Eager to return, D-backs feel bond with Mexico

Hall hoping club will play regular-season games there next season

March 10th, 2019

The D-backs and Rockies were in Monterrey, Mexico, this weekend for a two-game series. MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi was on the scene bringing you updates from the players throughout their trip.

MONTERREY, Mexico — As the D-backs concluded this year’s initial Mexico Series by tipping their caps in gratitude to a crowd of 10,746, one Spanish parting was especially appropriate.

Hasta la próxima vez.

Until the next time.

The D-backs’ trip to face the Rockies at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey was their 11th visit to play in Mexico, the most of any Major League franchise.

Judging by the words of D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall, they’ll be back.


“We’re hoping to play here next year in Mexico -- and hopefully those will be regular-season games,” Hall said in an interview during Sunday’s series finale. “We’ll see. But if so, our players will already be in the habit of coming over here and seeing what it’s like to play in front of these great fans.”

The weekend began with D-backs manager Torey Lovullo acknowledging he didn’t have room on the roster for all of the players who volunteered for the trip. It concluded with Lovullo affirming how eager his team is to return.

“There’s so much love here for us, and we just want to make sure [the community knows] they have an entire group of people in Arizona that love their support and appreciate their support,” Lovullo said. “To play these games now, even though they’re not counting, is very meaningful. At some point in the future, hopefully the near future, we can come back here and play much more meaningful games.”

The opportunity to do so is real, for a variety of reasons:

• With two regular-season series to come in Monterrey this year, the notion of playing in Mexico is becoming routine to many around the sport. D-backs and Rockies players and officials remarked often about how comfortable and enjoyable the weekend was for them. “This has been a first-class experience,” Rockies outfielder Noel Cuevas said. “The logistics were being worked out unbelievably [well] here. It made us feel like we were in the big leagues, to be honest.”

Said Rockies bench coach Mike Redmond: “I give a lot of credit to MLB and the people here in Monterrey. It really has been incredible, from the hotel to the security … I would say to the teams that will be here following us that they’re going to have a great time.”

Ildemaro Vargas, the switch-hitting utility man from Caripito, Venezuela, was Arizona’s offensive star in the finale, going 2-for-3 with a home run in the 5-2 victory. Afterward, he said through interpreter Jerry Romo that the weekend showed how baseball continues to grow in Latin America. Vargas and teammate Eduardo Escobar agreed that Mexico feels like “a second home.” 

• Interest in baseball is booming in Mexico, as evidenced by increased television ratings for MLB games and the success of MLB’s marketing efforts in the country under Rodrigo Fernandez, MLB’s Managing Director of Latin America.

Attendance was strong at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey on Saturday and Sunday, even with a major soccer game occurring elsewhere in the city Saturday night. In the stands, Monterrey resident Isaias de Leon said in Spanish, “When people here see a higher quality of talent, they’ll pay more for it. … People here have a culture of work. They love baseball, and they’re willing to work for it.”

• A potential new venue for MLB games in Mexico is days away from completion in Mexico City, where MLB opened an office in 2016. Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú will serve as home of the Mexican League’s Diablos Rojos del Mexico. Harp owns the Diablos Rojos and also is part of the San Diego Padres’ ownership group.

With a population of more than 20 million people, Mexico City’s metropolitan area is the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

“Major League Baseball has been focusing on Mexico for a while now,” Hall said. “For the capital to be part of that — with that population, that excitement and passion for baseball, now to have an office for Major League Baseball there, the scouting efforts that have taken place, the [new] ballpark — it’s a win-win for all.

“As we’re looking to expand one day, Mexico’s a natural fit. You think about North America. We’re playing in Canada. Why not Mexico? The travel’s not bad, and we already know the fans are very good.”

Hall said Sunday that he’s traveled to Mexico around 20 times. With this visit -- and all those to come -- his purpose is clear.

“The D-backs want to be Mexico’s team,” Hall said. “It’s a challenge with so many teams that have that proximity to the border, yet we’re willing to put the time and energy in, because we know the benefits and the rewards …

“I love coming to Mexico and building those relationships. There are some deep roots we’ve planted here. Now it’s a matter of broadening that. We’ve had a simple focus close to our region [in the neighboring state of Sonora]. Now to have so many friends and fans in Monterrey -- and hopefully soon in the capital -- it’s great for everybody.”

D-backs enjoy meeting with Mexican fans

MONTERREY, Mexico -- For one hour on Saturday morning, D-backs players and staff members strolled the mile-long Macroplaza in central Monterrey, giving away good cheer and D-backs hats to baseball fans they encountered.

In photos of those happy moments, the smiles of Steven Souza Jr., Matt Koch and Miguel Aguilar matched those of the D-backs fans beside them. And if anyone harbored doubts as to the depth of Mexico’s passion for baseball, a single paseo through the Macroplaza put them to rest.

Every few minutes, it seemed, the group encountered fans who had travelled an even greater distance to watch the Major League Baseball Mexico Series at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey.

