Twenty-two years ago, when the Padres' team plane touched down in Monterrey, Mexico, for the first time, Eduardo Ortega needed a moment to catch his breath."I got this shock," said Ortega, who is in his 32nd season as the Padres' Spanish-language broadcaster. "It was so emotional. It really got to
Twenty-two years ago, when the Padres' team plane touched down in Monterrey, Mexico, for the first time, Eduardo Ortega needed a moment to catch his breath.
"I got this shock," said Ortega, who is in his 32nd season as the Padres' Spanish-language broadcaster. "It was so emotional. It really got to me. I just looked around and said, 'Wow, I've got Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, [Ken] Caminiti, all the big stars.' And the plane landed in Mexico? I just couldn't believe it."
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The Padres are headed back this weekend for a three-game series with the rival Dodgers, two clubs steeped in tradition in Mexico. Ortega believes he'll be overcome with the same emotions when the team plane arrives at Mariano Escobedo Airport on Thursday afternoon.
There isn't much that Ortega hasn't seen or accomplished during an illustrious 38-year career calling games in Spanish. He's broadcast postseason games since 1993. Ortega has called 18 All-Star Games and 23 World Series. He was the longtime voice of the Caribbean Series and has been the lead Spanish play-by-play voice for the World Baseball Classic since its inception.
Still, Ortega views this weekend's series as something of a personal highlight.
"I've been fortunate enough to call Padres baseball games in Spanish in Canada, in China in Beijing, Hawaii '97. ... But this particular trip is, I think, the most important for me," Ortega said. "It just means so much to bring Major League Baseball [to Mexico] right now."
It's still hard for Ortega to believe he'll be at the center of another Padres trip to his home country, the third in franchise history during the regular season. San Diego played three games against the Mets in Monterrey in 1996, Major League Baseball's first foray outside of the United States or Canada during the regular season. In '99, the Padres returned, playing a single game against the Rockies to open the season.
"Knowing him, this weekend will mean the world for him to go back and represent baseball in his country," said broadcast partner Pedro Gutierrez, who has worked with Ortega for a decade. "But the thing I find magical about him is that he won't give it an extra effort, because he always gives that same effort, whether it's in San Francisco or the next trip in Pittsburgh and Washington or it's winter ball in Mexicali. It will be the same high-standard broadcast he's always done, because that's what he gives of himself to every broadcast."
Ortega grew up in Tijuana, one of four brothers. During their afternoon excursions to the local ballfield, Ortega took it upon himself to be the announcer of the action. From the time he was 14 years old, Ortega recalled mimicking the voice of Mario Thomas, then the Spanish-language play-by-play voice of the Padres.
On nights the Padres were on television, Ortega retreated inside and turned the game on but with the volume down. He'd sync the radio to the TV to hear Thomas' smooth voice over the telecast.
At 20, Ortega got his start in broadcasting, calling games in both the Mexican Winter League and the Mexican Summer League. It was then that he made his first trip to Monterrey, which he called the country's "baseball capital," citing the local Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.
Before his full-time gig with the Padres, Ortega also spent time as a radio DJ.
"That's where he got his out-there personality, his flair," said Gutierrez. "He brings a little bit of Latin spice to the broadcast, and that's where he got it from."
Gutierrez, also a Tijuana native, has known Ortega for decades. Ortega's influence, Gutierrez says, got him into broadcasting in the first place.
"By far, he's a better human being than a broadcaster," Gutierrez said. "And that's saying something, because he's the best broadcaster in Spanish that you could ever find."
Already there's a special twist to this particular trip to Monterrey for Ortega. Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva, a native of Guadalajara, has burst onto the scene as the National League's top rookie through the season's first month.
A backup third baseman when the season began, Villanueva leads Major League rookies with nine homers, and he's hitting .299/.384/.667 entering Friday's game.
• Villanueva's dreams come true in Mexico return
"In '99, it was special to see Vinny Castilla playing in Mexico," Ortega said. "He was in his prime then, and he's been one of the biggest position players from Mexico ever. Now we're watching Christian Villanueva do what he's doing in his rookie year. Mexican fans get very excited to see position players [in the Majors], because there are only a few. Most are pitchers."
Ortega says he's noticed Mexican baseball fans -- ever eager to embrace one of their own -- gravitating to Villanueva. He cited the technology that allows fans from all over the world to follow Villanueva's every at-bat.
With that in mind, Ortega says this weekend's trip to Monterrey comes at the perfect time for the Padres as an organization.
"We'll connect with a new generation of fans," Ortega said. "And it's great to do it with Christian -- not just for the romantic part of the story. ... He's talented. He's a great player, and now he gets to go to Mexico and share his talent with his own people."
Sharing his talent with his own people -- that's precisely what Ortega will do when he settles into the radio booth at Estadio Monterrey.
Ortega is one of the definitive voices of baseball in Mexico. He's been a Ford C. Frick Award finalist twice, and he remains a strong candidate to be the first Mexican elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"It will be very special, sharing and showing the culture of Mexican baseball to the world, the way we enjoy baseball," Ortega said. "Loud, noisy, very enthusiastic and passionate about the sport."
As much as anyone, Ortega is an integral part of that culture -- and has been for nearly four decades.
AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.