Game of baseball flourishing in Mexico

Host of Caribbean Series has seen growth of sport in recent years

February 3rd, 2018

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Some fans wore solid red hats or solid green hats with "Mexico" stitched across the front. Others sported pint-sized caps with all three of the country's flag colors and a cursive white "M" above the bill.

Almost every child at Friday night's Caribbean Series game between Mexico and Puerto Rico wore a team jersey or Mexico T-shirt to match their colorful headwear -- and they were having a ball.

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There's a big tournament in town and a baseball revival happening now in Mexico. The children cheering in the bleachers represent a big part of the sport's present and future.

"You see baseball growing in the country, and because of the attention it gets, there are more little kids who want to be baseball players over soccer players," said former Major League infielder Benji Gil, who is managing Team Mexico in the tournament. "It's good to see so many kids get involved with baseball because it's such a great sport, and there is a lot of talent here."

There are a lot for baseball fans in Mexico to absorb.

Mexico has won the Caribbean Series four of the past seven years and is hosting the annual tournament of winter League champions for the second consecutive year. Last year's tournament was held in Culiacan, and this year's version, originally scheduled for Venezuela, was relocated to Mexico due the political unrest in the South American country.

At the Major League level, there were nine players born in Mexico on Opening Day rosters last year: of the D-backs, Toronto's and , Washington's , then-Braves starter , Seattle pitcher , with the White Sox, then-Mets reliever and of the Royals.

MLB is also expanding its efforts in the country. Last year, the league opened an office in Mexico City and an academy in Culiacan for players ages 13-17 as part of a partnership with the Sinaloan state government.

In May, the Dodgers and the Padres will play a series in Monterrey. Also, Mexico hosted the first round of World Baseball Classic pool play in Guadalajara last March.

"When Commissioner [Rob] Manfred took over, he said globalizing the game was one of his top priorities, and Mexico is obviously one of the places we have targeted," said Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "We have been very active here. Clearly the Commissioner values Mexico as potentially a great partner."

On the amateur side, 60 prospects from Mexico have signed during the current international signing period, and more could be on the way. There are an estimated 30,000 Little League and Pony League players in Mexico, primarily in Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Baja California, Tamaulipas, Sonora, Coahuila, Yucatan, Veracruz and Mexico City.

Team Mexico, led by Kundy Gutierrez and former Major League player , the brother of Mets first baseman , is tapping into the country's youth movement.

Modeled after Team USA and developmental programs such as Perfect Game USA, Team Mexico has created a system of ranking players on its website to provide information for scouts and baseball officials. The organization also hosts tournaments across the country.

Teams in the Mexican Leagues also have academies for their young players.

"There's a new generation of ballplayers in the country, and we have to make them believe in the game and its future," Gutierrez said. "We have built a platform to give kids something positive and transparent that lets them know where they stand and how they compare to each other. We are creating a new energy of competition."

Additionally, there's talk of a new transfer system that would allow Mexican-born players the opportunity to play in other leagues, including MLB, without having to compensate the Mexican League team that owns the player's rights.

"The hope the sport continues to grow, and the tournaments and showcases continue to happen for the country," Gonzalez said. "Free and better access for players to sign with MLB is also important. I really believe there will be more big leaguers from Mexico in the future if we can loosen some restrictions and the kids keep playing."