From a commissioner's office in New York or a press box almost
anywhere in the U.S., the view was breathtaking. With a
population of 2.5 million and a rich baseball tradition, the
sprawling city of Monterrey, Mexico, appeared to be the ideal
market for major league baseball to enter as it moved into the
The San Diego Padres, bumped from Jack Murphy Stadium because of
a potential scheduling conflict with last week's Republican
National Convention, chose to play last weekend's three-game
series against the New York Mets in the 25,644-seat Estadio de
Beisbol Monterrey, which thus became the site of the first big
league games played outside the U.S. and Canada. For the Padres
the series was merely a chance to make the best of the
scheduling snafu and increase their burgeoning fan base south of
the border. But for major league baseball the series was much
more. It was an opportunity to show the world that the grand old
game could think globally and act progressively. It was the
first step toward Monterrey's getting an expansion franchise
perhaps as early as the turn of the century.
Funny thing is, virtually all of the people envisioning what a
great addition Monterrey would be to the major leagues had one
thing in common: They weren't in Monterrey last weekend. To
those who made the trip and saw the games, the prospect of a big
league baseball team's being based in Monterrey looked like a
distant dream, not unlike the possibility of Mrs. Fields opening
a cookie store on Neptune. It may happen by the turn of the
century, but we're not talking about the next century.
At this point Monterrey has a better chance of landing the
Winter Olympics than a major league baseball franchise. Aside
from the oppressive heat, the language barrier, the lack of an
adequate stadium and the depressed economy, there's almost
nothing to stop the big leagues from dropping a team there.
Monterrey might be more useful as a Triple A affiliate. Then, at
least, a major league manager could threaten his players with a
Among other things, it is impossible to imagine an
American-born, English-speaking free agent choosing to play in
Monterrey. "Right now, I can't see it," said Padres rightfielder
Tony Gwynn before Friday's game. "When you reach the major
leagues, you want to feel like a major league ballplayer. You
want to play in a major league ballpark in a major league city.
This just doesn't feel like that."
Monterrey is a picturesque city that loves its baseball--it's
the home of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame--but it takes more
than that to land a big league franchise. It takes piles of
money. The newest expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which make their debuts in 1998, paid
$130 million apiece just to take a seat at the major league
table. And that sum didn't include the cost of a new stadium or
the payroll or the price of paper clips. You don't need Lou
Dobbs to tell you that Monterrey doesn't have that kind of
capital. In fact, when major league baseball was last accepting
applications from possible expansion franchises, in 1994, a
group from Monterrey applied. Unfortunately, the Mexican economy
slumped while the applications were being processed, and Jose
Maiz, the man in charge of Monterrey's bid, wrote a letter to
the expansion committee bowing out because of a lack of funds.
"We need to let the economy recover," wrote Maiz, a construction
mogul who also owns the Sultanes, the local Mexican League
entry. "We are not ready yet."
Rodolfo Sanchez, a salesman for a steel company, attended last
Friday's Mets-Padres game with his wife, father and brother,
laying out 300 pesos ($40) for four seats. Sanchez also took in
the Dallas Cowboys-Kansas City Chiefs preseason game at an
adjacent stadium on Aug. 5, and he found the baseball game more
entertaining. "The football players were just trying to not
break their legs," he said as he watched last Friday's game.
"The baseball players are giving everything they've got."
Did Sanchez believe the Padres' visit portended well for his
hometown's chances of landing an expansion team? "Oh, no," he
said. "But it lifts us up just a little, and so it was worth it."
Gene Orza, the associate general counsel of the players'
association and a proponent of taking the game international,
says expansion to Monterrey is "inevitable." Then he adds, "Of
course they would have to build a dome." A dome? Most of the
citizens of Monterrey can't afford tickets. The Sultanes, a
Double A caliber team, just won their second straight
championship, and they averaged only 6,000 fans per game in
Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey. A bleacher seat for a Sultanes
game sold for five pesos (67 cents).
Naturally prices were jacked up for the Mets-Padres
series--bleacher seats were 30 pesos ($4) and the best seats 130
($17.34)--but it was a surprise when none of those games were
sold out. In the opener last Friday night San Diego pitched
Fernando Valenzuela, the most beloved Mexican player of all
time, who went six innings to get the win in the Padres' ugly
15-10 victory. The evening was a true, proud Mexican baseball
celebration. There were fireworks, mariachi bands and chants of
"Toro! Toro!" for Valenzuela, whose nickname in his home country
is the Bull. But there were also nearly 2,000 empty seats.
Attendance slipped to 20,873 for New York's 7-3 win on Saturday
night and bounced to 22,810 on Sunday afternoon as the Padres
shut out the Mets 8-0.
Gwynn said the highlight of his trip was having the police
escort the Padres' bus from the airport to the hotel. The cops
continued to guard both teams throughout the series, well
aware--as were the players--that there has been a spate of
kidnappings of foreigners recently. Monterrey officials wanted
to be extra careful; nothing kills a city's expansion chances
quite like a kidnapping.
Before the trip a representative from the commissioner's office
visited both teams and warned them not to drink tap water, eat
uncooked food or wander into the wrong neighborhood. (However,
Todd Hundley and Chris Jones of the Mets became ill during the
trip.) The players' association also reminded its members that
watching TV in their hotel rooms was not a bad way to spend
their time. For many of the players, the three best things about
Monterrey were Cinemax, ESPN and HBO.
