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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Passionate baseball fans and (very) thin air let Mexico City shine

Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú, a 20,000-seat ballpark that opened in 2019, hosted the two-game series between the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants.

By James Wagner

A day before Major League Baseball played regular-season games in Mexico City for the first time, Nick Martinez, a pitcher for the San Diego Padres, had an idea. Accompanied by a few teammates, he visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Friday, which was a day off for both the San Francisco Giants and the Padres.

On the way to the church, Martinez noticed several shops selling pinatas. He bought a few, hoping they could be smashed by the player of the game after each of the contests.

“Being in San Diego, Mexican culture is very much a part of our culture,” Martinez said. “And being here in Mexico for this series, the pinatas were an opportunity to keep that Mexican culture in our clubhouse.”

So, after the Padres defeated the Giants, 16-11, on Saturday, in a slugfest made possible by the conditions of Mexico City, Padres designated hitter Nelson Cruz donned a sombrero in the colors of the Mexican flag as he struggled to break open a Buzz Lightyear pinata. His teammates cheered him on while wearing Mexican lucha libre wrestling masks. And after a 6-4 Padres win Sunday, first baseman Matt Carpenter sent candy flying onto the clubhouse floor when he busted open a pinata in the shape of a star.

“It was a real short bat,” Cruz explained later of his pinata troubles. He eventually gave up and ripped it open by hand. “If it had been a normal bat, it would’ve been done with one swing.”

For two days at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú, the MLB games were a celebration of Mexico and its love of baseball. The league had previously played regular-season games in Monterrey in 1996, 1999, 2018 and 2019. Exhibition contests were played in Mexico City in the past, but playing games that mattered in the country’s capital was different.

MLB wanted to do so in Mexico City sooner, but the $166 million stadium, which holds 20,000 fans, wasn’t completed until 2019. The facility is home to the Mexican League’s Diablos Rojos, a team owned by Mexican billionaire Alfredo Harp Helú, also a part owner of the Padres.

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, a metropolis more populous (22 million) than New York City (20 million) and 2,000 feet higher in altitude than Denver, which is home to MLB’s Colorado Rockies and is famously a mile above sea level. Mexico City is also the largest city in North America without a franchise in the region’s four major men’s professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB).

Soccer may be the biggest sport in Mexico but baseball has a strong foothold, particularly in certain regions of this country of 127 million people. Given how the Toronto Blue Jays are the MLB team for all of Canada, baseball officials and fans have dreamed about the potential of an expansion franchise in Mexico City.

“It would be a great experience,” said Juan Soto, a star outfielder for the Padres who is from the Dominican Republic. “It makes me think of soccer, where those players live traveling from city to city.”

Even though MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has praised the business prospects of Mexico City and the Mexican market as a whole in the past, he recently said that he had “never been close to the idea of Mexico as an expansion opportunity.”

“The challenges are facility based,” he said last week. “Even the stadium that we’re playing in this weekend is probably not big enough for a permanent home for a major league club. And then, of course, our season is so long. I have a union issue there that would have to be bargained to get players to live for that long of a period of time in Mexico.”

The current goal for Mexico, Manfred said, was to improve MLB’s relationships with existing professional baseball leagues there and to have the country become a North American equivalent of Japan, with “vibrant, domestic professional play” and “star players given the opportunity to come and play Major League Baseball.” He said having more Mexican players in MLB would help baseball appeal to the large Mexican American audience in the United States and create more broadcast interest in Mexico.

Based on the weekend of games in Mexico City, there was indeed an appetite for the sport. The scenes in the stands and on the field reflected a spirited baseball culture. The tickets for the games sold out quickly in November. About 20,000 fans attended each game, but it sounded like more.

Mexican food — including micheladas, tacos, aguachile and churros — was sold in abundance. A mariachi band played throughout the games, performing a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Hundreds of fans lingered outside the stadium after the final game to send off both teams with cheers and waves.

