Today was supposed to mark the start of this season’s two-game set in Mexico City, featuring a showdown between the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately, the brutal reality of the coronavirus intervened, and the series was canceled.
But this turn of events certainly doesn’t spell the end of Mexico’s relationship with Major League Baseball, or it’s ongoing relevance to the game.
In fact, there’s a long, interconnected history between Mexico and America’s pastime. In the 1940’s, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Mexican Baseball League recruited players from the Negro Leagues who were barred from MLB, future Hall-of-Famers like Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Josh Gibson.
Years later, Mexican baseball provided another MLB headliner in the form of Fernandomania — the meteoric, entertaining rise of Fernando Valenzuela for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Valenzuela set the baseball world on fire in his rookie year during the strike-shortened 1981 season.
The charismatic lefty with the quirky delivery won his first eight starts, including five shutouts, and led the league in strikeouts. He became the first and only pitcher to earn Rookie of the Year honors and the Cy Young Award in the same season.
That October, he helped the Dodgers come from behind against the Yankees to win the World Series, and won another ring with Los Angeles in 1988, though he missed the Fall Classic that year with an injured shoulder. He added a no-hitter to his resume in 1990, the final season of his 11-year tenure with the Dodgers.
Though Valenzuela went on to pitch for five other teams, he is best remembered for his Los Angeles prime, during which he made six All-Star appearances. As part of the legacy of Fernandomania, many Mexican baseball fans still root for the Dodgers.
In 1996 MLB capitalized on his international superstar status, slating a three-game series between the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres — Valenzuela’s team at the time — to be played in Monterrey, Mexico.
The Padres returned for a single game in Monterrey in 1999, and the city again played host to MLB regular season games in 2018 and 2019. This year’s series was to be the first played in Mexico City.
During that stretch Mexico also participated in the World Baseball Classic, hosting first-round match-ups in 2009 and 2017, and even eliminating team USA from play in the inaugural 2006 tournament.
But in recent years, fewer Mexican stars have thrived stateside; just eight Mexican players started the 2019 season on MLB rosters. The dearth is due in part to the rules that have governed contracts in the Mexican Baseball League, which empowered its teams to charge expensive fees for players in negotiations. As a result, many MLB teams balked at the price of acquiring Mexican prospects.
But change appears imminent. The current president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, is an ardent fan of the game, and has vowed to make his soccer-mad nation a baseball powerhouse.
As part of that effort, the government is planning to open eight baseball academies, along with 20 indoor training facilities, with the goal of increasing the number of Mexican players in MLB to between 60 and 80 by 2024. Additionally, the contract rules in the Mexican Baseball League have been reformed, which could open the doors to more robust interest from MLB organizations.
The Yankees will certainly be among the interested parties. The Bombers have been aggressive in scouting and signing international prospects of late, and they have recent history with Mexican players, including once-prized pitching prospect Manny Banuelos, and current reliever Luis Cessa.
It would be great if the Yankees could land a future Fernando Valenzuela of their own, a great player who connects the team to a growing fan base in a new way. Who knows, maybe that player will help flip the script, and do for the Yankees what Valenzuela did for the Dodgers back in that 1981 World Series.
But whether the Yankees are a key participant or not, a new era of relevance for Mexico in MLB — and MLB in Mexico — seems to be approaching. And while the immediate future of the league is as uncertain as it has been in generations, the continued evolution of the depth and breadth of the game is something baseball fans everywhere can get excited about.