LA JOLLA — The San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, which separates San Diego County from neighboring Tijuana, is the world’s most congested border checkpoint, with armed federal officers from two countries and drug-sniffing dogs moving between long lines of cars.
For some, it’s a symbol of division. For Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, it’s a bridge linking the places that shaped him as a ballplayer and person.
Born in the United States to Mexican parents, Gonzalez is fluent and literate in English and Spanish, having been raised on both sides of the border in a blend of the cultures.
“I’m Mexican and I’m American,” he says.
That’s evident in his tastes. While he admired how former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela broke down cultural barriers, his childhood hero was San Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Gonzalez watches both football and futbol, supporting the San Diego Chargers and Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. He sings to his 13-month-old daughter in Spanish during the day and watches reruns of “The King of Queens” at night.
If Fernandomania made baseball appealing in the 1980s to Mexican immigrants who previously had little or no interest in the sport, Gonzalez is positioned to connect with their more culturally assimilated offspring.
The Dodgers estimate that 40% of their fans are Latino. Of that group, 60% are bilingual, according to a study recently commissioned by the team.
“He looks like our community, he reflects our community,” says Lon Rosen, the Dodgers’ chief marketing officer.
The Dodgers used Gonzalez’s crossover appeal to their advantage this winter. No player made more public appearances than Gonzalez, who volunteered to make frequent trips to Los Angeles from his offseason home in La Jolla.
He was part of a roundtable discussion that aired on ESPN Deportes and co-hosted a Sunday sports highlights show on Channel 9. He spoke in two languages to potential advertisers of the Dodgers’ Spanish-language broadcasts. As the captain of Team Mexico for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, he held a news conference in Mexico City to unveil the roster. He also participated in the Dodgers’ community caravan around the Southland and attended a charity event hosted by Manager Don Mattingly.
“Being bilingual and bicultural, he’s been able to spread the Dodgers brand everywhere,” Rosen says.
Gonzalez’s ability to effortlessly cross boundaries, both real and imagined, was something his parents wanted for him.
Almost 40 years ago, when David and Alba Gonzalez thought of starting a family, they knew that where their children were born would affect what opportunities they had.
“We wanted our children to be born in the United States,” David says. “We wanted them to learn English and study in the United States.” So even though David owned a successful air-conditioning business in Tijuana, he and his wife settled in the San Diego area. David used to commute daily to Mexico for work until shortly after the birth of Adrian, his third son.
Wanting his boys to learn Mexican family values, David moved the family to Tijuana.
“In Mexico, families are very close,” David says. “Our children don’t leave the house when they’re 18. They stay with us until they’re married.”
Adrian and his older brothers, David Jr. and Edgar, learned baseball in Tijuana, where baseball has historically been more popular than soccer. And the competition, especially among young boys, is fierce.
“At the younger age groups, the level is higher in Tijuana than it is in the United States,” Edgar says.
But while Tijuana provided a solid foundation for the Gonzalez boys, the family returned to the San Diego area when Adrian was in the fourth grade. The primary purpose for relocating was for the children to attend high school and college in the United States. There were baseball reasons too.
For older boys, the better competition and opportunities came north of the border, with high-level club and scholastic teams, access to more fields and an emphasis on weight lifting and training.
Adrian started working with a personal physical trainer between his sophomore and junior years at Eastlake High in Chula Vista. And he continued to benefit from his ties to Mexico, with his father driving him to games in Tijuana against older and more experienced players.
As a senior, Adrian was selected by the Florida Marlins with the first overall pick of the 2000 draft.
Edgar, in particular, wonders how his and Adrian’s lives would have unfolded had they not moved to the United States.
Four years older than Adrian, Edgar was undrafted out of high school but was able to continue playing in college. He was taken in the 30th round of the 2000 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays and reached the major leagues in 2008 with the San Diego Padres as a utilityman. He played in Japan last season.
“I don’t think I would have played professional baseball,” Edgar says. “When I got out of high school, I was 145 pounds. I gained 25 pounds in college because of weight lifting. Adrian probably still would have been drafted, but not No. 1 overall.”
