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Why pitcher Kyle Farnsworth took his talents south of the border

After 16 major league seasons, Kyle Farnsworth pitched in Mexico the past two years. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Farnsworth is 40 years old and hasn't pitched in the majors since 2014. You might recall that he made headlines a year ago by somewhat secretly joining the Orlando Phantoms, a semipro football team.

But none of that means Farnsworth is retired from baseball. He has been toiling the past two seasons in the Mexican League, and if his well-traveled past is any indication, there's no telling where his next move will take him.

At first glance, Farnsworth, who gained 15 pounds in muscle after exiting the big leagues, has a 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame that seems tailor made for football, and his tackling technique in his 2003 takedown of the Cincinnati Reds' Paul Wilson showed that he had a knack for the game. But 38 isn't an ideal age to start a long-haul football career.

After he amassed 11 sacks in 2015 as a defensive end for the Phantoms, Farnsworth immediately turned back to baseball. Despite a track record of 16 big league seasons pitching for nine teams, including the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, he couldn't persuade anyone in MLB to give him another chance, so he ventured south and joined the Pericos de Puebla for the second half of the 2015 Mexican League season. (The Mexican League is classified as a Triple-A circuit, but it's the top level of baseball in the country.)

"I knew I still wanted to play, still wanted to compete, and [I thought I could] do well," he said. "I still have the fire in me. The Mexican League came along and gave me an opportunity to continue my dream."

Likely aware that Farnsworth's body had been exposed to the rigors of football, Puebla team president Juan Villarreal wasn't initially sold on him, signing Farnsworth only after an extended tryout.

At Puebla, one of the richest teams in Mexico and an organization bullish on ending the city's three-decade championship drought, Farnsworth joined forces with MLB vets Miguel Tejada, Willy Taveras, Armando Galarraga and Luke Scott. Although some of the faces were familiar, there were adjustments to be made.

"It was definitely an eye-opener," Farnsworth said. "I was used to different things. I was always early to the field and wanted to [go through my routine], but down there, that doesn't happen. You get there an hour before the game and just get ready."

Farnsworth said his "broken Spanish" was enough to allow him to communicate regularly in Puebla, a colonial city in central Mexico that he describes as "real safe, real beautiful." He also kept his other sporting passion on his mind and in his routine, often warming up his arm by throwing around a football.

With a 2.04 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 17 relief outings, Farnsworth showed he could still deliver on the mound, but Puebla fell short of the postseason. Following a second season of terrorizing quarterbacks with the Phantoms earlier this year, Farnsworth was brought back by Puebla before surprisingly being released on the last day of spring training.

With no takers elsewhere, Farnsworth was willing to play for the Algodoneros de San Luis in the Mexican Northern League, a Double-A regional circuit.

"The GM for Puebla told me I could go to Sonora and keep playing, stay in shape and get called up," he said.

That's exactly what happened. He soon landed with the Broncos de Reynosa, a Mexican League team in a northeastern city 16 miles south of McAllen, Texas. In stark contrast to provincial Puebla, the border town of Reynosa is consistently classified as one of Mexico's most dangerous cities. Farnsworth was aware of the issues facing his new home, but he wasn't deterred.

"The one thing I had to get used to was all the military and policemen roaming the streets with machine guns in the back of their trucks," he said. "That was kind of an eye-opener."

Despite that, Farnsworth holds a positive opinion of Reynosa, a fact gleefully reflected on his Twitter feed. Pictures of him training or announcing his arrival on the field are interspersed with recreational outings, including a northern Mexico tradition: the carne asada.

"From the hotel, basically, I went to the field and the gym, and that was it," he said. "I stayed away from anything negative, hung out at the field with the guys. Everyone's portraying these Mexican [border cities] as unsafe and dangerous, but for the most part, they're nice little towns."

Reynosa had a young squad, and Farnsworth became a mentor to his teammates, according to Victor Vizcarra, the team's press officer and play-by-play voice.

"The players are all in their 20s, so sometimes we would ask them who they'd go to for advice," Vizcarra said. "It was always [Farnsworth]. His job wasn't just to pitch; it became something else."

Focused on baseball, Farnsworth, who was a longtime bullpen fixture in MLB, even pushed himself into the Reynosa rotation, starting his first games since he was a 24-year-old with the Cubs in 2000.

"It was a big change for him," Vizcarra said. "He came in with the idea that he'd be our closer. The team knew about his track record and signed him. He worked as a closer, as a setup man and then came that first start against Puebla."

As fate would have it, Farnsworth's return to starting pitching came against his old club. He threw six innings and allowed three runs, none earned, to walk away with a win, a rarity in a season that would see Reynosa finish 24-88.

Farnsworth cites a strong training routine as the reason he could throw 80-plus pitches every fifth day for the first time since Bill Clinton's last year in office (Vicente Fox won the Mexican presidential election that year, if you're curious). The transition went so smoothly that even Farnsworth was impressed.

"I was shocked at that, and I was never too sore after any of the starts," he said. "I guess a long time of conditioning myself and training myself paid off in the long run."

"Once you take the jersey off, you can't put it back on. So I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can."
Kyle Farnsworth

After Reynosa finished a tough 2016 season in last place, Farnsworth was once again free to pursue his many other interests. Within a few days, he was back in Florida, spotted at a Major League Gaming event, tweeting about Call of Duty and gearing up for another season of football.

Even so, baseball is still on his mind. He said he is on the fence about returning to Mexico for a third season but isn't ready to call it quits just yet.

"I wouldn't rule out that he plays in Mexico again," Vizcarra said. "There was a lot of respect for him in that locker room."

Farnsworth laments the fact that another chance to go abroad fell through.

"I got an offer to play professional football in Australia," he said. "There was supposed to be a league that got postponed to next year, but that would've been fun."

Even if it is hard to predict where Farnsworth will pop up next, or what sport he'll be competing in when he does, one thing remains abundantly clear: He isn't about to fade calmly into retirement. If anything, he's running away from it for as long as possible.

"Once you take the jersey off, you can't put it back on," he said. "So I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can."