In Mexico-US rivalry, 'admiration and love' -- and fierce competition

March 12th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Ten years have passed since Mexico and the United States met in a World Baseball Classic.

On Sunday evening at 10 ET, they'll play before a sold-out Chase Field and national television audience on FS1.

Prepare your eyes and ears accordingly.

"There's going to be a lot of flags -- a lot of matracas," said Mexican baseball icon Vinny Castilla, referring to the loud, rattling wooden ratchets favored by Mexican fans. "I can't wait for that game. It's going to be awesome."

Castilla, whose 320 home runs in the Majors are the most by a Mexican-born player, is Team Mexico's bench coach. To be clear, he wasn't looking beyond Saturday's tournament opener against Colombia, which resulted in a 5-4 extra-inning loss. But he does realize the transcendent potential of Sunday's stage.

In best-on-best baseball tournaments, the U.S. and Mexico haven't played often enough to cultivate a reel of memories similar to the countries' shared soccer history. The right game -- in the right place, at the right time -- can change that. And the moment is ripe for the U.S.-Mexico baseball rivalry to elevate in cultural significance.

Team USA is the defending champion. Team Mexico is fielding its best-ever baseball roster. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a passionate baseball fan who exchanges messages with national team manager Benji Gil about the Classic.

Phoenix is home to one of the largest Mexican-American communities in the U.S. If past games are any guide, an enthusiastic majority of fans on Sunday will arrive to Chase Field in green and red.

"The USA has the best [baseball] players in the world," Castilla said. "We're supposed to beat the USA in soccer. It's a big deal when we can beat the USA in baseball."

Mexico has done so twice in three Classic meetings -- including the most impactful showdown in the rivalry to date.

In the final game of the second round in 2006, an American victory would have propelled Team USA into the semifinal. U.S. manager Buck Martinez had the legendary Roger Clemens on the mound, with future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones in the starting lineup.

But , then a 24-year-old Mets left-hander, started for Mexico and flummoxed U.S. hitters over three scoreless innings. Jorge Cantu drove in two runs against Clemens, who took the loss.

Final score: Mexico 2, United States 1.

Gil, an infielder on Mexico's 2006 team, said the impact of that victory was "enormous" -- and still endures.

"That made a lot of sports fans in Mexico become baseball fans," he said.

Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star, batted leadoff for Team USA in Anaheim that night. Now, he serves on manager Mark DeRosa's U.S. coaching staff. Young plans to reference the sting of that defeat in his conversations with Team USA players in advance of Sunday.

"I remember being as [ticked] off as I've been at a baseball game," Young said. "We'd been in the tournament for a few games at that point, but none of us were conditioned to play tournament baseball. We were used to a three-game series or a seven-game series in the postseason. We were having trouble swinging the bat as a team. Crazy talent. The next thing you know, we blink and the game was over. They were celebrating. They played a hell of a game.

"I remember [going] to the clubhouse, looking around and thinking, 'There's no way that should have happened. This team is too good.' Even to this day, 17 years later, it still bothers me. It still bothers me. But that's the nature of competition. You never really shake that off."

The result shaped three storylines that endured for years: Japan, not Team USA, advanced to the semifinal and ultimately won the inaugural Classic; the U.S. would wait another 11 years before winning gold; and Mexico established that it could defeat its northern neighbor, a trend that continued with a convincing 5-2 victory at Chase Field at the '13 Classic in which the U.S. never led.

Seven years after the defeat, Young received an unexpected invitation to play for Mexico in the '13 Classic. Young was born in California, but his mother, Anna, has 100 percent Mexican heritage. Team USA offered Young a spot that year, too. In the end, he decided to remain in Spring Training with his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Young acknowledges now that it would have been difficult to change allegiances and play for the country that ended his dream of a title in the '06 Classic.

has a similar story that led to a different choice for this year's tournament. Like Young, Tellez was born and raised in California. Like Young, Tellez has Mexican heritage. Gil offered Tellez a spot on Team Mexico following a 2022 season in which the slugging first baseman hit 35 home runs with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Tellez said yes. On Wednesday, he proudly wore the green and white Mexican uniform for batting practice at Goodyear Ballpark. He thought about his grandfather, John, who was born in rural Mexico to parents who worked as beet farmers. John played winter ball in Mexico and brought his love of the game to the U.S. when he emigrated.

"That's where my family is from," Tellez said, when asked about the significance of the jersey he wore. "It's really cool to be part of Mexico and play for them."

Gil, managing in the Classic for the first time, understands the nuances of how a family's journey shapes allegiances to one national team over the other. Gil was born in Tijuana but moved to California at age 3 and graduated from Castle Park High School in Chula Vista.

Throughout Gil's childhood, he returned to Tijuana to play baseball on weekends. During his professional career, he typically spent two months every year playing winter ball in Mexico.

Even today, Gil spends the Major League season as the Angels' infield coach -- and the winter as manager of the Tomateros de Culiacán in the Mexican Pacific League.

"The American game and Mexican game are hand-stitched together in my memory," Gil said.

But as a player and manager in the Classic, he's always chosen to represent the country of his birth.

"For the most part, we're neighbors, right?" Gil mused. "Even people who are well off in Mexico and don't have the American Dream, it's [to] go to the United States, see the culture, go visit the great cities in the U.S., go shopping, Disneyland.

"We love the U.S. We love the American life, lifestyle and culture. And I think probably more than any other culture, the U.S. has adopted the Mexican culture, as well. There's a great respect from one culture to the other and admiration and love."

Gil paused.

"But obviously, we want to win."

Sunday, those two cultures meet on a baseball field. Rarely is it accurate to say one game can shape the future growth of a sport, but that is precisely the case at Chase Field this weekend.