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

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

MEXICO CITY — The day before Major League Baseball played regular season games here for the first time, Nick Martinez, a pitcher for the San Diego Padres, had an idea. Accompanied by some 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 piñatas. He bought a few hoping they might be smashed by the game’s player after each contest.

“Being in San Diego, Mexican culture is an integral part of our culture,” Martinez said. “And since we were here in Mexico for this series, the piñatas were an opportunity to keep that Mexican culture alive in our clubhouse.”

After the Padres defeated the Giants 16-11 on Saturday in a slugfest made possible by Mexico City conditions, Padres-designated hitter Nelson Cruz donned a sombrero in the colors of the Mexican flag as he struggled to break open a buzz light year pinata. His teammates cheered him on while wearing Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling masks. And after a Padres 6-4 win on Sunday, first baseman Matt Carpenter threw candy onto the clubhouse floor when he broke open a star-shaped piñata.

“It was a really short racquet,” Cruz later explained of his piñata problems. He finally gave up and tore it open with his hand. “If it had been a normal bat, it would have been one hit.”

For two days, MLB games at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú celebrated Mexico and his love of baseball. The league had previously played regular season games in Monterrey in 1996, 1999, 2018 and 2019. Historically, exhibition competitions have been held in Mexico City, but playing important matches in the country’s capital was different.

MLB wanted to do this earlier in Mexico City, but the $166 million stadium, which seats 20,000 fans, wasn’t completed until 2019. The facility is home to the Mexican League’s Diablos Rojos, a side of 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 with a larger population (22 million) than New York City (20 million) and 2,000 feet higher than Denver, which is home to the MLB’s Colorado Rockies and is known to be a mile higher sea ​​level. It is also the largest non-franchised city in North America in the region’s four major professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB).

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

“It would be a great experience,” said Juan Soto, a star outfielder for the Padres from the Dominican Republic. “I think of football where these players live and travel from city to city.”

While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has in the past praised the business prospects of Mexico City and the Mexican market as a whole, he recently said that he “never got close to the idea of ​​Mexico as an expansion opportunity.”

“The challenges are facility-based,” he said last week. “Even the stadium where we play this weekend is probably not big enough to house a major league club on a permanent basis. And then of course our season is so long. I have a union issue there that would need to be negotiated to get players to live in Mexico for that long.

The current goal for Mexico, Manfred said, is to improve MLB’s relationships with the professional baseball leagues there and make the country a North American equivalent of Japan, with “vibrant, homegrown professional play” and “star players who… Get an opportunity to come and play Major League Baseball.” He said more Mexican players in MLB would help baseball appeal to the large Mexican-American audience in the United States and generate more broadcast interest in Mexico.

Based on the game weekend 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. Tickets for the games sold out quickly in November. About 20,000 fans attended each game, but it sounded like more.

Mexican foods — including micheladas, tacos, aguachile, and churros — were sold in abundance. A mariachi band played throughout the games and performed a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning. Hundreds of fans stayed in front of the stadium after the last game to say goodbye to both teams with cheers and waves.

“It was great,” said Manny Machado, a Padres third baseman whose family is from the Dominican Republic. “What impressed me the most 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 on Friday during a trip to Mexico City’s famous Xochimilco canals. When the Padres’ aides went to the bullpen, they did so in Lucha Libre masks gifted to the team by Mexican-American wrestler Rey Mysterio.

“It means a lot to me,” Tatis said of his game in Mexico City. “For us Latin Americans, there’s something beautiful about playing in front of our people and bringing the game to the kids who don’t normally see us play in the US.”

According to MLB, around three-quarters of tickets sold online were purchased in Mexico, while the remainder were purchased in the United States, mostly in California. But as we entered the stands, it felt like more Padres fans were coming from the United States, and some said they bought their tickets online through secondary market retailers in Mexico.

In the left-hand stand, Felipe Pérez, 44, said he met many fans from the United States, but also several Mexicans who had traveled from all over the country. He was one of them; He said he took a seven-hour bus ride from Veracruz, a city on the Gulf of Mexico coast, on Saturday 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 the effort was worth it, Pérez said, because he loves baseball. He added in Spanish: “I’m happy. Watching a league game here is 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, which was erased by the pandemic. He marveled at the atmosphere around him on Saturday while sipping a beer.

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

In recent years, Mexican baseball has improved on the international stage. On the opening day of this season’s MLB roster, 15 players were born in Mexico, the highest total since 2005. In March, the Mexico national team finished third at the World Baseball Classic, their best performance of the tournament. And the most powerful fan in Mexico is its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who hosted a breakfast at El Palacio Nacional on Sunday, including for 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, a Mexican-American, said he doesn’t think the hurdles to Mexico City as a future MLB home are as great as some might think. He said English is widely spoken at the international center and there is a lot of tourism and history here.

“I feel like Mexico has a bad reputation in terms of safety and stuff like that,” he said. “But here in Mexico you are safe. There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening and obviously every city has its neighborhoods you don’t want to go to. But this place has so many other places that are so welcoming and open.”

At least regular-season games are expected to return to Mexico City. As part of their overseas push in recent years, MLB played in London for the first time in 2019, expanding a world tour that already included Japan, Puerto Rico and Australia. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, MLB and the players’ union agreed to more regular-season games in London, some in Paris in 2025, and annual trips to Mexico City from 2023-2026.

The height and turf of Mexico City will present some constant challenges – or advantages – to players. On Saturday, the ball sped through the thinner air and the teams combined for 11 home runs and 30 goals. Defenders said the ball bounced off the ground and shot past them.

Pitchers said their pitches weren’t moving as usual and clarified that it was an even bigger problem than at Coors Field in Denver. After walking the bases on Saturday, Cruz said he felt out of breath. Yu Darvish, the Padres’ pitcher, said umpires told him he could call a coach during his start on Sunday if he felt too out of breath. 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 expecting to fight for the playoffs and previously struggling with the record, a memorable trip to Mexico City might have been just what the Padres needed.

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

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