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New park shines as Caribbean Series opens in Mexico

Hermosillo's Estadio Sonora completes 13-month journey to prepare for event

HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- Down a narrow strip that winds through about a mile of abandoned turf in this baseball-crazed city, the bright lights of a brand new stadium appear in the distance. It almost feels like a mirage at first, given the nothingness of the area that surrounds it.

But it's very real.

"And, like that line in 'Bruce Almighty,' It's b-e-a-utiful!" said Vicente Sagrestano, director of the sports commission for the state of Sonora and the overseer of this project. "I'm just so happy we have something like this now."

The just-finished Estadio Sonora, a $31 million investment by the local government, is strategically located in the center of a still-developing complex in the western part of Hermosillo, with a design inspired by the nearby Pinacate volcano. It makes up about 10 acres, seats 16,000 people and can basically rival any Cactus League ballpark of neighboring Arizona.

This winter, it'll host the Mexican Pacific League's Hermosillo Naranjeros. And on Friday, it marked its grand opening with the start of the Caribbean Series, highlighted by a ceremonial first pitch by former Dodgers great and Mexican legend Fernando Valenzuela.

In northwest Mexico, where baseball is king and soccer is a distant second, the site of a plush new ballpark is not only welcoming, but quite unusual, with none of the other seven Mexican Winter League teams having built a new stadium since the 1970s.

"It's going to have a huge impact, especially having the Caribbean Series over here, having all the other teams with the Major Leaguers playing in it, and all the other kids have a lot of idols from the other teams in Mexico," said former Major League outfielder Karim Garcia, who played for the Naranjeros at the old ballpark for five years and is in the Caribbean Series with Mexico's Yaquis de Obregon. "I have to believe it's going to inspire a lot of kids to be baseball players."

The reigning champs, Dominican Republic's Leones del Escogido, christened the annual event with a 7-2 win over Venezuela's Navegantes de Magallanes. A few hours later -- after a riveting opening ceremony of lights, dancers and flyovers -- Mexico provided the perfect bookend to the ballpark's debut, beating Puerto Rico's Criollos de Caguas, 3-0, behind six shutout innings by Royals righty Luis Mendoza.

The fact that it was even ready in time for this is an act of triumph.

By the time Hermosillo got the approval to host the Caribbean Series, drummed up the interest to build a new stadium, finalized all the paperwork and received financing, it was November 2011, and they had 13 months to get it done.

At that point, D-backs president Derrick Hall, whose club has played several exhibition games at the old Hector Espino Baseball Stadium, open since 1972, said, "That's great, but you're not going to make it."

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the 11,000-capacity ballpark that was very much an inspiration for this one, took nearly 15 months. And Hall figured there was no way this one could get finished, while meeting all of Major League Baseball's regulations, in time to host the first Caribbean Series in this city since 1997.

But somehow, despite several hiccups, it did.

More than 850 workers got involved in the project. Over the last two months, when chances seemed slimmest, they labored 24/7. And as of Thursday night, as the Mexican team was practicing, finishing touches were still being applied.

It was a buzzer-beating finish.

"Let's just put it this way: A couple months ago, it was looking pretty rough," said MLB field and facilities coordinator Murray Cook, who oversaw every step of the project. "We had our doubts, but I've done enough work in the Caribbean and Mexico and different countries to know that when the chips are down, everybody pulls out all their tools and starts working 24-hour shifts and things start getting done at the last minute."

This weekend, Sagrestano and his crew will coordinate with D-backs officials about playing Spring Training games at the new venue, which can reach a capacity of 20,000 with bleachers in center field. In March, they'd like the facility to host one of Team Mexico's exhibition games leading up to the World Baseball Classic, possibly against the Dodgers. And at some point, they'd like to host a round in the Classic; perhaps even a Major League Opening Day.

Sagrestano estimates that the Series could bring between $20-30 million in tourism revenue (or nearly 400 million pesos) to the state of Sonora. The night before Day 1, he reported that all games were sold out and 98 percent of hotel rooms in Hermosillo had been booked.

In other words, Hermosillo's hotel industry will match its totals for a full year with the seven-day tournament.

"I see a lot of aspects to this stadium," Sagrestano said in Spanish. "I see an inspirational aspect, I see an iconic aspect, a sense of belonging, of importance. I imagine a kid who doesn't have the means of going to Dodger Stadium, and can sit there with his dad and see Hanley Ramirez, or Kung Fu Panda, and say, 'I can play in a place like this one day.'"

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.