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Padres again carrying the MLB flag to Mexico

Club to play 3 games against Dodgers in its 4th trip to country
San Diego Padres

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

Shortly after the Padres returned from their historic first trip to Mexico in 1996, Tony Gwynn summed up the significance of the journey in seven words.

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

Shortly after the Padres returned from their historic first trip to Mexico in 1996, Tony Gwynn summed up the significance of the journey in seven words.

"I think the Padres qualify as ambassadors," the late Hall of Famer said.

If that wasn't the case 22 years ago, it certainly is now as the Padres make a fourth visit to Mexico -- and a third to Monterrey -- this weekend to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-game series.

No team has planted the flag of Major League Baseball in more foreign lands over the past 22 seasons than the San Diego Padres -- four trips to Mexico, the historic Paradise Series in Hawaii in 1997 and the 2008 trip to China.

Padres manager Andy Green recently discussed the importance of taking Major League Baseball to foreign lands.

"Everybody feels it is incredibly important to spread baseball internationally," said Green. "Baseball in Mexico, baseball in Latin America, it's the No. 1 game down there. I know some people might argue soccer, but from my perspective it's baseball.

"For us, this weekend is an opportunity to go to another place and share Major League Baseball with the world. We hope we have a ton of fans in Mexico. My guess is with Luis Urias coming and Christian Villanueva already here, we're probably gaining more and more fans by having great Mexican players.

"But for us, it's just the opportunity to play in an exciting venue and be around people who don't typically get to see Major League Baseball games in person and bring that to them. It's fun for us."

The Padres visited Monterrey from Aug. 16-18, 1996, with the New York Mets in the first regular-season series played outside the mainland United States or Canada.

Less than three years later, the Padres opened the season against the Colorado Rockies on April 4, 1999, in Monterrey. And in March 2016, the Padres and Astros played a Spring Training series in Mexico City.

The Padres, of course, have maintained close ties with Mexico, most notably Tijuana and Baja California, since the club entered the National League in 1969. Over the years, a Major League-high 25 Mexican citizens have played with the Padres.

Presently, Villanueva is on the Padres' Major League roster and Urias is ranked as the Padres' No. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline as a 20-year-old second baseman with Triple-A El Paso.

Villanueva, a 26-year-old native of Guadalajara, not only returns to his homeland as the Padres' starting third baseman, but he was named the NL Rookie of the Month for April earlier this week. He hit .321 in March/April with eight home runs to lead all Major League rookies.

Video: SD@SF: Villanueva on the upcoming Mexico Series

"From Christian Villanueva's perspective, he's going to have a lot of fun," Green said. "It's fun to see guys get an opportunity to play in their home country in a Major League uniform ... and for all the people who knew them growing up to watch them. I think especially for Christian, it's going to be exciting.

"Christian is pumped. We called him the Presidente earlier because Mexico is going to be welcoming him home big time. He's been great. I can't imagine how proud he will be to go back to his home country and be the starting third baseman on a Major League team. I'm sure this is something he's dreamed about his whole life, the opportunity of playing before his countrymen."

"Mexican baseball fans keep track of the number of players on teams in the Major Leagues," Eduardo Ortega, the Spanish-language voice of the Padres, said recently as he discussed the Padres' relationship with their neighbors to the south. "They celebrated last September when Villanueva joined the Padres. And they await the arrival of Luis Urias in San Diego. Fans in Mexico know that the Padres care about Mexico. They know that Alfredo Harp Helu owns part of the Padres.

"And this trip is a great time to plant the seed with the next generation."

Of course, the Dodgers are also extremely popular in Mexico. Former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela ranks as the most popular Major Leaguer ever from Mexico.

Ironically, it was Valenzuela who won the first game the Padres ever played in Mexico ... as a Padre.

That was on Aug. 16, 1996, in the Padres' first game in Mexico. The Padres defeated the Mets, 15-10, in the opener of a three-game series. Steve Finley, Ken Caminiti, John Flaherty and Greg Vaughn all homered for the Padres.

The game that everyone remembers from that historic series was the "Snickers Game" in the Aug. 18 rubber match.

Dehydrated and suffering from food poisoning, Caminiti received two liters of fluid before the finale in Monterrey -- then ate a Snickers candy bar just before taking the field. The third baseman then homered in his first two at-bats to lead the Padres to an 8-0 win.

Buoyed by the success of the first regular-season series in Mexico, Major League Baseball asked the Padres to play a three-game Paradise Series against the Cardinals at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii from April 19-20, 1997 -- opening another frontier.

On April 4, 1999, the Padres and Rockies played the first International Opening Day game in Monterrey. The Rockies won, 8-2.

At that time, Major League Baseball had played six games outside North America. And the Padres were participants in all six.

Then came the 2008 Spring Training trip to China -- the Padres won the second of two games against the Dodgers after the first ended in a tie. Those games were played at Wukesong Baseball Field in Beijing, which hosted baseball for the 2008 Olympic Games. During the trip, the Padres and Dodgers visited the Great Wall of China and Padres players hosted a clinic at the Fengtai School.

"We were aware the entire time that we were making history," said outfielder Scott Hairston, who had a two-run double in the Padres' victory in China. Who was credited with the win? Josh Geer.

And the Padres' most recent trip was the two-game 2016 exhibition series against Houston at Fray Nano Stadium in Mexico City.

San Diego Padres