Welcome back, Geoff Enderby…
Mexico City in March is a beautiful place, an enormous valley filled prominently with the blooming violet of the Jacaranda trees, brought to Mexico by Tatsugoro Matsumoto back in the years prior to the formation of the Diablos Rojos del México. The weather in March is balmy and hot, the sun seems to never want to leave. Wispy clouds dot the sky as a mass of people dressed in Diablos’ scarlet cross the bridge over the Formula 1 track and see for themselves the entrance to the newly anointed home of baseball in Mexico City, the Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú.
The Diablos Rojos are looking to cement their dominance of LMB (Liga Mexicana de Béisbol) with a seventeenth title in their 79 year history and today’s inauguration of the stadium with a game pitting the home team against a youthful team of prospects from Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres, shows the commitment of the team ownership to bring success once again to the capital. The new home for the Diablos is the fulfilment of a dream for the owner and the man for whom the stadium has been named, and is the next step in what seems to be a resurgence in Mexican baseball and potentially a new golden age for the sport in a country where success is fleeting and history starts tomorrow.
Don Alfredo started his love affair with the Diablos Rojos during his childhood, and since that time has become a successful businessman, philanthropist and benefactor and owner of his childhood team. A potted history of Don Alfredo shows that hard work makes you money, a message which we can only hope these young players take to heart as they search for big league success. Don Alfredo helped form the Mexican Stock Exchange, is the former owner of Mexico’s largest bank, is cousin to Forbes top 10 billionaire Carlos Slim, owner of the Diablos Rojos, Guerreros de Oaxaca and the only Mexican with a stake in an MLB team (the very same Padres). No kingdom is built without adversity and the ordeals of the Harp Helú family are well documented, Machiavelli stated that “ The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves”.
In the last year there have been some significant developments in Mexican baseball. In 2018, in Colombia, the Mexican under 23 national baseball team won the WBSC Baseball World Cup by defeating Japan. This first victory for a Mexican national team in a major tournament followed a year in which Monterrey hosted MLB regular season games after 19 years in the wilderness.
Monterrey is the host to six major league games in 2019 and was also home to games in the last World Baseball Classic, the 22,000 capacity stadium recently underwent a 5.2 million USD facelift and is the biggest stadium in Mexico (the new Alfredo Harp Helú holds 20,000) and the third largest stadium in Latin America. We have already seen the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame reopened in February of this year (thanks again, Don Alfredo) which confirms Monterrey as the spiritual home of baseball in Mexico.
In Mexico City, fans of the Diablos are more interested in matters closer to home and the new Stadium has been some time in coming, a year later than expected after complications resulting from the last major earthquake in the latter part of 2017 and the forced extension to residence at the Fray Nano, capacity of only 5,000. The past two homes in the capital city have been problematic in different ways; the Foro Sol (the main stand of which is now the main grandstand of the F1 circuit) was never really an ideal location and lacked intimacy and atmosphere, even concerts at the venue would never really work acoustically and the stadium was never an inviting or warm place to visit.
Once the Formula One return to Mexico was made official, plans had to be made for a temporary home at least and the Diablos turned to the Fray Nano, a smaller and forcibly intimate venue where fan interaction with Mascots and players made for a noisy, friendly and homely ambience yet regrettably no further championships.
Campeonatos are part of Diablos culture and Don Alfredo hopes along with all Diablos fans that the new era starts today. By bringing in big leaguers Jorge Cantu and Adonis Garcia alongside Guillermo Moscoso and Luis Alonso Mendoza hopes are high for number seventeen and with Mexico City being half a mile further into the sky than Denver we’d expect quite a few home runs even with a 400 ft center field.
The crowd oozes in mass between the concession stands, bars and viewing terraces, taking selfies and snapshots as the rays of sun glimmer through the staggered razor roof, allowing for spectacular shots. The giant baseballs, over 2 metres in diameter are another attraction for the cameras and works of art themselves with symbols and logos from different Diablos eras to celebrate championships past.