“It was awesome,” said Manny Machado, a third baseman for the Padres whose family is from the Dominican Republic. “What most impressed me was the fans and how passionate they were, especially for us Latinos who play with a lot of passion and energy.”

After each of the seven home runs they hit over the weekend, the Padres, the MLB team closest to the Mexican border, put a sombrero on the head of the player who smashed the ball over the fence. Fernando Tatis Jr. bought it Friday during a trip to the famous canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City. When Padres relievers walked out to the bullpen, they did so in lucha libre masks gifted to the team by Mexican American professional wrestler Rey Mysterio.

“It means a lot,” Tatis said of playing in Mexico City. “For us Latin Americans, it’s something beautiful to play in front of our people and taking the game to the kids who don’t normally see us play in the U.S.”

Roughly three-fourths of the tickets sold online were purchased in Mexico, according to MLB, while the remaining tickets were purchased in the United States, primarily in California. But walking the stands, it felt like more Padres fans were visiting from the United States and several said they bought their tickets online through secondary-market resellers in Mexico.

In the left field bleachers, Felipe Pérez, 44, said he met many fans from the United States but also several Mexicans who had traveled from throughout the country. He was one of them; he said he took a seven-hour bus ride Saturday from Veracruz, a city on the Gulf of Mexico coast, and arrived in Mexico City just in time for the 4 p.m. game. He returned home at 11 a.m. the next day.

All that effort was worth it, Pérez said, because he loves baseball. He added in Spanish: “I’m happy. To see a big league game here, it’s the best.”

Pérez had been waiting for these games. He and his family bought tickets for the April 2020 series in Mexico City between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Padres that was erased by the pandemic. He marveled at the atmosphere around him Saturday as he nursed a beer.

“Mexicans have a way of enjoying shows and life,” Pérez said as fans stomped their feet for Tatis at the plate. “People get behind a team. Look at how people are cheering.”

In recent years, Mexican baseball has improved on the international stage. On MLB’s opening day rosters this season, there were 15 players born in Mexico, the highest total since 2005. In March, the Mexican national team finished third in the World Baseball Classic, its best showing in the tournament. And the most powerful fan in Mexico is its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who hosted a breakfast Sunday at El Palacio Nacional for, among others, Trevor Hoffman, a Hall of Famer who starred for the Padres; Sergio Romo, a reliever who won three World Series titles with the Giants; and Harp Helú.

Romo, who is Mexican American, said he didn’t think the hurdles for Mexico City as a future MLB home were as big as some may think. He said plenty of English was spoken in the international hub and that there was lots of tourism and history here.

“I do feel that Mexico does have a little bit of a bad rap in terms of, like, safety and whatnot,” he said. “But here in Mexico, you’re safe. There’s a lot of really cool things going on, and obviously, every city has their neighborhoods you don’t want to go to. But this place has so many other spots that are so welcoming and open.”

Regular-season games, at the very least, are expected to return to Mexico City. As part of its overseas push in recent years, MLB played games in London for the first time in 2019, expanding a world tour that already included Japan, Puerto Rico and Australia. In the latest labor agreement, MLB and the players union agreed to more regular-season games in London, some in Paris in 2025 and yearly trips to Mexico City from 2023-26.

The altitude and the turf in Mexico City will present some ongoing challenges — or advantages — to players. On Saturday, the ball zoomed through the thinner air and the teams combined for 11 home runs and 30 hits. Defenders said the ball skipped off the ground and rocketed past them.

Pitchers said their pitches didn’t move like usual, clarifying that it was even more of an issue than it is at the Rockies’ Coors Field. After running the bases Saturday, Cruz said he felt more out of breath. Padres pitcher Yu Darvish said umpires told him he could call for a trainer during his start Sunday if he was feeling too winded. Alex Cobb, a pitcher for the Giants, said his team’s training staff provided more fluids and electrolytes to avoid dehydration.

But for a team expected to contend for the playoffs, and which had been previously struggling at the plate, a memorable trip to Mexico City might have been exactly what the Padres needed.

“I’d love to stay here another week,” said Machado, who homered twice.

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