Greetings from Mexico City, where I've landed a couple of days ahead of this weekend's Mexico Series between the Padres and Giants. Should be quite an event.
This weekend's two-game series will mark MLB’s first regular-season games played in the Mexican capital. But the Padres already have a rich history of playing in Mexico.
The Padres' four regular-season trips to Mexico are the most of any big league club. Their previous three Mexico Series were all played in Monterrey -- including a particularly memorable three-game series vs. the Mets in 1996, the first regular-season games ever played outside the United States and Canada.
The 1996 Padres, in the midst of a tense National League West race, arrived in Monterrey in mid-August tied with the Dodgers atop the division.
Fittingly, the Padres lined up their rotation so that Fernando Valenzuela would get the ball for the opener. The veteran left-hander, a legend in Mexico, took the field to raucous chants of his nickname, “Toro.”
"Bells and whistles going off, sparklers -- I didn't pitch very well there," said right-hander Andy Ashby. "But it was awesome, though. I loved it. ... We look back at Mexico now, and I remember Fernando starting and the chanting, and of course he pitched unbelievable."
Valenzuela rewarded those fans with six quality innings, as the Padres jumped out to a huge early lead before winning the sport's first international game, 15-10. They dropped Game 2, 7-3, before winning the finale, 8-0.
Fernandomania was in full effect all weekend, particularly on Friday. But the most fabled exploits from the weekend came from Ken Caminiti.
Twenty-seven years later, the story has morphed into legend.
Caminiti had a nasty bout of food poisoning. When he arrived at the clubhouse at Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey, he couldn't stand. Team trainers found a makeshift IV and hooked Caminiti to it. Manager Bruce Bochy figured there was no way his star third baseman would play.
Then, shortly before gametime, Caminiti convinced Bochy to put him in the lineup. Shortly after that, he launched a three-run home run to give the Padres an 8-0 lead in the fifth.
Caminiti homered two more times in the series, finishing 5-for-10 with two walks.
"If he wasn't playing third, he was on the ground in the clubhouse getting an IV," Wally Joyner recalled. "There were the rumors about the Snickers bars, all of that. You can’t make it up."
Ah, the Snickers bars. That’s the part of the legend everyone seems to remember. Apparently, it was the only thing Caminiti could stomach at the time. He asked for a Snickers moments before the opener. Despite the brutal heat and the food poisoning, he started all three games, helping the Padres to a crucial series victory.
"It was incredible that he made it through that series," Joyner said. "And not just made it through. He hit [three] homers, played some great third base."
Trevor Hoffman nearly missed all of it. He'd flown back to San Diego to be with his wife for the birth of their son, Brody. He listened to the first two games on the radio before boarding a flight to Monterrey the morning of the final game.
Hoffman arrived just before first pitch, then threw a scoreless ninth inning as the Padres won the finale.
"I could hear it in the radio -- ‘Toro, Toro, Toro’ -- could hear the energy," Hoffman said. "I would've given almost anything to watch Fernando pitch in his home country for the first time. So I missed Fernando, missed Cammy on the floor for IVs and Snickers. Then I came in for one game."
He's glad he made it for that game, though.
"The energy was just different,” Hoffman said. “You see it a lot with the WBC now, just extra noise and the celebratory feel. That's the way it was."
With their series victory, the Padres briefly moved into first place in the NL West. They won the division on the season's final day.
"I think that jelled us," Joyner recalled. "The facilities weren't great, but we made do and we had fun. We had a great time doing it."
Added Finley: "It was a great immersive experience, having games outside the country. We loved it, and the fans in Mexico loved it."