball was intent on keeping its commitment to this two-game series. They added LED lights to the stadium (just as we did here at the Cathedral!) and repaired the significant damage to the artificial turf in Estadio Hiram Bithorn, built in 1962 and named after the first Puerto Rican who played in the Majors for the Chicago Cubs in 1942.

The scoreboard was reminiscent of the old Met Stadium. It was “no frills” baseball without the constant images flashing across giant video screens. Instead, we were treated to strolling musicians in the stands, with people breaking into dancing and singing right in their seats between innings. Cowbells, whistles and a cacophony of sounds seemed ever-present. It was a completely different feel in the stadium. We sat directly behind a friendly family– Mom, Dad, their identical twin sons aged about 12 or 13 and grandpa. They were all smiles during the game, though ironically the “twins” inexplicably sported Indians gear! On the first night I enjoyed fresh squeezed lemonade and a hot dog, and on the second night, felt ambitious an opted for a piña colada. If it had any alcohol, it was the weakest drink I’ve ever had– but it was tasty!

Back at the hotel after the first game, our group visited with a man at the neighboring table who worked for Major League Baseball. We began discussing the various charitable outreaches being made during the series. When I noted our own outreach to the Cathedral, he was genuinely appreciative. Not five minutes later, into the restaurant walked Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. After a few minutes, the Commissioner himself approached our table! He asked how we were enjoying our experience, and before long he invited us to a private event the next day unveiling a memorial marker in honor of Roberto Clemente, a national hero in Puerto Rico who tragically perished in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while on his way to provide disaster relief to Nicaragua. The entire visit was a wonderful experience of faith, fellowship and baseball, with a few surprise extras. The incredible support of the good people of the Cathedral parish truly made it an unforgettable visit.

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