MONTERREY, Mexico -- The cackling could be heard from the other side of the office building. Some of his co-workers even rolled their eyes to his face.When the Mexico Series between the Dodgers and the Padres was announced last November, Mario Gracia, a Monterrey family lawyer and one-time right-handed pitcher,
MONTERREY, Mexico -- The cackling could be heard from the other side of the office building. Some of his co-workers even rolled their eyes to his face.
When the Mexico Series between the Dodgers and the Padres was announced last November, Mario Gracia, a Monterrey family lawyer and one-time right-handed pitcher, reminded everyone in the office that he used to be teammates with Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen in the Minor Leagues. And as usual, nobody at the firm believed him.
"Everyone thinks I'm lying. They just laugh at me," Gracia, 32, said in Spanish. "I have lived it and it's something I'll never forget, but what can I do? I know what happened."
The truth is the Dodgers, Mexico, and the city of Monterrey have a long and storied history together. Mexican pitching legend Fernando Valenzuela helped fortify the bridge between Los Angeles and the country, but the link with Monterrey started long before Fernandomania existed. The connection still thrives today, especially with people like Gracia and Dodgers fans at Estadio Monterrey, home of the Monterrey Sultanes and site of the Mexico Series.
"We have been here several times in the past during preseason and I think it's wonderful the fans here can see us play regular-season games," said Valenzuela, who threw out the first pitch before Friday's game. "It's an important relationship and I know the Dodgers value the people of Mexico and their loyalty."
The Mexico Series marks the Dodgers' fourth trip to Mexico, and the first for regular-season games following preseason contests in Mexico City against the Red Devils in 1964 and the Mets in 2003. The Dodgers also played exhibition games against the Brewers in '91 in Monterrey.
"The real reason Monterrey loves the Dodgers is because Roy Campanella played here in 1943 when the Monterrey Sultanes won the title and when Campanella got to the big leagues, everybody in the city became Dodgers fans," said Jose Maiz, 73, who is part of the Sultanes ownership group. "Then Fernando came along and then most of the country became Dodgers lovers."
Maiz also has a special connection to the Dodgers.
In 2009, the Dodgers played host to members of Maiz's 1957 Little League World Series championship team from Monterrey, the first Mexican team to win the LLWS. More than 50 years earlier, the Mexican Little Leaguers spent the day at Ebbets Field with the Brooklyn Dodgers as personal guests of owner Walter O'Malley.
"We saw Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe, Don Drysdale, Sal Maglie and Duke Snider and all those guys," Maiz said in Spanish. "That had a big impact on us and we grew up Dodgers fans."
As for Gracia, the Dodgers purchased his contract from the Mexico City Red Devils in 2002. He went 3-2 with a 2.62 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings on Kershaw and Jansen's Gulf Coast Dodgers four years later.
Jansen, then a catcher, recalls catching Gracia. Kershaw, who was fresh out of high school as a first-round Draft pick, also remembered Gracia. The details are fuzzy, but the left-hander described the Gulf Coast League days, in general, as "a grind that we made it through."
The 2006 Gulf Coast League Dodgers won their division, but lost in the finals to the GCL Red Sox.
"Kersh, what was the name of our shortstop?" Jansen asked.
"Lizzy? Lizzy," Kershaw responded.
"Yeah, it was [Francisco] Lizarraga." Jansen said. "We called him Lizzy. That was another Mexican on the team. [Eloy] Gutierrez was another Mexican, an outfielder. I remember all of those guys. It was a good time."
The roster for those Gulf Coast Dodgers also included pitcher Jumbo Diaz, who pitched in 142 games for the Reds and 31 games for the Rays from 2014-2017; Elian Herrera, who played parts of four seasons with the Dodgers and Brewers starting in 2012; Preston Mattingly, the son of Marlins manager Don Mattingly, and Trayvon Robinson, who played 90 games with the Mariners in 2011-2012.
Javy Guerra, who pitched parts of seven seasons with the Dodgers, White Sox and Marlins starting in 2014, and Jhonny Nunez, who pitched in seven games for the White Sox in 2009, were also on the team.
Gracia pitched in the Gulf Coast League again in 2007 and retired from baseball in April of 2008 after one game with Mexico City. One month later, Kershaw made his big league debut.
On Saturday morning, Gracia and Jansen were reunited at an event near Gracia's home in the San Miguel neighborhood of Monterrey. Before Saturday evening's game, Kershaw waved to Gracia from the dugout and later threw him an autographed cap that also included signatures from third baseman Justin Turner and Mexican pitcher Julio Urias.
"This is an important time for Mexico, and the Dodgers being here helps my city, it helps economically and lifts the spirit of the people here," Gracia said. "There's a big community of Dodgers fans here in Mexico. We just love them."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.