Esteban Mata and his daughter, Ana, flew from their home in El Paso, Texas, for a family sports weekend in their native Mexico. They plan to attend Clásico Regio -- the city’s club soccer derby between Monterrey and Tigres -- on Saturday and then the D-backs-Rockies series finale on Sunday afternoon. Esteban immediately recognized the players and called out to them, “Let’s go, D-backs!”

Later, Samuel Gonzalez was stunned at his good fortune to meet Souza, Koch and Aguilar. He had driven six hours from the Mexican state of Durango to watch the D-backs and Rockies. “Beautiful,” Gonzalez said, admiring his new Sedona-red hat. “It is such a pleasure to meet them.”

The unofficial award for greatest distance driven belonged to a father and son from Parral, Chihuahua -- more than eight hours away. They chatted with Jerry Romo, the D-backs' senior manager of Hispanic marketing, about the recent growth of baseball in Mexico. They noted that Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a passionate baseball fan who has begun a new governmental initiative -- directed by former Major Leaguer Edgar Gonzalez -- dedicated to promoting the sport.

Aguilar, who finished last season at Double-A in the D-backs system, appeared awestruck by his surroundings. There’s a good reason for that: Aguilar, who grew up in the Mexican state of Sonora, was wearing a Major League jersey as he walked alongside teammates in his homeland.

“I’m very happy to have the invitation to participate in this series in Monterrey,” said Aguilar, who pitched in the city as a visiting player during his years in the Mexican League. “This is my country. I’m so happy to be here.”

The D-backs are closely connected with their fan base in Mexico and believe it’s important that their roster reflect that relationship. Aguilar, the lone Mexican-born player on the D-backs’ roster this weekend, first learned of the possibility that he’d make the trip from D-backs vice president of player development Mike Bell.

Finally, Aguilar received the official word from manager Torey Lovullo. 

“I was excited -- very excited,” Aguilar said. “It’s not easy to get an invitation from a strong team like the D-backs. This is a special opportunity to be with great players and pitch for them.” 

The D-backs contingent interacted easily with fans and Monterrey residents who approached them, and there were plenty of laughs during the walk. Souza was drawn to a statue of a worker wielding a hammer and struck the same pose for a photograph. 

As Souza learned later, the statue is a monument to the workers of Nuevo Leon — a nod to the industrial ethos that has long characterized Monterrey. Fittingly, before leaving for the trip, Souza articulated that he was eager to play in front of people who embody that way of life. 

“I love the people there,” Souza said of Mexico, speaking on Friday morning at Salt River Fields. “They’re blue-collar. They’re hard workers. Those are the people I love to play for, the ones who work as hard as they can all week to come to one ballgame. They love the game so much that they’ll save up and bring their family to one game. I owe it to [them] to give everything I have. That really resonates with me.”

Head of travel has D-backs' trip all mapped out

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On Friday evening, the D-backs’ charter flight will depart Phoenix for the franchise’s long-anticipated series against the Rockies in Monterrey, Mexico.

The airplane will include manager Torey Lovullo and numerous regulars expected to make the Opening Day roster. Yet the most indispensable member of the traveling party has never hit a home run or recorded a strikeout in the Major Leagues.

His name is Roger Riley, and he is the D-backs’ senior director of team travel and home clubhouse manager.

Riley has been in charge of the team’s travel operations since 1997, the year before the D-backs played their first Major League game.

This is the D-backs’ 11th trip to play exhibition games in Mexico. Riley has been in charge of the logistics every single time. That includes flight arrangements, team meals, security, and countless subtle details.

The end result: Major League games played before passionate fans at a raucous, remodeled stadium.

“Very enthusiastic -- and continuously,” Riley said Friday with a laugh, when asked to describe the crowds he’s witnessed over more than two decades of baseball travels to Mexico. “In the United States, when a pitch is getting ready to be made, the people kind of quiet down. There, it reminds you of a big party in the stands.”

Even for a quick trip, one reality of international travel does not change: Riley must collect passport information for all players and team officials involved. This weekend’s traveling party includes citizens of the United States, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Canada, Colombia, and Mexico. (Right-hander Miguel Aguilar -- a native of Obregón, Mexico -- is a veteran of the Mexican League and reached Double-A with the D-backs last year.)

Riley was going to need that information this year, anyway, with the D-backs traveling to Toronto for Interleague Play. “I’m kind of getting ahead on that trip right now,” he said.

Riley’s experience in Mexico predates his tenure with the D-backs. He was the Padres’ travel director in 1996, when they traveled to Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey for a series against the Mets.

This series will be Riley’s first in Monterrey since then. (The D-backs’ previous 10 trips to Mexico have been to Hermosillo, in the neighboring state of Sonora.) Riley visited Monterrey in January for a site visit -- and encountered a city transformed over the past two decades. He took note of all the Starbucks coffee shops that weren’t there before.

“I was trying to remember all kinds of different things, and the only thing that looked familiar was the ballpark,” Riley said. “Everything else had grown up around it.”

