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Road games in Mexico figure to be like home games for the Dodgers

The schedule originally called for the Dodgers to play three home games next weekend. Technically, the games would have been played at Petco Park, but the Dodgers are good, the Padres are not, and the place usually is overrun by Dodgers fans.

The games now are set for Monterrey, Mexico, part of a major league initiative to stage regular-season games in Europe, Asia and Latin America. The Dodgers and Padres will be 1,500 miles from home, but the setting figures to be similar: the Padres will bat last as the home team, and the crowd will make the Dodgers feel at home.

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"It's going to be awesome," Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said. "The Dodger fans, the majority of them, are Mexicans. No disrespect to any other people.

"They are die-hard fans. No matter how we are doing, they will always be supportive."

The greatest of all the Mexican pitchers, Fernando Valenzuela, single-handedly transformed Dodger Stadium into a Latino fan mecca four decades ago. On Friday, when the Dodgers play a regular-season game in Mexico for the first time, Valenzuela said he is set to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

That the Dodgers have captured the heart of Latino L.A. is old news, but the figures still are stunning. In a poll conducted in January and February — that is, in the heart of basketball season — Los Angeles County residents picked the Dodgers over the Lakers as their favorite local team. The Dodgers got 38% of the vote, the Lakers 30%, and no other team got even 10%.

Among Latinos, the Dodgers got 45% — almost half the vote, that is, among the nine teams included in the annual survey by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

The Dodgers have embraced the "Doyers" nickname. They sell "Doyer Dogs" at Dodger Stadium, and they stage monthly "Viva Los Dodgers" cultural festivals before games.

But the Dodgers' Latino fan base extends well beyond Los Angeles.

"Everywhere," Jansen said. "Here. Mexico. I can't wait to see how the environment will be. I think it will be awesome."

Valenzuela said he has often seen Dodgers caps worn throughout Mexico. In his native country, more than in his adopted United States, loyalty is passed down through generations, and seldom swayed.

"You have to start teaching them what team is more popular when they are young," Valenzuela said.

Among Mexican fans using the league's "At Bat" app, the New York Yankees are the most popular team, with the Dodgers second and the Padres eighth. The Yankees sell the most jerseys to Mexico via the league's online shop, with the Dodgers second and the Padres ninth.

The most popular individual jerseys sold, in order: the Yankees' Aaron Judge, the Houston Astros' Jose Altuve and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.

However, the most popular player in Monterrey next weekend might not be Kershaw, or any of the Dodgers.

When the series was planned last year, the league was intrigued by the possibility that the Dodgers would bring three Mexican players. None is on the roster now: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is with the New York Mets, outfielder Alex Verdugo is in the minor leagues, and pitcher Julio Urias is on the disabled list.

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The Padres are bringing rookie infielder Christian Villaneuva, who is batting .355 in 19 games, with seven home runs. He is from Guadalajara, and he has the most popular "At Bat" player page among Mexican fans.

(Who ranks second? Why, that international man of mystery: Angels rookie Shohei Ohtani.)

Dodgers spokeman Steve Brener did not respond to a request for comment about what new or ongoing marketing initiatives the team might have in Mexico. But, while leveraging the Mexico games might be nice for the Dodgers, it is absolutely critical for the Padres.

"It's a hugely important market for us," said Erik Greupner, the Padres' chief operating officer. "Any chance we get to play in Mexico, we're there."

This will be the league's third regular-season series in Mexico, all involving the Padres, previously in 1996 and 1999. The Padres gave up three home games — not just for the greater good of growing baseball around the world, but for the necessity of growing their fan base.

The Padres are tucked into the fourth-smallest media market in the major leagues, with the ocean to the west, the desert to the east, and Ohtani and Mike Trout to the north. San Diego might rank eighth in population among United States cities, but the population of Tijuana is greater.

They need to cultivate the Tijuana fan base, but their strategies to do so have been uneven over the years. The Padres dispatch players there for community appearances, including youth clinics and hospital visits. They have opened, and closed, a retail store there. They have started, and stopped, cross-border fan buses to Petco Park.

Fernando Valenzuela and Tom Lasorda in Monterrey for an exhibition game in March 1991.
Fernando Valenzuela and Tom Lasorda in Monterrey for an exhibition game in March 1991. (Jon SooHoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

The Padres draw about 75,000 fans from Mexico each season, Greupner said, and that country represents their best chance to broaden their fan base.

"There's no doubt that we need to take advantage of every opportunity we get to connect with baseball fans in Mexico," Greupner said. "There's no better or more direct way to do that than to play regular-season games in Mexico."

The best way, of course, would be to play these games in Tijuana or Mexicali — not in Monterrey, where the Astros are the closest major league team. But Monterrey had a stadium that could meet major league standards, and a stadium that evokes a fond memory for Valenzuela.

The Dodgers and Angels each cut him in 1991— the Dodgers in the spring, the Angels in the summer — and his career appeared over. He needed a place to pitch, so in 1992 he signed up for the Mexican league. He extended his career by five years, three of them spent with the Padres.

Little wonder, then, that Valenzuela is happy to reminisce about Monterrey, where he pitched one of the games in his 1992 revival.

"That," he said, "helped me to stay in baseball."

That alone will be worth celebrating next weekend. If you have a sombrero, well, throw it to the sky.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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