The Power, the Beer and the Glory – Baseball in Mexico City

Welcome back the brilliant gonzo talents of Geoff Enderby

Sunshine by Danny Boyle is probably his most forgotten work, but not by me, and certainly not today. This is because after almost twelve years of life in the sun-drenched Mexican capital I have made a schoolboy error. I’ve forgotten my sun lotion.

I’m on the way to the ballgame, the game today pitches the most successful team in Mexican history, the Diablos Rojos de México (Mexico City Red Devils) against reigning Mexican baseball champions Leones de Yucatán (Yucatan Lions), first pitch is 1pm and I don’t yet have a ticket. My keen detective mind processes this information, combining with my deep rooted Yorkshire ancestry in order to find a solution to this foolish miscalculation without resorting to spending any more money than absolutely necessary; I ponder this as the metro speeds its way towards the Estadio Fray Nano, the venue for todays LMB contest.

The Mexican Baseball League (LMB) is divided into two half seasons, much the same as the local football league, providing more interest to an easily bored populace and allowing the teams to reset after the first half season. LMB is classified as AAA level baseball but with a major difference to US counterparts being that there is no major league affiliation, meaning that resources and revenues are entirely dependent on their own marketing, player development and individual strategy. The league itself is split into an 8 team northern conference and an 8 team southern conference, and interconference play is scheduled throughout the season. The Mexican baseball season is made up of 114 regular season games or 57 per championship, of which 45 are against conference rivals and 12 interconference clashes. There is a wild card and playoffs and then a final series (Serie del Rey) between the North and South champions in order to claim the prestigious Mexican League title.

Mexican baseball in 1925 was originally played only within the confines of Mexico City itself and only six teams participated at that time. Although it had been the intention several years earlier of ex White Sox player Hal Chase to set up a Mexican league, it took more than half a decade to actually take place.

The Mexican revolution or Civil War had really only just finished a few years before, starring such greats as Emiliano Zapata of moustache fame and Pancho Villa, scourge of the gringos. The dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz had also come to an end and there was huge upheaval in land ownership and the most wealthy families in Mexico still owned huge swathes of the country, exploiting slavery and poverty, with another large percentage of the land being sold or leased to foreign business and corporate America. The seeds of a new Mexico were really only starting to now emerge as green shoots and the populace sought diversion, entertainment and distraction from the ravages of war, politics and misery.

I arrive at the stadium and as feared, the sun blistering and the touts are out in force trying to convince me to spend much more than face value for tickets in the shade; they have underestimated my stubbornness and I will not be swayed, deciding to stand in the queue and roll the dice on whether any further shaded tickets may be available for sale. As often happens, my unwillingness to use my well hidden social skills has been and allow my Englishness to prevail proves my undoing, forcing simultaneously to interact with other human beings and into a fated purchase of sun-trap bleacher tickets, though at 2.50 GBP for a ticket who can complain?

Certainly not Yeison Ascencio as the Right Fielder launches his 7th home run over the fence and Mexico is up 1-0 in the bottom of the first. It is generally a surprise to Americans who visit Mexico City that the altitude is around half as high again as Denver, the result of which is thinner air than Colorado and the even higher likelihood of a long fly ball to the 410 ft centre field wall disappearing into the trees. A sac fly from Ricardo Valenzuela brings in the runner from third to extend the lead and 2-0 is the score as I head for the shade and an inevitable second beer following the second inning.

The Diablos Rojos have won sixteen LMB titles, four more than their nearest rival and this must have seemed like a pipe dream when they were founded in 1940. By this time Graham Greene had got bored of Brighton Rock (his teeth were probably falling out) and had been on tour, to Mexico no less, probably dressed in some baggy khaki shorts. In 1940 as the Diablos Rojos were taking baby steps into the world of what was still amateur baseball, “The Power and the Glory” was published and the novel shows clearly the feudal and political upheaval of rural Mexico as the rest of the world plunged into the unwanted sequel to World War I.

The battle between religion, politics and personal ambiguity is so profound that some of it was definitely lost on me but many of the underlying social and cultural aspects, especially those relating to trust and suspicion hark back to the Spanish conquest and governance of Mexico and are still prominent in the Mexican psyche today. With any luck Leon Trotsky might have managed to catch a couple of games during that inaugural season, though no record of such a visit exists; although Trotsky’s communist ideals may not have been reflected in the commercial side of the game, much less prevalent in 1940, surely the appeal of a game where every player is involved to the greater good of the team, with each player having to face the common enemy with no formal hierarchical structure must surely have appealed to the bearded forerunner to Colonel Sanders. By the end of August, Stalin’s droogs had infiltrated the Mexico City residence of the exiled Bolshevik and an ice pick had ended dreams he may have secretly harboured of September and a post season run for his fellow Rojos.

My third and fourth innings were less eventful, despite the emergence of the male and female mascots for the Diablos, willing the team on as my arms and neck start to burn. I take the executive decision to have another beer and cover my neck with my thin hoody which had previously been discarded due to the temperature. This gave me some respite as the Leones struck back with a run in the top of the third.