A player is eligible for baseball’s amateur draft only if he attends school in the United States. Mexico’s top players typically sign as teenagers with teams from the domestic professional league. But if a major league team later becomes interested, the Mexican pro team is under no obligation to let them go. If they do, it’s usually in exchange for a significant percentage of the player’s signing bonus.
That’s what happened to Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz, whose $900,000 signing bonus from the Boston Red Sox was split with Diablos Rojos of Mexico City. Cruz was fortunate; had his father not been a former professional player, the Mexican team would have taken more.
“If your father wasn’t a professional, they take 75%,” Cruz says.
Gonzalez, then 18, collected a $3-million signing bonus from the Marlins in 2000.
Gonzalez spent his first professional seasons with the Marlins before he was traded to Texas. But with the Rangers, his path to the majors was blocked by All-Star Mark Teixeira, who also played first base.
Gonzalez received his big break when he was traded to his hometown Padres before the 2006 season. In San Diego, he became an everyday player for the first time and quickly established himself as one of the league’s premier offensive and defensive players.
But the small-market Padres couldn’t afford to hold on to him. Leading up to the 2011 season, they traded him to the Red Sox, who signed him to a seven-year, $154-million contract extension. When the Red Sox dismantled their flailing team last summer, the four-time All-Star was sent to the Dodgers along with Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto.
Gonzalez had never lived in Los Angeles, but the city’s multiethnic atmosphere and cuisine were familiar to him. He scouted the Pasadena area for tacos. He took a particularly liking to a restaurant in Paramount that served tortas ahogadas. He also found a meat market in East Los Angeles where he could buy carne asada.
“The owner is from Guadalajara, which is where my wife is from,” he says.
L.A. felt like the right place for him to continue his community work. When he played for the Padres, he and wife Betsy established a foundation to help underprivileged children.
Gonzalez became involved with Padres Contra El Cancer, a Los Angeles-based organization that supports cancer-stricken Latino children and their families. He attended a Christmas party the Dodgers threw for local schoolchildren. A few days later, he and Betsy bought thousands of toys and handed them out in East Los Angeles.
“The warm reception that Adrian received when he was traded here last year, that will be the start of a relationship he has with the people,” Valenzuela says. “Adrian always gives 100%, not only on the field but also in the community. The people will feel that. They will feel he is a part of them.”
Gonzalez’s charitable works extend to Mexico, where he paid to restore and improve a baseball field at the sports complex where he first learned how to hit. But even though he still quietly visits Tijuana for family gatherings, he is required to take precautions when making public appearances because of violence and the threat of kidnapping in Mexico.
Carlos Bustamante, Tijuana’s mayor, named Gonzalez one of Tijuana’s 30 exemplary citizens and honored him in a public ceremony in November. Gonzalez’s brother Edgar was also recognized.
The brothers traveled to the event with an armed escort. Several police cars waited for them and their parents at the Mexican border. The procession traversed Tijuana’s congested surface streets at speeds reaching 70 mph, past a dusty landscape of dilapidated pastel-colored houses and shacks, automobile repair shops and American fast-food restaurants.
The mayor describes the Gonzalezes as symbols of hope for a region that has become a battleground in the Mexican drug war.
“What Tijuana needs are positive examples like them, so people don’t continue to follow the examples of the drug traffickers,” Bustamante says. “This is a family that exemplifies dedication, discipline and success. They are an example to all of us.”
Gonzalez says the extra work and precaution to visit Tijuana is worth it. He doesn’t want his family ties to Mexico to end with him.
He and his wife intend to raise their daughter, Brianna, to be bilingual and bicultural.
“We speak to her in Spanish right now,” Adrian says. “Every song we sing to her, everything we teach her, it’s all in Spanish. She’s going to learn English in school.
“We don’t want our grandkids to not speak Spanish. If we pass it on to her, she can pass it on to her kids. We want to keep the traditions. We want to keep the customs. We want to keep the lifestyle Mexican.”