Dodgers, Padres playing with full decks in Monterrey

Inside-the-park view of a refurbished Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey, where the Padres and Dodgers will play three games this weekend. Courtesy of Sultanes de Monterrey

MONTERREY, Mexico -- Blink for a minute at the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey and you might think you’re at a bona fide big league ballpark.

The home of the upcoming sold-out Mexico Series between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers underwent a $5.2 million facelift earlier this year in preparation for Mexico’s first MLB regular-season games in 19 years. Monterrey, a metropolis of about 4.5 million in the country’s northeastern sector, will play host to MLB regular season games for a third time, having already done so in 1996 and 1999.

To prepare for Major League Baseball’s arrival, concrete benches in the bleachers were replaced with seats, setting capacity to 22,061 at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey. A second big-screen monitor was put in over the right-center field and the clubhouse and dugouts were remodeled. The audio system was revamped, and an LED lighting system was installed to illuminate the all-new artificial turf.

“Be prepared. When you get to that stadium, it’s on the level with some of the best in Major League Baseball,” said Chris Roberson, a 38-year-old former Phillies outfielder on his eighth season with Monterrey’s summer-league team, the Sultanes de Monterrey.

Roberson is confident the stadium will amaze the fans who visit it this weekend. The ninth-round 2001 draft selection for Philadelphia, Roberson’s career in the majors spanned all of 85 games from 2006 to 2007. After time with Triple-A affiliates for the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Oakland native made Mexico his year-round home in 2010, playing for Monterrey in the summer, Hermosillo and later Mexicali in the winter under Mexico’s year-round baseball schedule.

“It would’ve been nice to stay and watch the games live,” said Roberson. “Say hi to some old teammates, but it is what it is.”

A California native, Roberson is a dual Mexican citizen through his marriage to Mexican-born Yaneth, and played for Team Mexico at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. With Sultanes, Roberson’s average has never dipped below .300 in his eight seasons. They call him Mr. Consistencia, and he once hit for the cycle in 2014.

“The fans here are great, the support is always huge. It’s just a baseball town,” Roberson said.

Monterrey is the only city in Mexico to ever host MLB regular season games. It has also long been a destination for major American sports leagues when it comes to exporting their product south of the border.

In August 1996, the Padres moved three home games to Monterrey, playing against the New York Mets. In 1999, the Padres and Rockies celebrated the first Opening Day game played outside the United States or Canada. And 19 years later, Monterrey will once again play host to the Friars -- this time against the Dodgers.

The NFL awarded Monterrey a preseason game as part of the American Bowl series, featuring the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 5, 1996 -- just 11 days before the Padres and Mets squared off in the city. The Chiefs overwhelmed the defending champion Cowboys 32-6 in front of a sold-out crowd at the Estadio Universitario, a soccer stadium located in the same complex as the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey.

The NBA has also found its way to the city, staging a preseason game in 2006 between the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. The game featured Mexican-born Nuggets forward Eduardo Nájera at the Arena Monterrey. Three years later, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Phoenix Suns faced off in Monterrey.

Though Monterrey has managed to attract three major American sports leagues, baseball remains the favorite among fans -- after fútbol of course. The city is home to the widely supported and successful Tigres UANL and the Rayados of Mexico’s Liga MX. Nevertheless, Sultanes executives are intent on expanding the relationship to the point of bringing an MLB expansion team to the city at some point, even if it’s in the distant future.

“I’ve always said it, someday Mexico will have a big league team and the city [the team will play in] is Monterrey,” said Sultanes president José Maiz last November, at the unveiling event for this May’s series between the Padres and the Dodgers.

Maiz has been associated with the sport since childhood. As a child, he pitched and played outfield for the first foreign team ever to win the Little League World Series. On Aug. 23, 1957, with Monterrey’s Industrial Little League squad, Maiz was on the field for the only perfect game in a Little League World Series final, besting La Mesa, California by a score of 4-0.

As an adult, Maiz became a successful businessman and the owner of Constructora Maiz Mier, a construction company in Monterrey. In 1986, he took over Sultanes, guiding the team to four Mexican summer league league titles.

Eight years later, when Major League Baseball was taking applications for the expansion franchises (eventually awarded to Phoenix and Tampa), Maiz submitted a bid for Monterrey.

A financial crisis in Mexico, in which the peso lost much of its value in December 1994, later dubbed the “Tequila Effect,” forced Maiz to withdraw his bid.

In 2004, when the Montreal Expos, then under MLB’s direct administration, were being shopped around to different markets before their eventual move to Washington, D.C., Maiz once again pushed for Monterrey.

At the time, Maiz was competing for a 22-game package, with the eventual hope of convincing MLB they were ready for a full-time franchise. Though then-commissioner Bud Selig called Monterrey’s bid “formidable”, the games were eventually awarded to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the 2004 season.

With more games on the horizon, Monterrey is once again keen to make its case.

“There is truly a large opportunity to have a Major League team in Mexico,” said Rodrigo Fernández, General Manager of MLB Mexico.

Though Fernández and Commissioner Rob Manfred have spoken highly of one day moving into the Mexican market for good, the possibility still seems set for the long-term.

“We don’t have a big league stadium in Mexico,” said Fernández. “I’m referring to one with 40 to 45,000 seats, with all the amenities you’d find in the United States.”

That statement seemingly rules out Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey, with a capacity of about half the number Fernández and MLB require.

Roberson, nevertheless is confident about what his stadium -- and his city -- can offer. Perhaps expansion is not realistic in the short term, but a positive impression in Monterrey this weekend could make MLB look to the city again in the future.

“I’m telling you, they’re going to be impressed," Roberson said. "That place, with those fans [this] weekend -- it’s going to be amazing.”