The Padres youngsters visiting today are not the very cream of the farm system but even without the top ten prospects we are still witnessing the future of the franchise, a system rated number one overall in major league baseball. As we watch the Mexican AAA standard team play against the hopefuls of A, AA and AAA we can see that the future is faster, more athletic and certainly brighter for the discerning Padres fan. Mexico struggles with patience, a national intolerance for waiting is even more extreme in the capital and a win now philosophy is really the only way for the storied Diablos team to prosper. Should you need reminding you can just join the queue for the toilets between innings, stark contrast to the growing queues for tacos de cochinita on either side of the food court level.
Can the Diablos Rojos win? Not today it seems, as the young Padres prospects pitch out of problems and despite sharing 29 total hits with the locals, run out to an 11-2 victory after an offensive explosion in the middle innings. Most of us don’t care, as festivities began with concerts and activities from 4pm with the first pitch three hours later and beers at 2.50 USD. The new Diablos clubhouse shop was overflowing with consumers as the new surroundings trigger a desire for blood red merchandise.
To truly understand Mexico you need to visit on days like this, arriving at the stadium around 4.30 I was greeted by milling crowds, peanut vendors and ticket touts as news spreads that tickets ranging in price from around 4 USD to 50 USD on the day of sale are being resold for up to one thousand dollars on the black market. As I venture to the esplanade under the massive new canopy there is a famous band playing and people dancing with their beers covered in chilli alongside models and giant papier mache devils, like some kind of bizarre Bosch triptych.
So where do we go from here? For the Diablos the first series starts on the same weekend as MLB and the visitors will be the Tigres de Quintana Roo. For Don Alfredo, we can hope for the return of MLB teams to Mexico City now that the stadium has been opened; directors of the Padres came to visit during the last few months and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been suitably impressed, the desire and demand should prove enough that news of an MLB return to the capital should be a cinch for 2020. Of course Don Alfredo doesn’t stop there as his Oaxaca baseball academy continues to provide talent for the major leagues, one of the latest being Padres top 5 prospect Luis Urias.
There are two further major factors which might make this the new golden age of Mexican Baseball. Controversial new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (he threw the ceremonial first pitch) is a self confessed baseball aficionado and despite his difficult reception at the stadium today has pronounced plans for baseball schools and academies across the country in order to increase the number of Mexican major league players from todays 20 or 30 to around 60 to 80 by the time his term is up in 2024, Edgar González (brother of Padres and Dodgers’ Adrian) has been recruited as a national coordinator and has the backing of Sports Confederation head and former Olympic athlete Ana Guevara.
López Obrador was also named WBSC world baseball ambassador in February following the announcement of his plans. Further schemes include the inclusion of the Sultanes de Monterrey in the Pacific League and a further remodelled stadium in Sinaloa. The second crucial endeavour is that of the recent agreement between LMB and MLB for the transfer of players, similar to that of Japan and Cuba; agreement also with the MLBPA means that players will now be able to move between leagues, a step which was previously denied or increasingly made difficult in recent years.
So will this really be a new golden age in Mexican baseball? It could be, all indicators show that interest abounds and the jostling 20,000 capacity crowd proves as much, maybe the 2020s can be the new 1940s, a time when Mexican baseball was the ideal place outside of the US negro leagues where coloured players were allowed to ply their trade. Once Jackie Robinson and, later, Roberto Clemente started to break barriers, the need for alternatives to mainstream MLB was lessened and Mexico became a place for journeymen, local prospects and the players who just missed out on the big leagues.
So when should you visit? March is nice, but you are welcome anytime. Nobody builds a 160 million stadium and wants it to be empty so come and help us fill it. Mexico City is safe, it’s beauty has been severely underreported and so has it’s baseball. If you let me know when you’re coming I’ll stand in line for cochinita while you order the beers. The Palace of Don Alfredo awaits………