• Pasi Salmela

Crossing Borders Just Got Easier

Mexico national baseball team 2016 WBCQ
Mexico national baseball team 2016 WBCQ

PC: MLB Properties

There is some dispute about exactly when and where baseball started in Mexico. Some historians place its origin to the northern parts of the country and the Mexican-American war in the 1840s. It is speculated that, during the war, soldiers from the U.S. played the game and taught it to locals.

Solid evidence also exists to back the claim that a Cuban family named Urzaiz came to Yucátan state in southern Mexico in 1890 by a Spanish war vessel. The family carried childrens toys and baseball gear with them. Soon after the family arrived Cuban immigrants and locals organized games. The new sport became popular among the citizens.

The third theory claims that the first baseball game was played in Nuevo León in July 1889 and that it was American railroad workers who were involved in bringing the game abroad.

No matter which theory you subscribe to, today professional baseball is a year-around sport in Mexico. The Mexican Baseball League (Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, LMB) is a summer league. Season begins in mid-March with the playoffs running through mid-August. The Mexican Pacific League (Liga Mexicana del Pacífico, LMP) is a winter league and is played from mid-October to January.

The LMB started in the summer of 1925 when five teams participated in the country’s first championship tournament. Before that there had been amateur baseball games between local Mexican clubs and visiting U.S. flying circus daredevils. According to Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball by Peter C. Bjarkman, documentation of the first and following seasons of the LMB is minimal. The 1937 season is the first to be fully documented. For example, that season was the first when statistical records for individual players can be found. In that sense, 1937 can be seen as a starting point for organized professional baseball in Mexico.

The 1940s were a decade of chaos in Mexican baseball. Mexican multi-millionaire, businessman and sports executive Jorge Pasquel, who is one of the most unforgettably characters in Mexican baseball, started an extremely ambitious project. Pasquel’s goal was to build the LMB into a noteworthy rival to the American baseball leagues. Outside of baseball Pasquel lived a luxurious life, spending money without hesitation. One story has him buying a dozen pairs of blue alligator shoes for Joe DiMaggio, because the Yankees outfielder praised Pasquel’s when he saw him wearing them.

Pasquel’s first move came in the summer of 1940. He recruited more than 60 Negro Leaguers and top Cuban players to Mexico from the States for the season. In 1943 Pasquel organized a bizarre trade when he arranged the U.S. draft deferments for two Negro League stars, freeing them up for Mexican league play. He did this by promising that Mexico would loan 80,000 Mexican workers to assist in the American war industry. He kept that promise. In 1946, Pasquel was ready to launch. He traveled to the U.S. in pursuit of the top players in the Negro and major leagues. With huge sums of pesos Pasquel managed to seduce close to twenty Negro leaguers who had been shut out from the major leagues. He also recruited returning military who had played in the majors prior to war.

The fun lasted for three years before all his plans went array. In 1949 Pasquel's league faded. Financial realities led to decreased salaries and his high-priced stars returned home. The LMB’s development slowed for years following.

Even though Pasquel’s grandiose dream didn´t work out as he expected, according to John Virtue, the author of the book, South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican Baseball League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration, Pasquel helped the Negro leaguers receive freedoms they never had in the United States. While blacks were treated as second-class citizens in the US leagues, they were hailed as heroes in Mexico. Pasquel also showed that black and white players could play together harmoniously.

In mid 1950s the Mexican Baseball League started to recover from Pasquel’s scheme. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a time for growth and development. Since 1967, the LMB has been classed as a triple-A equivalent level of play.

Currently 16 teams, divided into North and South Divisions, play in the LMB each summer. The season ends in a 7-game championship series between the winners of the two divisions. The league has two minor leagues, the Liga Norte de Mexico and the Mexican Academy League. In 2016 Italy’s Alex Liddi played in the LMB for the Tigres de Quintana Roo.

In the winter eight teams play in the Mexican Pacific League (Liga Mexicana del Pacífico, LMP). Established in 1945, it is considered the premier baseball league in Mexico. The LMP is recognized as one of the big four winter leagues. The other three are leagues in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The LMP features a mix of major league players, top prospects and LMB players. The average attendance for the LMP in 2016 was 9,789. In the same season the LMB’s average was 4,696.

The winner of the LMP represents Mexico in the Caribbean Series, in which champions from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic compete against one other. The Mexican team has won the Caribbean Series 5 times in the last 11 years. The last championship for Mexican was in 2016, when the Venados de Mazatlán took home the series with Alex Liddi on the roster. The Mexican national team is currently ranked 6th in the WBSC world rankings and will participate in the Classic next month.

PC: MLB Properties

In spite of their lengthy baseball history, and their regular competitions with other regions better known for producing MLB recruits, Mexico hasn’t been able to produce that many MLB players. Over the decades only 120 men from the land of Tequila have made it to the bigs. In 2016, there were 16 Mexicans played in the MLB, which is quite a modest number in comparison with the Dominican Republic (149), Venezuela (112) and Cuba (34).

One reason for so few Mexicans in the bigs might be that none of the major league teams have been building and running academies in the country, at least not before this past season. In 2016 the Arizona Diamondbacks started a partnership with the LMP team the Hermosillo Naranjeros, from Sonora. The D-backs opened both an academy and a satellite office (also an MLB first) in Hermosillo. This could be in answer to the need to eliminate offices in regions, such as Venezuela, where troubles have become too difficult to overcome.

The other reason is that, for decades, LMB team owners had a “gentlemen agreement” of blacklisting Mexican prospects that have signed directly with big-league clubs. It was a way to force players to sign with their teams. The teams then had the option to sell the player rights to MLB clubs. Selling the contracts had been a huge source of income for the clubs. While the LMB banned these players, the LMP welcomes them.

At the 2015 winter meetings, the MLB stated they could not be in business with the Mexican league if it kept up this practice. They stated it infringed on the human rights of the players. The LMB dropped the sanctions in early 2016. One direct affect of the decision was that the MLB announced in March 2016 that MLB Mexico would be headquartered in Mexico City as the sixth MLB office outside the United States. The MLB also has plans for expansion. Establishing a team in Mexico City is already on the table.

This is good news. Mexican baseball has been overshadowed by soccer and boxing. An MLB team in Mexico City, and more players on other major team rosters, should raise the status of the game.