In hopes of keeping them out of trouble, the hotel treated the
players to a free buffet after the night games, which sure was a
handy perk. After all, the players were getting only $300.50 a
day for meals, an increase of $240 from their usual per diem. It
was a reward for agreeing to make the trip, and in a city of $3
cheeseburgers and $7 steaks, the money was enough to feed the
entire team for a year. "I don't think we could spend that money
if we tried," said Padres second baseman Jody Reed. "I went to a
cash machine, and I asked for just $200 worth of pesos. The
money just kept coming and coming. I had this huge wad that I
couldn't even fit in my pocket. I had to go to my room to put
Who says the life of a big leaguer is easy? Have you ever tried
to stuff 1,500 pesos into your pocket? However, for the Padres,
who entered last weekend tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers in
the National League West, the trip also posed bigger concerns.
They didn't want to blow any games as a result of weird bounces,
lost fly balls or any other hazards of playing in an unfamiliar
ballpark. And indeed, though the lights in the six-year-old
stadium were allegedly upgraded for the series, the park was dim
and hazy during the two night games, which made fly balls
difficult to pick up. The field looked surprisingly good, but
only after a grounds crew imported from San Diego sprayed the
bare spots with green paint.
Such conditions would have been enough to prompt many modern
ballplayers to scream in protest. Not the Padres. They seemed to
handle everything without a hitch or a bitch, and that, they
say, is the way they have been all season.
"What's so tough about this? You tell me: Why should we
complain?" said San Diego first baseman Wally Joyner on Friday.
"We're down here, we're playing baseball. We've got a nice
field, a nice stadium. I woke up this morning, and I got ready
to play the Mets. That's what I'd be doing no matter where I was."
Even back home the Padres see their share of Mexican fans. After
working out the details with the Immigration and Naturalization
Service last winter, the team introduced Sunday bus service to
bring fans from three Mexican communities to San Diego to watch
the Padres. Recently the 100th bus and the 10,000th fan from
Mexico arrived at the Murph.
But so far this season San Diego has relied on the oldest
marketing tool in the business to draw spectators: a contending
team. The Padres are not the most talented or the highest-paid
club in the majors, but they have been in first place for most
of the season. "I just think everyone in this room has a real
desire to win, and we all play together," said San Diego third
baseman Ken Caminiti as he scanned the Padres clubhouse last
Friday night. "For the first month of the season, everyone said
we didn't hit enough home runs, but we were in first place. Then
we lost 19 out of 23 in June, and we were only two games out
when that streak was over. We just find ways to hang in."
Caminiti has no difficulty explaining his most recent hot
streak. Through Sunday he had hit nine of the Padres' 20 home
runs in August, averaging a homer every 6.3 at bats. The power
surge coincided with the arrival of leftfielder Greg Vaughn, who
came from the Milwaukee Brewers in a deal for outfielder Marc
Newfield and pitchers Bryce Florie and Ron Villone on July 31.
San Diego was sorely missing a righthanded muscle man in the
middle of the lineup, and at the trading deadline rookie general
manager Kevin Towers landed Vaughn, who had belted 31 homers for
the Brewers. Although Vaughn was hitting only .135, with four
homers, for the Padres through Sunday, he had made his presence
felt. "All I know," says Caminiti, who often bats ahead of
Vaughn, "is that I've been hitting some bombs since Greg got
The Vaughn deal also significantly upgraded the Padres' bench.
Former starting leftfielder Rickey Henderson is now a
pinch-running and pinch-hitting specialist, a deadly weapon for
San Diego if Henderson, a future Hall of Famer, can--or
will--accept the new role. "As long as we're winning, I'll do
whatever I can to help the team, and I'll deal with it," says
Henderson. "Next year is another story. But we're winning ball
games, and I want to be a part of it. If we're winning, you
won't hear me squawking."
Last Saturday, a local Mexican TV reporter approached Henderson
and asked him to read a message in Spanish. Henderson, who
doesn't speak Spanish fluently, gladly granted the request and
laughed at the suggestion that he might unknowingly be saying
something outrageous. What did he care? San Diego was winning.
He was sitting on the bench, on an oven-hot afternoon somewhere
in Mexico, and still he wasn't squawking. How do you explain it?
For the Padres this season, there just seems to be something in
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO FERNANDO'S HIDEAWAY? As major league baseball debuted south of the border, with three games in Monterrey, fans of all sorts surrounded the man of the moment, the Padres' Mexican-born Fernando Valenzuela, even in that pitcher's sanctuary, the bullpen (page 18). [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO San Diego was the "home" team, but Craig Shipley was out at the plate in Sunday's finale.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Caminiti, whose hitting of late has been as hot as Mexican cooking, cranked out two Sunday homers. [Ken Caminiti batting]
THREE COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO (3) Baseball, Monterrey-style, offered a taste of Mexico, with clowns (clad as bride and groom) dancing in the aisles and vendors hawking peppers, peanuts and other fare. [Two clowns; pepper vendor; bats and hats]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above--Peanut vendor]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The Mets lost two of the three games but won over some young fans at an instructional clinic. [Boys watching New York Mets player]