Major League Baseball was supposed to make history this year with its first regular-season series in Mexico City, at the new, elegant Alfredo Harp Helú Stadium.
COVID-19 changed those plans.
Still, there is encouraging news to report: MLB hopes to reschedule a series in the Diablos Rojos’ state-of-the-art ballpark over the next several years, as Mexico’s baseball renaissance está en proceso.
Six Mexican-born players have made their Major League debuts this season: pitchers Humberto Castellanos, Jesus Cruz and Victor González; infielders Isaac Paredes and Ramón Urías; and outfielder Luis González. JoJo Romero, a Mexican-American left-hander from California, debuted with the Phillies in August and helped to stabilize the Philadelphia bullpen.
The highly respected left-hander Oliver Pérez has set a record for Mexican-born players by playing in his 18th Major League season, and Giovanny Gallegos has blossomed into a future All-Star candidate in the St. Louis bullpen. Tijuana-born catcher Alejandro Kirk -- the Blue Jays’ No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- is poised to make an impact in the Majors.
Mexico’s national team is preparing to make its first appearance in Olympic baseball at the postponed Tokyo Summer Games in 2021. ProBéis, the federal baseball development program started by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has completed the construction of six baseball academies across the country, and three academy projects delayed by the pandemic are expected to resume later this year.
Edgar González, the former Major Leaguer who leads ProBéis, said the relationship between MLB and Mexican baseball leaders has become “very, very positive,” including improved access to scouting information for international free agents in Mexico’s prospect league.
The revival has become a point of pride for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike.
“There’s more talent coming,” Tigers third baseman Paredes told MLB.com in Spanish. “We’re going to see more players in the Major Leagues soon. We’re getting back to the era when we had stars, like Vinny Castilla and Fernando Valenzuela.
“Mexicans are eager to take advantage of this opportunity. They’re hungry to move baseball forward and give a greater name to our country. I’m so proud of my countrymen who are trying to complete this dream with me. It’s a privilege to be here in this position.”
Paredes grew up living with eight or nine people in the small Hermosillo home of his grandparents, Jesus Paredes and Gloria Arbizu, while his father traveled to work construction jobs in other areas of Mexico. Paredes played baseball and soccer, for reasons that transcended his love for the sports.
“I knew that in our country, sports are a way to help you avoid getting involved with vices like drugs,” he said. “In our city, we knew of people whose lives had been destroyed by drugs, and my grandmother and my father always taught me to never go near the streets where there were drugs. I had a beautiful childhood, and baseball and soccer were two of the big reasons.
“We’re a very united family. Despite some difficult times, my family always demonstrated to me that nothing was impossible. I also knew that life was a series of tests, and they taught me to work hard for what I wanted. We always had the support of friends and family. My aunts, uncles and cousins were always around, and they helped me, too.”
Paredes, 21, smiled during a recent video interview while speaking about the dreams he has for his 2-year-old daughter, Susuki, to be educated in the U.S. In Detroit, Paredes plays the position once held by the Gold Glove-winning Aurelio Rodríguez, whose 2,017 career Major League games are the most by a Mexican-born player.
Paredes grew up playing in the same Hermosillo Little League as Luis González, an aspiring ballplayer four years his senior. González was in first grade when his family moved across the border to Tucson, Ariz. Paredes didn’t travel to the States until after signing a Minor League contract with the Chicago Cubs in 2015.
Last month, Paredes and González made their Major League debuts in the same series at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. Paredes started at third base and drove in two runs in his first appearance for the Tigers on Aug. 17, while González entered as a defensive replacement for White Sox rookie phenom Luis Robert one night later.
“I had a whirl of emotions in me,” González said. “I look back at how far I’ve come, how much I’ve accomplished, the things we’ve gone through as a family to get to where I am. All the sacrifices my parents have made, that I have made, it was all worth it.”
Luis Sr. and Lisa González explained to Luis and his older sister, Paloma, that the family moved to Tucson for better work opportunities. Luis Sr. owned a mechanic shop in Mexico; his first job in the U.S. was at a heating and cooling company. He commuted 35 to 40 minutes each way, every day, in the family’s only car.
Meanwhile, Paloma and young Luis adjusted to a new country, culture and language.
“My sister and I would joke around with each other, like, ‘How do you speak English?’” González recalled. “We’re over here mumbling at each other, [thinking], 'This is how we’re going to sound.' It was all very overwhelming at first, but it went so fast. By the time I was in third grade, I felt like I had friends, that people liked me in school. I was starting to speak a little English. The road wasn’t easy, but it was a good one.
“I made a lot of friends because I liked to play sports. In recess, I was playing kickball, wall ball, the game called ‘four corners.’ I got out there and tried to show the kids what I had, so I became friends with a lot of them that way.”
Now Luis Sr. and Lisa own their own maintenance company in Tucson, while their son is the No. 12 prospect in the talent-rich White Sox farm system, according to MLB Pipeline. During González’s time in the Majors this season, his bilingualism has been an asset on a roster dominated by Latin American position players.
“I can speak English to the guys to my left and communicate in Spanish to the guys to my right,” he said. “That has helped me build friendships, learn from great guys like José Abreu, communicate with Robert. I can also talk with the Americans like James McCann and Ryan Goins. It’s a cool experience.”
La Liga Mexicana del Pacífico plans to operate starting this fall, likely without fans to begin the season. Both González and Paredes would like to play if their MLB organizations permit them to do so. The two already aspire to be part of Mexico’s next World Baseball Classic roster, which could be the country’s most talented group ever assembled, at a time when the Mexican government is investing more in baseball than ever.
When Mexico qualified for the Olympics by defeating the U.S. in the bronze medal game of the WBSC Premier12 last November, López Obrador mentioned the victory in his daily news conference the next morning.
“This office starts with the presidency, and the idea is to get more people to play baseball and be excited about it,” Edgar González said of ProBéis. “Making the Olympics was really positive in keeping that momentum going. Now this year, a lot of Mexicans are debuting in the Major Leagues, which also helps. A lot of good things are happening, and baseball is getting bigger in Mexico all by itself.”
One crucial aspect of Mexico’s baseball growth has been close cooperation between MLB and the Mexican government on grassroots initiatives.
MLB organized the MLB Cup, a national tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPN3 in Mexico. Former Mexican MLB players attended and spoke with kids about their careers. The event debuted in 2018 and returned in ‘19, and there are plans for it to resume whenever circumstances surrounding COVID-19 permit.
MLB opened a permanent Mexico City office in 2016, and more than 5 million people in the country have participated in MLB events since then. Throughout Latin America, viewership numbers for the 2020 MLB season have increased between 7% and 19%, depending on the country.
During last year’s postseason, MLB launched the “MLB Home” fan experience in Mexico, including virtual reality experiences of Major League games. MLB rented a home in one of the trendiest areas of Mexico City, Colonia Roma_,_ as the hub for baseball technology and fan gatherings last October.
“We expect this year’s postseason to be one of the most followed in the past 15 years,” said Rodrigo Fernandez, MLB’s managing director of Latin American operations, “and we are sure that we will have a very solid 2021, with our brand reaching new heights in popularity.”