There still is talk, and little else, of MLB expansion in Mexico

MONTERREY, Mexico – Located at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, the saddle-shaped peak of Cerro de la Silla sits over the center-field bleachers, framing a direct view from home plate at Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey in Mexico’s third-largest city. The sight of dense, unseasonable gray clouds obscuring the landmark made it hard for even locals to point it out.

“I mean, I know you can’t really see it -- but it’s there,” said Ricardo Alvarado, a 44-year-old insurance agent and Monterrey native, referring to the imposing mountain. “If the clouds don’t clear up, there’s plenty of pictures of it,” said Ricardo’s father, Jose, a 73-year-old retiree.

Steady rain and sharp winds were prevalent in the first two games of a three-game series this past weekend between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, Major League Baseball’s quintessential Southern California teams, along with the Los Angeles Angels.

The combination of factors between the towering mountain range and the unseasonable weather highlighted that these games were being played in a different locale than the impossibly sunny confines of Petco Park or Dodger Stadium. The willingness to power through despite the conditions appeared to symbolize the league’s commitment to make baseball work outside the usual settings.

Major League Baseball’s first regular-season games in Mexico since 1999 will live on in the record books. On Friday, the Dodgers threw the first combined no-hitter in franchise history and also completed MLB’s first no-no outside the United States and Canada. The Padres fought back over the weekend, winning the next two and claiming the Mexico Series.

Sold-out crowds noisily rooted throughout, though fans saved their loudest cheers for Mexican-American Alex Verdugo of the Dodgers and Mexican-born Christian Villanueva of the Padres.

“What a great atmosphere. How fun for our club to come down to Monterrey and enjoy the fans, the city and play in such a great venue,” said Padres manager Andy Green after the series wrapped on Sunday.

Over the course of the series, Verdugo went 2-for-11 with an RBI and a spectacular diving catch in foul ground on Saturday, while Villanueva, the NL Rookie of the Month for April, struggled, going 0-for-11 with a walk and a run scored.

“He’s tried to do too much -- he needs the game to come to him and he’ll be fine,” said Green.

The games were also accompanied by the usual talk of whether Mexico, and Monterrey specifically, could one day be the home to an expansion team.

On Friday night, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged that the league is looking to expand, telling Fox Sports San Diego he “would like to get to 32” teams from the existing 30. When asked specifically, Manfred acknowledged Monterrey and Montreal as international options.

Though Manfred has talked about the Mexican market in the past, the possibility received a new wave of support over the weekend.

“Of course,” said Mike Brito, the Dodgers’ longtime scout. “Mexico loves baseball. It is the most beautiful country in Latin America and the world,” he continued, smiling.

Walking through the concourse of the newly renovated Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey, Brito posed for a seemingly endless stream of photos with fans. At his side, Jose Maiz, the president of Monterrey’s Liga Mexicana de Béisbol team, the Sultanes, agreed with Brito’s assessment.

“I’ve always said it: Mexico will have a Major League Baseball team someday. And the city to host that team will be Monterrey,” said Maiz.

Maiz, who in 1994 made his first formal bid for a MLB franchise in Monterrey, cited the excitement displayed from fans in attendance as proof it could work. Throughout the weekend, fans packed the 22,061-seater, having gobbled up tickets and selling out the series within hours after they went on sale last February.

Throughout the weekend, the accommodations in Monterrey received rave reviews from the visiting brigade.

“I do think it’s a smart idea to expand,” said Eric Hosmer, the Padres first baseman, who hit two home runs in the series. “Facilities-wise, the stadium, it’s definitely good enough to be a major league stadium. It’s good the game recognizes there are fans all over.”

Fernando Valenzuela, who started and won for the Padres in 1996 when Major League Baseball played its first series in Monterrey, stretched his praise for the city as well as the park.

“I consider this stadium, and this city, to be apt for a big league team,” said Valenzuela, the fabled Mexican pitcher who won 173 MLB games from 1980 to 1997 with six MLB franchises, including the Dodgers and Padres. “A lot of things depend on it, sure, but I don’t see any problem.”

However, one of the obstacles to the dream becoming reality could be the stadium itself. Built in 1990 and remodeled this year, the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey is smaller in capacity than all of MLB’s existing ballparks. Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays, is presently the smallest stadium in the big leagues with 31,042 seats, or nearly 9,000 more than Monterrey.

Rodrigo Fernandez, head of MLB’s offices in Mexico, told ESPN in August that a stadium in the “40,000 to 45,000 seat” range is what is needed in order to truly compete for a franchise.

The limited seating in Monterrey also caps attendance revenue for a franchise that would need to charge its patrons in weaker Mexican pesos, not U.S. dollars. Ricardo Alvarado and his father, for instance, said they would likely not be inclined to buy season tickets if they were offered at an extrapolation of last weekend’s prices. For the three games, the cheapest seat in Monterrey was 385 pesos, or 19.75 U.S. dollars.

When asked about expanding capacity to meet the standards reflected in Fernandez’s comments, Maiz was undeterred.

“We’ve got some space to expand in [the bleachers],” said Maiz. “If not, we could build a new stadium,” he continued, admitting that would be a distant probability in the short-term.

Beyond stadium capacity, other problems stand in the way of MLB and Mexico turning their flirtation into something more solid.

“The security issue is the biggest problem,” said José Alvarado, a lifelong Monterrey resident who attended the Padres’ 3-0 win on Sunday. “The violence and the cartels here affect us every day.”

Just a few days before the Padres and Dodgers touched down, Monterrey ended April amid a grim wave of violence, with 56 homicides on record for the month. The metro area of 4.5 million has tallied more than 200 murders in 2018, according to the government of the state of Nuevo León, where Monterrey is located. In 2017, Nuevo León saw a murder rate of 12.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, the third consecutive year in which the number rose.

Despite the socioeconomic and security issues surrounding Mexico and Monterrey specifically, MLB has committed to an extended audition period with the country, awarding yearly regular-season series to Mexico until 2021 as part of the league’s international expansion.

Aside from Monterrey, cities like Hermosillo and Culiacán have built modern stadiums that have garnered praise from MLB’s top brass. Initially, this year’s series was planned for Mexico City, but a new baseball-specific stadium has been bogged down by delays, prompting the locale switch.

The dream of Major League Baseball expanding into Monterrey is alive and well, even if there’s no timetable for it. However, the hope of more games coming in the near future could allow for plenty of chances to experience the city in its entire splendor, including the usually unobscured panoramic shots of Cerro de la Silla crowning over a ballpark.