<
>

A year after Hurricane Maria, memories of tragedy, triumph endure

play
Hurricane Maria, one year later (2:05)

On September 20, 2017, category 4 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and some of the island's sports stars united in recovery efforts. (2:05)

There are days that change the course of your life forever. If you ask my mom and dad, they might say the birth of their children, the death of their parents or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

For me, it's Sept. 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria made landfall on my native island of Puerto Rico.

I had a trial run decades earlier, on Sept. 18, 1989, with Hurricane Hugo. As a kid, I thought it was exciting, and the good kind of scary, to follow the hurricane's path and wonder what a direct hit from a Category 5 storm would be like. I became a bona fide 13-year-old expert on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

And Hugo was devastating, with winds in the 100-mph range hitting the northeast coast of the island, where my family lived. But it was classified as a Category 3 storm when it arrived, so in my warped teenage brain, I was disappointed.

The few weeks we were without power were fun. There was no school, we played board games and I got to stay up late (with my very own flashlight!) and listen to the radio. There were no cell phones back then, so the big treat was to watch a black-and-white, 6-inch, battery-powered TV for an hour.

Flash forward to 2017. I was in Seattle covering the Mariners and Houston Astros, and Hurricane Irma was the main topic of discussion among the large concentration of Puerto Rican coaches and players at Safeco Field that Sept. 6, including Alex Cora, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa, Alex Cintron, Edgar Martínez, Edwin Diaz, Emilio Pagan and even George Springer, whose mom's family is from the small town of Utuado.

Irma ended up skirting the island. I was able to check on most of my family and friends. My brother Rey's house was slightly damaged and they lost power, but Irma did not have the level of devastation we had all feared.

Two weeks would make all the difference. On Sept. 16, Hurricane Maria formed out of just a "tropical wave," but two days later it had turned into the deadliest storm of the hyperactive 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.

Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. It slammed ashore in the southeastern town of Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m. local time. The Cleveland Indians were scheduled to play the second of a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels on ESPN's Wednesday Night Baseball. At 3:15 a.m. PT in Anaheim, I was glued to the Weather Channel.

Maria became the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1932. And the 13-year-old inside of me knew exactly what that meant.

Power and communication were completely cut off to the vast majority of the island, which led so many Puerto Ricans -- including our hodgepodge group of Francisco Lindor, Roberto Perez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Martin Maldonado and Cleveland's assistant strength and conditioning coach Nelson Perez -- scrambling to check on each other's families.

None of us knew if our relatives were still alive. It wasn't until a week later that I got a message from my mom. Her town was devastated, but she was OK. My mom, being my mom, comforted me as I wept.

I still had not heard from my dad and stepmom. I texted and called everyone I could think of, to no avail. All I could do was immerse myself in my work. But with the playoffs about to start, I didn't have half a mind to focus on baseball.

Then, on the morning of Oct. 4, my phone rang. The caller ID read "Papi" -- a term of endearment used in Spanish to refer to your father.

My mom and dad have this uncanny ability to always call at the worst times -- as I'm boarding a plane, or in the middle of an interview, or during the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two outs. Not this time. I leaped from the bed and stood by the window of my Arizona airport hotel, where I had just checked in. I struggled to hear my dad's broken words.

All I wanted was to hear my dad's voice, but I kept hearing static on our broken connection and could barely make out the word "Yankees." I was confused.

Finally, I figured out what he was saying: "¿Qué pasó con los Yankees?"

My father, who with former Astro Jose Cruz, is the source of my love of "béisbol," was asking me, "What happened with the Yankees?"

Since he had no power or communication, my dad had no idea the New York Yankees had beaten the Minnesota Twins in the American League wild-card game, advancing to the division series against Cleveland.

I muted the phone and laughed for the first time in a long while, and cried at the same time. Then I told my baseball-obsessed papi that the Yankees had moved on and that I was in Arizona for the National League wild-card game.

And then the phone cut off.

I couldn't speak to my family regularly for weeks. Many were without power for five or six months. Countless houses and businesses were destroyed, including so many belonging to my family and friends.

During the playoffs, every time anyone from Puerto Rico was around, Maria was the only topic discussed. And though those weeks are now mostly a blur, I clearly remember Cintron hugging me, in tears, as the Astros celebrated beating the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, without him having heard a word from his mom.

I remember Chicago Cubs rookie catcher Victor Caratini asking me to check if my father had heard from his father. My father and Victor Caratini Sr. have known each other most of their lives, having grown up in the small town of Coamo in the center of the island.

And more than anything, I remember a crying Carlos Beltran, powerless to send aid to the island.

I flew home for the first time after Maria with Beltran and his wife, Jessica, in mid-November, one of the many trips organized by active and retired Puerto Rican athletes to help in the recovery.

To see the island in such a condition, with no power and without a single working traffic light, was heartbreaking. I wondered how, in barely six months, Puerto Rico would manage to host its first regular-season MLB games since 2010, in a 56-year-old stadium that was extensively damaged.

Yet on April 18, 2018, ESPN broadcast the Minnesota Twins and Indians at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. In the middle of unbearable sadness and devastation, and the many lives we might never know were lost, Puerto Rico turned tragedy into triumph.

A year after the storm hit, the rebuilding process is ongoing. And while our lives have been forever changed, the strength of the Puerto Rican people, including the 19 Puerto Rican players in the major leagues this season, has never been more evident.