One fan's collection covers every Mexican-born Major Leaguer in history

April 25th, 2024

There have been 147 Major Leaguers who were born in Mexico -- and J.C. Torres Encinas has an autographed ball from every single one of them. His collection features Mel Almada, the first Mexican-born Major Leaguer who made his debut with the Red Sox in 1933, to Irving López, who appeared in five games for the Cardinals last year, and everyone in between. There are All-Stars like Joakim Soria and Bobby Ávila and players with brief cups of coffee like Memo Luna and Frank Estrada.

No matter the name and no matter the fame, Torres Encinas has a signed baseball that now lives securely inside his accounting office -- much to his clients' delight.

The collecting bug caught Torres at a young age. Growing up in the border town of Nogales, Sonora, Torres Encinas accompanied his mother into Arizona one day to go grocery shopping. When there, he was presented with the sight of a box of cereal with Dodgers star Fernando Valenzuela on the box.

Torres Encinas with Vinny Castilla and his signed jersey.

"That's the first article in my collection," Torres Encinas told through interpreter and Las Mayores writer Ricardo Montes de Oca. "I started to look into baseball trading cards every time we went for groceries in Arizona."

Torres Encinas' collection of Corn Flakes boxes.

While that gave Torres Encinas the collecting bug, it took until the 1990s when he got the idea to start collecting signed baseballs from Mexican-born ballplayers.

"I moved out to Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, where the Yaquis are located," Torres Encinas said. "One day while with a friend at the game, I had the idea of getting the autograph of the Mexican players born in Mexico but playing in Major League Baseball. At that time, players like Vinnie Castilla, Ismael Valdéz and Karim Garcia were playing, so I started there."

The search to reach 147 signatures required plenty of help. Friends and family would keep their eyes peeled for any signed baseballs and former players like Vicente Romo joined in on the hunt.

"He's been very helpful, with his wife Sarah and their daughter," Torres Encinas said. "They have been helping me a lot, especially with the players from the '70s. They are kind of isolated from the technology and the media, some are forgotten in their own ways. They've provided me the connection to speak with players like Carlos López, Mario Mendoza and José Peña. Honestly, I was very surprised for the willingness to help me in this."

Torres Encinas' autographed baseball collection.

Forget the tough-to-locate players from the 1970s, though: By far the most difficult signature to obtain was Almada's.

"In those times, there weren't a lot of opportunities to ask for autographs," Torres Encinas said. "The few balls that I found also had Babe Ruth's autograph, so obviously they were very, very expensive and they weren't for me. After a lot of years, patience and dedication, I found one from the Minor Leagues. That's the one that I have."

With the signed baseball collection now complete, don't think that he's done, though. He'll continue to add signed baseballs as more Mexican players are called up to the Majors. Meanwhile, he'll look to continue adding to his game-used bat and jersey collection that he's also building.

Some of Torres Encina's game-used jerseys and bats.

"I have more than 50 bats -- [including one from] Bobby Ávila, who was the first Latin American player to win a batting title. I have more than 20 hats. I have a lot of baseball cards," Torres Encinas said. "Obviously, I'm going to keep looking for the Mexicans who debut in MLB, but right now my passion is for game-used items."

As for why he's doing this, that's simple:

"But I was born with this," Torres Encinas said. "I have this in my blood -- the passion to seek objects, to save memorabilia. All of this started 38 years ago and I'm going to keep doing it."