Big League Beisbol Is a Solid Hit in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Fernando Valenzuela wasn't there. Mexican-born Dodger prospect Victor Alvarez didn't pitch. And the "home" team didn't win.

Still, Mexican fans had plenty to cheer about Saturday as the New York Mets held on to defeat the Dodgers, 16-11, in 11 innings in an exhibition game at Foro Sol Stadium.

It was a slugfest that ended without a single punch thrown, a welcome contrast to the game between the clubs Wednesday night in Florida. That's when Dodger pitcher Guillermo Mota nailed Mike Piazza on the shoulder with a fastball, setting off a bench-clearing melee. The two had a similar encounter last year, which has fueled bad blood between the teams.

The Dodgers removed Mota from the traveling squad after the incident.

There was speculation that the teams would continue their feud south of the border. But the players apparently left that baggage in the United States. Paid to play like professionals, they acted like it too, treating their enthusiastic Mexican hosts to an extra-inning battle that left the crowd, estimated at about 17,000, shouting its appreciation.

"Fans want to see baseball as perfectly as it can be played," Dodger Manager Jim Tracy said. "If they want to see fighting, they can go to a boxing match.... That is not what either club came here to do."

The baseball was far from perfect, however, as the pitching suffered and batters flourished in the thin air of Mexico City. Dodger starter Wilson Alvarez gave up hits to the first four batters he faced, the beginning of an ugly top half of the first inning that ended with the Mets leading, 5-0. New York's Steve Trachsel quickly returned the favor, giving up a three-run home run to Shawn Green in the bottom of the first. The Mets led most of the game but the score was tied, 11-11, at the end of nine innings. The Mets came through in the 11th, led by a solo homer by Jorge Toca.

The trip to Mexico City was something of a homecoming for the Dodgers, who won legions of fans here in the 1980s after signing Mexican pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela. The Dodgers were listed as the "home" team Saturday, and team officials had expected a largely partisan crowd. But the view from the stands was a little more complex. There was plenty of Met orange mingling with Dodger blue and a good sprinkling of Angel red to boot. New York Yankee caps seemed to be everywhere.

"I'm rooting for the Dodgers today because they're my father's team," said 36-year-old Idalia Perez as she hunted for her seat. "But my favorite team is the New York Yankees. I love their mystique."

Baseball fan Ricardo Garcia, wearing a Met cap and Dodger jersey, seemed to be hedging his bets. But as it turned out, he also had a soft spot for the Yankees. Asked to explain his muddle of allegiances, he explained that his first loyalty is to the game of baseball.

"We Mexicans don't get to see baseball at this level very often," Garcia said. "So it's not the teams that are so important as the game itself. It's a big party for us. We cheer for everyone."

Indeed, they cheered the Mets as they shelled Alvarez in the early innings and they hooted as the Dodgers came storming back. They howled at the bloopers on the outfield screen and roared approval at the cheerleaders who took the field between innings. They even applauded a hapless beer vendor who dropped his tray of bottles.

Major League Baseball is trying to capitalize on global enthusiasm for the game by taking its show on the road to Mexico City and elsewhere. In addition to the Dodger-Met contest this weekend, the Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks are also playing an exhibition game today at Hermosillo, Mexico. Later this month, the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners will cross the Pacific Ocean to take on Japanese teams in exhibition play, before battling each other in a season-opening two-game series March 25-26 at Tokyo. And the league-owned Montreal Expos will play 22 regular-season games at San Juan, Puerto Rico, while a buyer is sought for the financially troubled franchise.

The Expos' road show and Mexican exhibition games have fueled speculation that Major League Baseball is looking to expand south of the border. Commissioner Bud Selig said earlier this month that the Mexican cities of Monterrey and Mexico City top the list of foreign sites under consideration for expansion, but he said all talks were preliminary and there was no timetable for such a move.

But while the game Saturday was well received by fans in Mexico City, some doubted the city could sustain a big-league franchise over the long haul. Longtime Dodger fan Jesus Sanchez, 71, and his brother Carlos gladly shelled out $70 each for seats. But they said neither they nor anyone else they knew could afford to do that regularly. "Too expensive," said Carlos of ticket prices for the Dodger-Met series, which ranged from $8 to $150.

Daniel Unno, who was decked out in Dodger gear along with his wife Alejandra and their young son Santiago, said baseball will never be the favorite pastime south of the border.

"I'm trying to turn Santiago into a baseball fan, but his uncles keep talking to him about soccer," Unno said. "Soccer is still everything here."

Still, even if Mexico never gets a major league franchise, fans at Foro Sol said they enjoy following the careers of Latin players.

The only Mexican-born player on the Dodgers' 40-man roster is Victor Alvarez, a left-handed reliever who did not pitch Saturday. In his rookie season last year, the 26-year-old was 0-1 with a 4.35 earned-run average in four games.

Hardly the stuff of Valenzuela, who started his major league career with eight consecutive victories and was the first rookie to win the Cy Young Award. But Alvarez was nevertheless greeted warmly when his name was announced to the crowd as the teams were introduced.

"It's difficult to live up to [Valenzuela's] standard but it's not impossible," Alvarez said. "I just have to work and keep improving."

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