NEW YORK (AP) — When the Houston Astros' owner offered Carlos Beltran charter aircrafts to send relief aid to Puerto Rico and evacuate cancer patients from the island after Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican slugger quickly thought about "the chat group."
He wanted to send word to other Puerto Rican teammates and coaches with the Astros, as well as friends from other teams, that one of the airplanes was available to pick up family members who couldn't return to the mainland because of the lack of commercial flights.
The "chat" Beltran was referring to was the WhatsApp group that All-Star catcher Yadier Molina created just before of this year's World Baseball Classic.
Six months after finishing as runner-up for the second straight time in the international tournament, the friendships and bonds among the Puerto Rican players have only strengthened, especially after the devastating storm that hit Puerto Rico on Sep. 20 and left much of the island without electricity and running water.
"We keep in touch all the time, always encouraging each other," Beltran said. "This has been a special year, because many of them have had great seasons, but also we've been united by this tragedy."
The situation in Puerto Rico, where at least 49 people were killed by the storm and thousands lost their homes, has been on the mind of all the players during the playoffs, where Beltran's Astros face the New York Yankees on Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
"With what's going in on in the island, we're closer than ever," said Javier Baez, the Chicago Cubs second baseman whose team was eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. "We never stopped chatting after the WBC. Many of us are good friends, like brothers. We send messages and help each other out."
That's what Beltran did after the hurricane, starting a crowdfunding campaign that raised $1.3 million to send 300,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico. But he needed transportation to get the aid there, and Astros owner Jim Crane offered the planes.
"His generosity has no bounds," Beltran said.
The 40-year-old designated hitter brought his parents to Houston, where they stayed with him until last week. They live in the northern town of Manati. The aftermath was so dire that he had to wait five days after the storm to finally hear from them.
During the past month, Beltran has been focusing on two goals: helping his homeland and playing the postseason with the Astros. That's also the case with other players such as his teammate Carlos Correa and Enrique Hernandez, the Dodgers utilityman who tied an MLB record with three homers during Thursday's 11-1 win over the Cubs.
"My body's here, but my mind's kind of back home. It's hard being away from home with what's going on," Hernandez said after the series-clinching win.
In Correa's case, his family didn't want to leave Puerto Rico, so the Astros shortstop sent them generators for their home and supplies for his hometown of Santa Isabel in the southern coast of the island.
"Focusing on baseball those first days was stressful, about a week without news from your family," Correa said. "But once you got the word that they were OK, I've been able to focus in my job."
Beltran displayed a Puerto Rican flag during the player introductions in New York before Game 3 of the ALCS against the Yankees.
"I wanted to express my support and show that we're dealing with a very difficult situation in the country," he said. "As a player, those first weeks were hard, but you cannot step away from your duties as baseball player amid the current situation in Puerto Rico and with our families there."
And they can count on the chat.
In particular, Baez highlighted the role of Molina, their "leader" who has been in Puerto Rico for the past two weeks helping with the relief efforts. After the St. Louis Cardinals got eliminated from playoff contention, the catcher sent a note to all those playing in the postseason wishing them the best of luck.
"Molina is the one who created the group. He's the one who created the bond and he's always there for us," Baez said. "We all have huge respect for him, even more for the veteran players, especially Yadier and Beltran, who are always keeping us in the right path."
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