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From Mexico to St. Louis, Salas seizing opportunity

LOS ANGELES -- For as much progress as Major League Baseball has made in plucking talent from Latin America, perhaps it is surprising how few of baseball's Spanish-speaking players come from Mexico, which is more than double the size of Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic combined.

Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas has his suspicions why.

Unlike other Latin American countries, where young boys dream of escaping poverty by coming to the United States, Mexico offers a baseball league that pays players a sufficient sum. Passing up that guaranteed money to take a shot at a Major League dream isn't often viewed as fruitful.

"It's a poison over there," Salas said of the greed. "There is a lot of money to stay in Mexican League. A lot of players in Mexican League have a chance, but they want a lot of money."

Salas, with the guidance of a particularly impactful pitching coach, chose another path. And while he continues to establish himself as a reliable reliever, Salas, at 27 years old, appears to have a long and profitable career ahead of him.

"I didn't want the money," Salas said. "I only wanted the opportunity to pitch in the Major Leagues."

Salas, who was born, raised and resides in Huatabampo, Mexico, said he never gave much thought to that dream when he was young. Most of the baseball he watched growing up was of teams playing in the Mexican League. The only World Series he could specifically recount viewing was the 1993 matchup between Toronto and Philadelphia.

But in a country where the soccer stars are idolized, Salas found himself thriving in the country's lesser sport.

In 2005, Salas was signed to the Saltillo Saraperos club at the age of 20. A year later, his career intersected with that of Sid Monge, the Saltillo pitching coach who had previously enjoyed a 10-year Major League career. He had also just wrapped up a tenure coaching in the Cards' Minor League system.

As Salas recalls, Monge was the first to set the right-hander's sights on playing in the U.S.

"He talked to me and pushed me," Salas said. "He said, 'You can go to America.' He believed in me. Sometimes in the Mexican League, I was lazy, but he pushed me and pushed me and told me to keep working.

"He told me I could have this opportunity."

Unbeknownst to Salas, several scouts agreed with Monge's assessment. Representatives from the Royals, Cubs, Tigers and Cardinals watched Salas pitch in during the 2006 Mexican League playoffs. And in Feb. '07, Salas learned the news.

"My organization in Mexico called and said, 'The St. Louis Cardinals have bought your contract,'" Salas said. "'You are going to Spring Training.'"

With only the broken English he had learned in his last two years of school, Salas reported to Jupiter, Fla., where he remained for the 2007 season. From there, he made the methodical climb.

It was Double-A Springfield in 2008 and Triple-A Memphis in '09. He began the '10 season there as well before earning his first promotion to St. Louis. In 27 games as a rookie, Salas posted a 3.52 ERA.

"My mentality was that I wanted to go to America," Salas said. "Everybody wants to go. It's where there is the best baseball in the world."

The best year of Salas' young career came last year, when he saved 24 games and posted a 2.28 ERA in 68 games. The 2012 season hasn't gone as smoothly. Salas was demoted to Memphis in May because of performance, and it was later revealed that the right-hander had been dealing with a kidney stone issue since Spring Training.

Salas has since moved back into a position where manager Mike Matheny calls upon him in high-leverage situations.

Salas' family resides in Mexico throughout the year, leaving him largely alone from the time he reports to Spring Training until the season concludes. That separation has been especially difficult this year, as Salas and his girlfriend welcomed a baby boy back in March.

"Other Latin players have a lot of family in America," Salas said. "For me, it didn't happen. It's a little difficult because my family doesn't know any English. But they know it's work. They know it's a profession."

Salas is one of only two players from Huatabampo, Mexico, to break into the Majors. The first -- Mel Almada -- was actually the first Mexican-born player to play in the Major Leagues. Salas said he considers himself fortunate to have the chance to follow in Almada's footsteps.

"I love the opportunity," Salas said. "I want to do everything I can to stay here."

St. Louis Cardinals, Fernando Salas