Capacity at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey is around 21,000. Expected crowds are around 17,000 on Saturday and 15,000 on Sunday.

With attendance like that for Spring Training games, could Monterrey sustain a full-time MLB franchise?

“I would think so,” Riley replied. “It would be nice if getting in and out of there was a little bit easier, but we do the same thing when we go to Toronto, and Toronto’s got to do it 12 times a year. I don’t see it being any different than Canada. The big thing would be, can they support 81 games?”

While this weekend’s games count only in the Cactus League standings, the series will feel like much more than that -- particularly for many Minor League players among the 32-man roster.

“Some of these guys going with us, they’ve never been in the big leagues before,” Riley said. “They get to ride the charter and have the big league experience. I’m sure they’ll be spoiled afterward.”

Peralta excited to meet local fans

Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar, David Peralta and Souza could be the first four hitters in the D-backs’ lineup when the regular season begins March 28 at Dodger Stadium.

All four are traveling to Monterrey for this weekend’s two-game series with the Rockies -- a testament to their personal interest in exploring different cultures through baseball and the D-backs’ enduring commitment to growing its fanbase south of the border.

“I’ve never been to Mexico,” said Peralta, a native of Valencia, Venezuela. “I’m really excited to go there and get to know a different culture. I’ve got a lot of Mexican friends, and they’re amazing. I can’t wait to spend time with everybody over there and [put on] a good show for them.“It’s going to be a fun trip. Everybody is excited. We’re going to stay there for a couple days and do some stuff with the community. When you involve community with baseball, that’s the best way.”

Peralta, 31, gave an immediate “yes” when the organization asked if he’d like to play in the series. Peralta said he’s most excited about interacting with youth baseball and softball players in Monterrey before Saturday’s series opener.

Peralta is a fluent English speaker but relishes the opportunity to connect with young people in his native language.

“The thing is, we’re all the same,” he said, smiling, when asked about the similarities and differences between Mexican and Venezuelan cultures. “We’re Spanish people. We’re Hispanic. We’re all the same. The only difference is they eat a lot of spicy food. We don’t eat that much spicy food.

“But we are the same people. We care about each other. We’re family people. I can’t wait to go there. Everybody keeps telling me, ‘Hey, this is the best place to go.’ I’m really excited about it.”

This weekend’s games will be played at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey, where the Mexican League’s Sultanes de Monterrey averaged 11,623 fans per game during the 2018 regular season and 18,427 in the playoffs.

“That’s going to be crazy,” Peralta said of the atmosphere he expects to encounter at the stadium. “I played a lot of winter ball in Venezuela. The fans are a little different from here. You’re going to hear a lot of yelling -- in a good way. It’s going to be really loud, especially with [two] good teams. I’m expecting that stadium to be packed. It’s going to be a great ballpark.”

Souza ready to make new memories in Mexico

Souza traveled to Latin America in the name of baseball once before. He loved it. Now he’s eager to do it again.

Hours before the D-backs’ departure for a two-game series in Monterrey, Mexico, Souza reflected on his previous international playing experience: the Rays’ historic exhibition against the Cuban national team three years ago.

“Seeing the excitement -- how much a sport means to the world -- is powerful,” Souza said Friday morning at Salt River Fields. “How much it can bring countries together is really cool.”

Souza said he recalls one moment before the game on March 22, 2016, when Raúl Castro, then the president of Cuba, was present in the Rays’ clubhouse at the same time as Major League Baseball legends Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.

“That was pretty memorable,” Souza said. “Just being able to walk the streets of Cuba was amazing. I remember going to the Hot Corner [at Parque Central in Havana] and guys knew my stats. I was only in the league for three years, but [the fans] knew my stats, knew where I came from.

“To me, that’s incredible. I’m a kid who grew up in Seattle. Why in the heck would some guy in Cuba know anything about who I am? It was eye-opening, how impactful the game of baseball is around the world.”

Souza, 29, remembers the emotion of hearing a Cuban choir’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. He’s eager to experience the same feeling Saturday and Sunday at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey.

“I’ve heard the anthem so many times,” Souza said, “but being in a different country, representing your country there, you take a little more pride in what it means to be an American.”

This weekend’s games between the D-backs and Rockies are the first of three visits to Monterrey by MLB clubs this year. The other two will occur during the regular season: the Reds and Cardinals (April 13-14), followed by the Angels and Astros (May 4-5).

The trips are in keeping with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s plan to broaden MLB’s presence in Mexico, an effort that began as soon as he took office in 2015. MLB also has discussed the possibility of hosting games in a soon-to-be-completed stadium in Mexico City; an MLB series there could take place as early as next year.

Manfred has said in media interviews that he’s interested in MLB’s future expansion to 32 teams, with Mexico among the candidates for a full-time franchise.

Souza said he plans to gather feedback on that concept firsthand.

“Just being at the ballpark and interacting with the fans,” Souza said. “I know a little bit of Spanish, so I’ll be able to talk with them. [I’d like to] ask questions like, ‘What do you think it would be like to have a team down here?’ That would be cool to find out.”