Chris Roberson and his Mexican-American dream

Chris Roberson had a total of 72 plate appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006 and 2007. Darron Cummings / AP

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- A little over a decade ago, Chris Roberson was gearing up to represent his country.

Team USA wanted him to suit up, and the Oakland, California, native -- then 26 years old -- was prepared to don the red, white and blue for the Olympic qualifier, held in Cuba.

However, when the Philadelphia Phillies informed Roberson he'd be called up for the second half of the 2006 season, the outfielder's prior commitment was quietly -- and understandably -- put aside.

"It was just a situation where it wasn't my choice," Roberson said. He was a promising young ballplayer going through his rookie year, and it made sense that the big league club took preponderance over country.

It turned out, it was among his final tastes of Major League Baseball.

Roberson played 57 games for the Phillies in 2006 and 28 in 2007. Following a pair of transactions moving him to Baltimore and later Arizona's minor league affiliates, his time in American baseball came to an end in 2009. His career was far from over, though. South of the border, Roberson's star was just beginning to rise. Like many major league hopefuls, Roberson had been extending his seasons by engaging in Latin American winter ball.

Mexico, his late-year destination since 2005, became his year-round home in 2010 when the Monterrey Sultanes of Mexico's Summer League signed him to a contract. All told, Roberson has spent almost 12 years in the country, where he is now a citizen, married to a Mexican woman and father to two Mexican-American daughters.

It was through his wife, Yaneth, that Roberson decided on making a bigger commitment to the nation. After all, Mexico had allowed him to extend his career and become a bona fide star within its borders. Following his decision to pursue citizenship, Yaneth prepared him by peppering the outfielder with Mexican history questions and even guided him on a field trip to see some of the country's most important landmarks.

When the paperwork came through last year, buzz quickly shifted to Roberson potentially being on Team Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez's short list for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

"My wife told me, 'There's a chance here. Be ready.' I didn't want to put that stress on myself. I just wanted to keep playing. When they called me, it was for real then," Roberson said, smiling.

Just as Roberson, 37, is happy to rep his nation, Gonzalez has been glowing in regard to the commitment that Chris and other Mexican-Americans have shown on their way to representing the country for the tournament. "They come to us, they tell us they want to play for Mexico," said Gonzalez, himself a dual citizen.

In Roberson's case, the manager recalls plenty of excitement when the newly minted Mexican citizen was confirmed on the roster. "I wanted to scream and start running around," Gonzalez said.

It was somewhat safe to assume Roberson was up to the task, as he had already represented the country in a way.

Winter ball in Latin America reaches a crescendo with the Caribbean Series, a five-nation tournament pitting league champions from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic against each other since 1949. When the games are underway, teams put aside their usual uniforms representing a single city or region and instead wear jerseys identifying them as their country's representative. Because foreign players are allowed, Caribbean Series teams are not true national teams, but they still evoke a strong sense of patriotism and pride for fans and players.

Though the issue of dual nationals representing Mexico is a thorny one when it comes to soccer, the country's most popular sport by far, people have been far more accepting of them in baseball.

"He's put in his time, he's earned this," said former big leaguer Karim Garcia, who played with Roberson in both Hermosillo and Monterrey. "Look at the way he plays; he goes hard out there. When he puts on that Mexico jersey, you can tell he's very happy to do so."

"I thought everything was going to be different. ... But when you spend time there, you get to understand how people think, what the culture is and how you need to make your adjustments too. If you can make those adjustments, you're going to get a different aspect of how everything is here." Chris Roberson, Team Mexico

Roberson thinks his heroics in the 2014 Caribbean Series, where he was named MVP and led Mexico to victory, helped his chances to make the jump to the full national team as soon as he was eligible. Despite the prior experience, Roberson said he was still anxious about the real thing, recalling the itch he felt during the last World Baseball Classic, when he watched Mexico from the stands in Phoenix.

"A couple of fans recognized me and asked me why I wasn't playing," Roberson said. "I had to remind them I wasn't a citizen yet."

Because of Mexico's two-league system, Roberson is now a revered figure for fans in more than one locale. In both Hermosillo and Mexicali, his former and current winter league clubs, he's held in high regard in no small part because of his Caribbean Series MVP run.

That pales in comparison to how he's perceived in Monterrey. At home games, Roberson's plate appearances are unanimously greeted with wild cheering.

"It means a lot for the country to think about me like that," Roberson said. "There have been a lot of guys to come through here, foreign guys. They don't make moves like that [for them]."

Regardless of his stardom at the club level, Roberson is more role player than standout for Team Mexico. It is a role he embraces, seeing time in the first round of the WBC despite starting games on the bench.

"Guys play ball together in winter ball, the big leagues, Japan," Roberson said. "Everyone knows each other and everyone has their respect. Everybody's passed [alongside] each other over the years. Everyone wants to win; that's the main focus."

Despite the varying origins of Team Mexico's players -- nine were born in the United States, including Roberson -- manager Gonzalez has made it a point about the team communicating mainly in Spanish. It's no problem for Roberson, who says speaking Spanish is now a way of life for him, whether it's at the ballpark or at home with his family.

Like many immigrants, Roberson has added to the local culture while ingratiating and adapting himself to the surrounding society.

"I thought everything was going to be different. Then when you get there, it is different, the language is different," he said. "But when you spend time there, you get to understand how people think, what the culture is and how you need to make your adjustments, too. If you can make those adjustments, you're going to get a different aspect of how everything is here."

It has been 11 years since Chris Roberson gave up his chance at international representation for his big league dream. In a sense, he has come full circle.

He's a star in his country's highest level of baseball, and is representing his nation -- the country of his wife and children -- in international play.

"It's been awesome," he said. "[When I was younger] I put stuff on myself because I expected to be in the big leagues. And here I am today, talking to you at the World Baseball Classic."