Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.
TIJUANA, Mexico -- The kids from Tijuana’s municipal league were gathered at a park named after a local Major League Baseball player, Andrés Berumen, on a recent spring afternoon. Having just completed an hour-long training session, the 8- and 9-year-olds listened to their manager barking instructions before they were pointedly interrupted and asked to name their favorite baseball team.
“San Diego Padres,” said one, provoking a ripple of giggles.
And why not? Tijuana is, after all, only 18 miles from Petco Park, home of the Padres on the other side of the U.S. border.
“Los Doyers,” blurted another one, proudly adjusting his oversized cap to a chorus of approval.
It comes as no surprise that the mighty Dodgers are also popular here. Loyalty is seemingly split in these parts. The Padres are looking at ways to expand their reach and win fans over in places beyond their figurative backyard.
“We want to become the team of Mexico,” said Tom Seidler, the Padres’ senior vice president of community and military affairs. “Historically, there’s been a focus on Tijuana and Baja California. But we want to keep growing.”
That is precisely what the Padres intend to do, fanning out once again to play ball across Mexico. On Friday, they open a three-game series against the Dodgers in sprawling Monterrey, a commercial hub and the third-largest metro area in Mexico, after the capital, Mexico City, and Guadalajara. This will be the third time the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey has hosted a regular-season MLB series in Mexico. In 1996, the Padres squared off against the New York Mets; three years later, they faced the Colorado Rockies.
In addition, the Padres hosted the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, from the summer league, at Petco Park in the 2015 preseason. A year later, San Diego played two exhibition games in Mexico City against the Houston Astros. In the rarified air, at 7,380 feet above sea level, the teams combined for 39 runs in two games.
The Dodgers are just one team the Padres will need to overtake not just on the diamond, but also in popularity, to reach their objectives south of the border. To become Mexico's team, the Padres still have their work cut out.
A recent study conducted by MLB ranks the Padres as Mexico's eighth-most-popular team. The Yankees are first, the Dodgers are second and the Red Sox are third. The Cubs, Astros, Giants and Blue Jays (with Mexican pitchers Jaime Garcia, Marco Estrada and Roberto Osuna all on the Toronto staff) all rank above San Diego. The data was based on Mexican fans’ selection of their favorite teams on the MLB At Bat mobile app.
During the course of the franchise’s history, the Padres have forged a consistent relationship with Mexico. In 1997, the team refurbished Campo Andrés Berumen as part of its Little Padres Parks program to provide quality fields for youth. The diamond is named for Berumen, the Tijuana native who played for the team in 1995-96.
The Padres were also the first to place an official team store outside the United States and Canada, operating one in Tijuana in 1996-2016. The store sold Padres tickets and gear, and even operated a shuttle to Petco Park. It was shuttered to make way for a partnership with Tijuana’s Liga Mexicana de Béisbol team, the Toros, which then became the outlet for Padres merchandise in Tijuana.
Further, Mexican billionaire Alfredo Harp Helú is a minority owner of the Padres, purchasing a stake in 2012. A lifelong baseball fan, Harp Helú has been the sole owner of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos summer-league team since 1994, and is believed to be the only Mexican national who is a member of an MLB ownership group. (The Los Angeles Angels' owner, Arte Moreno, is Mexican-American).
Though the Padres are the closest big league team to the Mexican border, affinity for the Dodgers stems in large part due to the club’s association with legendary pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, a native of Navojoa, Mexico.
“I became a Dodgers fan, like many my age, because of Fernando,” said Oscar Robles, a former infielder and Tijuana native who played with both the Dodgers and Padres from 2005-07. “Since I was a child, that was my dream, to play for Fernando’s team.”
Valenzuela’s decade-long stint with the Dodgers was punctuated in popularity by the 1981 season. The pitcher won both the National League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, as part of a Dodgers squad that won the World Series over the Yankees. The superlative performances spawned Fernando-mania, with heightened attention around his starts.
“No single player created more baseball fans than Fernando," said Jaime Jarrín, the Dodgers’ longtime Spanish-language radio play-by-play announcer. "People in Mexico, Central America and South America became fans of the Dodgers.”
Towards the tail end of his career, Valenzuela joined the Padres from 1995-97, and started for them in the first MLB regular-season game played in Mexico; El Toro got the win in a 15-10 victory over the New York Mets on Aug. 16, 1996. Valenzuela even took part in the pregame festivities, tossing out the game’s first pitch in front of a delighted crowd at the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey.
“In Mexico, Fernando is the transcendent name and talent,” Seidler said. “The Padres share a piece of his history, but Fernando-mania was with the Dodgers. We may have that [in the future].”
A few Padres players in the pipeline could potentially catch the attention of fans in Mexico. One of them is 20-year-old Luis Urias. Born in Sonora -- the state Valenzuela also hails from -- he is baseball’s second-ranked prospect at second base.
Urias started the season at Triple-A El Paso, opening the door for a potential call-up at some point this season. Further down the pipeline is outfielder Tirso Ornelas, an 18-year-old Tijuana native currently with the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps.
“I think it’s very important for the Padres to have Mexican players fans can identify,” Robles said.
Though Urias and Ornelas have yet to reach the big leagues, red-hot third baseman Christian Villanueva has impressed Padres fans and management with his performance this season.
The 26-year-old Villanueva was named NL Rookie of the Month for April on Wednesday. Villanueva hit .338, with eight home runs and 19 RBIs during the month, and led all rookies in hits, RBI, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored and total bases.
“In Christian, if we have a Mexican player who gets fans watching baseball, that’s great,” Seidler said. “We want him to be in a Padres uniform -- it’s terrific for the game in Mexico.”
Once a top-100 prospect with the Cubs, Villanueva was stranded behind Kris Bryant in the team’s farm system. After signing as a free agent with the Padres in 2016, the Guadalajara native finally got a crack at the big leagues after eight seasons in the minors as a September call-up in 2017.
“It was really special,” Villanueva said in a telephone interview. “At the same time, you think about what comes next, and how you can stay [in the majors] for a long time.”
The third baseman is already being marketed as one of the players to watch in the upcoming series in Monterrey.
“I’m happy to be recognized by so many people [in Mexico],” Villanueva said. “I’ve worked very hard and thank God I’m reaping the rewards.”
Despite the fact that Arizona native Alex Verdugo of the Dodgers represented Mexico at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Villanueva figures to be the only Mexican-born player on either roster. His performance thus far this season means he’ll most likely bear the brunt of attention in Monterrey.
Though Seidler and the Padres are not expecting a level of excitement akin to the glory days of Fernando-mania, there is a hope the event is an exciting step toward the franchise's ultimate goal of overtaking its rival as Mexico’s most popular team.
“Hopefully we have exciting, competitive games," Seidler said. "It would be great if Villanueva got a big hit and excites the fans there. I think it would be really exciting for us; anything that grows the fan base is great.”
After Major League Baseball announced annual games in Mexico through 2021, Seidler and the Padres are hoping they can be a consistent part of proceedings south of the border.
“If we could be a part of those games in Mexico, regardless of where they’re played -- Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico City or elsewhere -- that would be tremendous.”