Mexican pride runs deep in Astros GM Jeff Luhnow

Houston GM Jeff Luhnow smiles prior to a game. Astros and Angels play in Luhnow's native Mexico on May 4-5. Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

MEXICO CITY -- Growing up in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood nestled in the northwest sector of this capital city, Jeff Luhnow would spend hours tossing pitches on a tiny patch of backyard grass at his younger brother, David. When the baseballs or tennis balls inevitably vanished into neighboring houses or far down the street, the Mexican-born brothers would turn to a more local solution with a ball designed to be kicked.

"He lobbed this soccer ball at me, and I took a big whack with my aluminum bat," recalled the younger Luhnow, who today is the Mexico City bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. "I hit the ball, and the bat bounced right back toward my face, and it gave me the nastiest black eye."

Still, baseball offered more joy than pain for the Luhnow boys back then, and passion for the game bloomed into Jeff's eventual tenure as a championship-winning executive in Major League Baseball. The 52-year-old is in the midst of his eighth season as Astros president of baseball operations and general manager. On May 4, Houston will square off in a two-game series against the Los Angeles Angels in Monterrey, Mexico [ESPN/ESPN Deportes on Sunday, 4:10 p.m. ET]. It will be the first time Luhnow will oversee his team in a regular-season MLB game played in his country of birth.

"I think it's going to be great," Jeff said. "I watched the Cardinals versus the Reds [on April 13-14 in Monterrey], and it was good. But I think it's going to be better for us. Los Angeles and Houston have great Mexican connections."

Indeed, both cities have two of the highest concentrations of Hispanics in the United States, and the two franchises boast significant connections to Mexico. Angels owner Arte Moreno is of Mexican descent. The Astros have All-Star closer Roberto Osuna, a native of Guasave, Sinaloa, a coastal state in western Mexico. Then there's Luhnow, who was born in Mexico City and lived there for 15 years, until 10th grade, attending the American School Foundation Mexico, an institution for international students.

"My grandmother had moved [to Mexico], and when my dad got an opportunity to work there, he jumped at it," Jeff said. "He fell in love with the country."

Originally slated to spend two years in Mexico City working for advertising giant McCann Erickson, Chris Luhnow has now lived there for more than 50 years, splitting time between Mexico City and Tepoztlan, a sleepy town an hour south of the capital.

"I like to tell my friends I ended up in Mexico because I was driving to San Antonio and made a wrong left turn," Chris joked.

The Luhnow family's stay was extended in part by Chris' idea to write a guidebook for tourists venturing into Mexico. The Travelers' Guide to Mexico eventually became the standard point of reference for travelers in the 1970s and 80s. That's how Jeff, David and their older brother, Christian, came to spend vacations in luxurious beach resorts around Mexico.

"We would go to Acapulco, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, staying in fancy hotels and eating in nice restaurants," Jeff said. "It was almost a chore doing all this great stuff," he laughed. In Mexico City, he remembered eating steak tacos most weekends at Loma Linda, a restaurant on Reforma, one of the sprawling metropolis' main avenues.

The Luhnow boys became sports fans through their late mother, Barbara, who encouraged her sons early on. "My mom was the one who taught us how to throw a baseball," David said. "She was also a huge fan of football, and we grew up very into sports. Dad wasn't into sports at all."

As children, the Luhnows had rooted for the Yankees, and later, the Dodgers and Reds. They competed in Mexico City's Liga Azteca, once a part of the country's youth baseball league. "We toured and competed in other parts of the country, but we never got as far as [the Little League World Series]," Jeff said. In his teen years, while spending summers at tennis camp in Texas, the future Astros GM made his first trips to the historic Astrodome, making him a fan of the franchise in the process. "It was such a thrill," he said. "That era of Astros baseball was fantastic. Alan Ashby, J.R. Richards, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl. I remember walking into the stadium, looking down at that artificial grass and thinking this was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen in my life."

Jeff Luhnow left Mexico City for good in 1982 for California, where he enrolled in a prep school for his junior and senior year of high school. Later, he was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics and engineering.

His foray into baseball began in 2003 as a front-office executive with the St. Louis Cardinals, and later, the Astros. The career path swayed his father to learning the game later on in life.

"It's funny, I think I've watched more Cardinals and Astros games in the last 15 years than anybody," Chris said. After games, he will often text his sons on their group WhatsApp chat to congratulate Jeff after an Astros win, or offer encouragement after a loss. "He's such a great, proud dad," Jeff said.

After baseball season, Jeff still makes "at least" two or three trips a year down to Mexico to visit family and enjoy local restaurants. "I really want to try Pujol next time I'm in Mexico City," he remarked about one of the world's 50 best restaurants.

If the Astros GM gets his way, his family members in Mexico will eventually be able to attend MLB games closer to home. "I think there's a growing middle class there that can afford to go to games. Baseball is the No. 2 sport in the country, and the new stadiums are major league caliber," Jeff said.

Through discussions with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Luhnow believes in the potential for future expansion given the positive response to games played south of the border. "[Commissioner Manfred] knows I'm from Mexico and passionate about that. We've talked about it, and he knows there are a lot of businesspeople in Mexico who would love to be a part of an ownership group."

In March, Mexico City's Alfredo Harp Helú stadium, a 20,000-seater, opened to a sellout between the local Diablos Rojos de México and top prospects from the San Diego Padres organization. Mexican businessman Harp Helú is part of the San Diego Padres ownership group. In Monterrey, where Luhnow's Astros will be playing, the Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey was recently expanded to a capacity of just under 22,000 fans. Since 2018, it has hosted seven regular-season MLB games and two exhibitions -- all have sold out.

However, expansion might still be far off. In the meantime, decades after he and his brothers would call their backyard games in Spanglish, Jeff Luhnow is happy to carry the flag for his native country by promoting Mexican talent and attempting to attract fans from the nation to root for Houston.

"Throughout my career, I've tried to make my organization a home for Mexican players," Jeff said. "The Astros represent the best of baseball from Latin America. We have a Mexican closer, a Puerto Rican shortstop, a second baseman from Venezuela and a Cuban first baseman. Our American third baseman speaks Spanish fluently. We're one of the most international teams out there, and it'll be fun for fans in Monterrey to see what we're really about."