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Mets-Marlins to add to Hiram Bithorn's history

Mets-Marlins to add to Hiram Bithorn's history

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MIAMI -- The continental United States has 30 Major League ballparks. But in Puerto Rico, Hiram Bithorn Stadium has housed big league aspirations for locals who've come to watch Major Leaguers play in winter ball, the World Baseball Classic and even as part of the regular season in the Majors.

Count two current members of the Marlins' coaching staff among them.

The Marlins have no Puerto Rican-born players on their roster, but interim skipper Edwin Rodriguez is the first native of Puerto Rico to manage in the big leagues, and third-base coach Joe Espada lived on the island until he was 19.

On Monday, when the Marlins begin a three-game series against the Mets at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in the capital city of San Juan, Espada -- a native of Santurce, which is about a two-hour drive from the ballpark -- said he "may be working for free" because of all the tickets he will have to give out.

At Hiram Bithorn Stadium, Espada watched greats like Ruben Sierra, Edgar Martinez, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez as a kid. Later, he played winter ball there with the Arecibo Lobos until as recently as 2006.

"I remember my dad taking me to a ballgame and watching a lot of great players play in the '80s and, you know, early '90s, right before I went to college," Espada said. "Yeah, I remember."

Hiram Bithorn Stadium, operated by the municipal government of San Juan, was built in 1962 and was recently renovated. It hosted Opening Day in 2001 between the Rangers and Blue Jays, then served as the part-time home of the Montreal Expos in '03 and '04, with the club playing 22 games there each year before its move to Washington.

The stadium also housed the Puerto Rico Baseball League for many years and several World Baseball Classic games in 2006 and '09. Last year, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Panama played there as part of the Classic's first round.

"I was there last year," Espada said, "and I think that it's definitely Major League ready to go. I don't think it'll be any problem for the players to be able to play and perform there.

"The place plays fair. Years ago, fences were short. But now they actually moved them back, and it plays fair. So, I can see some very good games being played."

The surface of the field is turf -- Espada compared it to what the Rays have at Tropicana Field -- while the dimensions are a bit shorter than those at Sun Life Stadium. Down the lines, the eight-foot fences are 325 feet, then 375 feet in the gaps and 404 feet to straightaway center field.

The stadium's capacity is about 20,000.

"They've been doing some adjustments on the field and in the basepaths," said Rodriguez, who grew up about five minutes away from the ballpark.

"It plays fair, but I would say that if I have to choose one, it's more of a hitter's ballpark."

Rodriguez knows one other thing about the ballpark: "It's going to be loud," he said.

The anticipation for the Mets-Marlins series has been building.

"All Puerto Rican people are waiting for this," said Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano, a native of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. "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."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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