By CARLOS RODRÍGUEZ, AP Sports Writer
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Major League Baseball is heading south of the border again to play a regular season series. After previous stops in Monterrey, Mexico City will be the host this time, and the timing seems perfect.
The San Diego Padres will play against the San Francisco Giants next weekend at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú in the country’s capital, where fans are eager to watch more baseball after Mexico’s deep run at the World Baseball Classic in March.
Bolstered by Cuban defector Randy Arozarena and Mexican-born big leaguers like Julio Urías and José Urquidy, Mexico made it to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Japan. The journey included a stunning victory over the United States in Phoenix with tens of thousands of Team Mexico fans on hand.
“Those two weeks of the World Baseball Classic are probably the ones where everybody was talking about baseball across the country more than ever before,” said Horacio de la Vega, the president of the Mexican Baseball League.
“Clearly that outcome of the tournament is giving us a boost. We have packed stadiums in preseason games, while in the past we used to have them at 10 to 20 percent capacity,” added de la Vega in an interview with the Associated Press. “We have an unprecedented appetite for baseball.”
That interest in baseball was evident in the preseason but also last weekend when Liga Mexicana de Béisbol played the first series of the regular season.
In the capital, fans flooded the gates of Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú for a three-day series featuring the local Diablos Rojos del México playing against the Tigres de Quintana Roo.
“I’ve been a Diablos Rojos fan my whole life, so this is not a new passion for me. But I’ve known a lot of people that have been asking me recently about the sport and that they want to come and see it for themselves,” said Ramiro Aguirre, a 35-year-old accountant who was at the stadium for the opening series.
The $150 million Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú opened in March of 2019 and has a 20,000-seat capacity with six outdoor terraces and food courts alongside a trident spear-shaped roof made of steel.
The stadium was built on public land next to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez by Alfredo Harp Helú, a Mexican millionaire who is also a minority owner with the Padres.
Harp Helú, who also owns the Diablos Rojos, has a long-time desire to have a major league team in Mexico, but that idea might not happen anytime soon.
“I’ve never been close to the idea of Mexico as an expansion opportunity,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this week at a meeting with sports editors in the U.S. “If you’re going to expand, you think about it. I think the challenges are facility based. Even the stadium that we’re playing in this weekend is probably not big enough for a permanent home for a major league club. And then our season is so long, I have a union issue there that would have to be bargained to get players to live for that long in Mexico.
MLB still has big goals for Mexico though. Manfred hopes it can become a sort of North American equivalent to Japan, with “vibrant, domestic professional play, with star players getting the opportunity to come and play Major League Baseball.”
Notably, Japan has strong MLB viewership, and Manfred would love for the league to generate revenue from Mexico in a similar fashion.
Local games are being broadcast this season by the three major networks in Mexico: Televisa, TV Azteca and Imagen TV. Games are also available on ESPN, Fox Sports and Amazon Prime, among others. MLB games can be seen on Televisa, Imagen, ESPN and Fox Sports.
“We have three contracts for national networks that we did not have in 2022 and we are reaching 30 countries, something that never happened before,” said de la Vega, who added that Liga Mexicana de Béisbol has a streaming service to provide all the games and highlights for free.
“What we’ve done with the TV is nothing minor. We understood that the way to consume baseball has changed, everybody is on a cellphone now, and this helps us to have a larger audience,” he added.
MLB established an office in Mexico in 2016 that, among other things, has been working to promote the sport with kids.
“Our goal is to keep having major league regular season games until 2026, and we want to keep widening the fan base, we want more young people as well as women,” Rodrigo Fernández, director of the MLB office in Mexico, told the Associated Press.
Recently, Fernández and MLB in Mexico organized an MLB Cup for boys 11 to 12 years old and for girls under 15.
Although Fernández agrees that the World Baseball Classic helped increase the sport’s popularity in Mexico, he says the number of fans has been growing steadily over the past few years.
“A lot of Mexicans watched the team play in the World Baseball Classic and said ‘Wow, we are the third best team in the world,’ and now they are looking and paying more attention to the sport. But that does not mean that we are just a trend or that all the things we’ve done in seven years did not have an effect,” Fernández said.
Mexico first hosted MLB games in August 1996, when the Padres and Mexican ace Fernando Valenzuela faced the New York Mets in Monterrey. The Padres faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018, and in 2019 the Cincinnati Reds played the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros faced the Los Angeles Angels.
Mexico City was due to host a series between the Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2020, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now MLB is finally coming back, and it may be the most anticipated series yet.