“This rookie from Washington, Soto, is phenomenal. Look, he’s not even 21 and hit a home run. That ball still hasn’t landed!” López Obrador told reporters Tuesday, smacking the lectern with his hand, as he lamented the Nationals’ 5-4 victory in the opening game of the World Series.
More than 700 miles from Houston’s Minute Maid Park, López Obrador is making baseball an affair of state, seeking to revive a nation’s glorious past, one MLB player at a time.
The president, known here by his initials AMLO, has spent the playoffs providing frequent updates to the nation — with special attention to the two Mexicans playing for the Astros (pitchers Roberto Osuna and José Urquidy). But this goes beyond the game recaps.
He’s installed a baseball promotion office in the National Palace. He’s expanded the Mexican
Pacific League. He’s launched a plan to spend more than $17 million this year on baseball academies to groom Mexican talent.
Latin Americans make up nearly a quarter of Major League Baseball players. But Mexico has slid behind the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba — as well as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico — with only eight players on Opening Day rosters this year.
For a president who has promised social transformation on the scale of the Mexican Revolution, this is not okay.
“I have a dream,” he said in January, “that when my term ends in 2024, we’ll have at least 60 or 80 Mexicans playing in the major leagues.”
Reviving baseball in a soccer-mad nation? Guillermo Celis, a Mexican baseball commentator for ESPN, won’t rule it out. True, since taking office in December, the leftist president hasn’t succeeded in resuscitating Mexico’s flatlining economy, or reducing violence.
But “when he promises something having to do with baseball,” Celis said, “he delivers.”
Baseball in Mexico has a long and colorful history. While it’s unclear exactly when it arrived, it spread in the late 1800s, thanks to the Americans who were helping build Mexico’s railroads.
The sport reflected the intertwining of the two cultures, with each nation taking advantage of the other’s talents.
In the 1940s, for example, “the Mexican League was very strong because they recruited players of color” when they were barred from the U.S. big leagues, baseball historian Horacio Ibarra said. Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson played in Mexico.
A few decades later, Fernandomania swept Mexico. Fernando Valenzuela, a pitcher from Sonora state, starred in the World Series in 1981; to this day, many Mexicans revere his Los Angeles Dodgers.
Baseball was an American import, but it gradually became tropicalized, Mexico’s stadiums echoing with mariachi and banda music, its fans hydrated with Tecate and Corona. (In Mexico, there is no “last call” in the seventh inning. Or in the eighth or ninth, for that matter. “It’s beer, beer and more beer,” as one fan put it.)
Nonetheless, in recent decades, baseball here has suffered a decline.
TV networks promoted faster-moving soccer. And Mexican pro teams charged stiff fees to allow players to sign with major league franchises, discouraging their recruitment.
“What you paid for a Mexican player, you could bring five or six Dominicans,” Celis said. (Those rules were changed this year.)
Of course, Mexicans still turned out to cheer their teams: the Orange Growers of Hermosillo, the Railwaymen of Aguascalientes, the Serape-Makers of Saltillo. Let’s not get started on the fandom for the mighty Tomato Growers of Culiacan, with 11 domestic championship titles as well as two Caribbean World Series victories.
But baseball became less a national pastime than a regional sport, popular mostly in the northwest and southeast.
Places such as Tabasco state, where in the 1960s a schoolboy named Andrés Manuel López Obrador played center field on the local baseball team.
He was so crazy about the game that they called him “the American.”
Like every presidential candidate, AMLO made promises, and this was his offer to the good people of Guasave in northwest Sinaloa state: Vote for me, and I’ll give you a baseball team.
And so it was, on a Friday night this month, that AMLO tossed out the first pitch at Francisco Carranza Limón Stadium. The crowd went wild: Guasave was now home to the Algodoneros — the Cotton-Pickers — part of an expansion of Mexico’s premier Pacific League, one of several winter leagues in Latin America.
But AMLO’s visions are bigger: to make Mexico a force in the Major Leagues.
There’s lots of reasons this is a worthy national goal, said Édgar González, the former San Diego Padre who now heads ProBeis, the government’s new baseball-promotion office.
Baseball provides good exercise in a nation getting steadily fatter, he said. “Sports takes kids away from vices” such as working for narco-traffickers.
Baseball is also “one of the only sports that could bring Mexico a lot of investment,” he said. There are 172 Mexicans playing professional baseball in the United States, but only 10 in the majors, with their multimillion-dollar salaries, González said.
Major League teams have visited Mexico regular-season games for more than a decade. The Padres and Dodgers played to sold-out crowds in a three-game series in Monterrey last year.
Some expected this World Series might attract more fans south of the border because it features Osuna and Urquidy, both from Sinaloa.
“I am with the Astros because they have more Latinos,” AMLO declared Tuesday. (He’s normally a St. Louis Cardinals fan.)
But the challenge in restoring the sport to its onetime glory is substantial.
Consider the scene on Tuesday night at a bar in Mexico City’s trendy Roma neighborhood. Four TV screens were tuned to the World Series, which was about to begin. Excitement was at fever pitch.
In Houston, that is. At the Cerveceria del Barrio, almost no one was watching.
“I like baseball, but I haven’t been following the World Series,” said Salvador Perez, 51. “Is Washington playing?”
A few miles away, in the middle-class Narvarte neighborhood, several Nats and Astros fans huddled around TV screens at a bar showing the game. But they were far outnumbered by rowdy fans following the soccer Copa Libertadores on other screens.
Fernando Rodríguez, 29, a Yankees fan who works in publicity, said he was hopeful AMLO’s plans would boost baseball here. But as he watched the game, an eardrum-shattering roar went up from the soccer fans. Someone had scored a goal.
“That,” he said, “is the difference between soccer and baseball.”