The Fray Nano stadium in Mexico City has been the Diablos temporary residence since Formula One moguls hijacked the previous home at Foro Sol as the racetrack became a permanent fixture, the same venue having been used for the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and several MLB exhibition games in years prior. As a temporary stadium it is fine but due to this the investment is minimal and the experience can best be described as rustic.

The 1950s saw the emergence of baseball in Mexico and probably the closest to a “golden age”. In 1954 the Leones de Yucatan were inaugurated and by the following year AA status was awarded to the Mexican league while several teams brokered agreements as affiliates with US major league clubs, with the Tigres winning the 1955 Mexican title with a little help from the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the year of a debut for the legendary Roberto Clemente.

The timing is such that it could be argued by some that the rise of baseball in the 1950s also inspired and helped launch the career of Mexican author Carlos Fuentes. However, it would be a very poor argument and have little basis in fact. Carlos Fuentes most famous work is “The Death of Artemio Cruz”, often referred to as a key milestone in the Latin American boom, such as was being witnessed in Baseball with the emergence of Mexico as a professional league and with Clemente, the first real Latin American star of the major leagues, who by now had won his first World Series and also a batting title.

The sun had become unbearable by the fifth inning and it was now I fully donned my hoody despite the obvious discomfort. Things also started to look worse for the Diablos Rojos as the Yucatan Lions forced themselves back into contention with a run in the top of the fifth and we now had a whole new ballgame at 2-2.

Carlos Fuentes’ most famous work is written from the point of view of a dying man as he ruminates over key events of his life leading up to his death, once again highlighting those key touchstones of Mexican society, greed, betrayal and death. I had some sympathy now as I was in a self made sauna stewing in a brew of sweat and beer and hoping for a breakout inning in order for one team to win by a blowout or for me to lose feeling in my burning skin by drinking myself into oblivion. The latter seemed more likely as we headed for the seventh.

The Diablos Rojos could be considered to have dominated the 1970s and 1980s in Mexican baseball, winning seven titles over that period, at one point even winning a Northern title due to some strange configuration of teams and zones; even better news was that since 1967 the league had been granted AAA status and seemed to be headed for great things despite the prominence of extremely bad haircuts, poor pop tunes and some outrageous Michael Jackson style leather jackets. Many of these haircuts, jackets and pop tunes can been seen and heard today on the streets of Mexico City as the cultural conscience seemed to boom and in some cases became frozen in time. Baseball also increased in status during the 1980s with the emergence of the Mexican star Fernando Valenzuela combining with the ability to watch or listen to regular games as TV and radio coverage grew beyond the United States.

I promise myself just one last beer as it looks as though we have a winner, as the Diablos start to get runners on base again. The outfield seems a little rough, unsurprising due to the amount of rain that has fallen over previous weeks, and some tough plays need to be made and some reviews are sent upstairs delaying the game interminably, allowing for toilet breaks, retail visits and even a hot dog. Valenzuela again (not that one) scores a runner in the seventh and then a seldomly seen suicide squeeze scores a second.

The Diablos Rojos are now ahead with what surely must be an unassailable lead as former New York Met Manny Acosta pitches in the eighth. As a Mets fan I joy at the appearance of former Mets, and as Manny Acosta takes the mound I am full of hope for a swift end to the Yucatan challenge. Similarly, I had hoped that maybe a cloud may obscure the sun, perhaps for an inning or two. On both counts I was to be disappointed and two runs score in the top of the inning, the bottom of which is scoreless and we head to the ninth wondering which team would take the initiative and win the final game of the series and move closer to a playoff berth and future homefield advantage.

As we move to the present day, Mexico has been recently awarded six games to be played in Monterrey in 2019 after hosting a single series between the Padres and Dodgers in 2018. In general baseball in Mexico is more popular in the northern states and Monterrey is also the home of the Mexican baseball Hall of Fame. Monterrey boasts a newer and larger stadium than Mexico City and was a venue during the most recent World Baseball Classic. The MLB news is great for baseball in Mexico as the country edges ahead of the UK as an international destination in stark contrast to the NFL situation.

So far news has been less good for Mexico City, the new stadium seeming to be way behind schedule and now due for a 2019 inauguration. As residents of Mexico City we must cross our fingers, pray to the gods of baseball and hope that the momentum can be maintained. The interest is surely here, the Diablos Rojos are the most heavily supported team in Mexico and the appearance of MLB teams for exhibition games a couple of years ago were extremely popular and tickets prohibitively expensive, mainly due to reduced stadium capacity. The demand is here, baseball is thriving and the valley of Mexico surely has a bright future for LMB and MLB respectively.

The sun has now passed its zenith yet the locals are unimpressed as the Leones score in the top of the ninth, a lead of 5-4 and a sweep is on the cards after a rainout on Friday and double loss in the double header on Saturday. Manny has unfortunately let this one through his grasp at this point. The Diablos are ready for this, pride has been questioned and they don’t disappoint, Jesus Fabela hits a double and the RBI to tie the game and then the crowd goes wild as it’s followed up by a single from Daniel Jimenez and a close play at the plate, the runner scores, the player is safe and we can all go home. And Manny Acosta gets the W.

The power, the glory, the beer. I will be back. I will bring sun cream.

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