The Diamondbacks’ New Training Academy Will Give Young Mexicans a Shot at the MLB

Ever since the Arizona Diamondbacks became an MLB expansion franchise in 1998, the organization has dreamed of becoming “Mexico’s Team.” The concept was a marketing no-brainer. The city of Phoenix, where the Snakes play their home games, is a mere two-hour drive from the border and the state of Sonora, where pelota reigns as king over fútbol.

The relationship began slowly until Mexico last hosted the Caribbean Series in 2013 at the brand new Estadio Sonora in Hermosillo. Diamondback big shots maintained a high profile at the tournament, hoping to lay the groundwork for future partnerships. That patience was recently rewarded when the powerful Liga Mexicana decided to become less political and adjust to the times. Thanks in part to the influence of Alfredo Harp Helú, the owner of the Mexico City Red Devils and a minority partner with the San Diego Padres, league officials voted late last year in Veracruz to cut the crap and abolish an unwritten rule that banned Mexican prospects the right to return home to play if they dared to sign a professional contract north of the border. The decision also opened the door for smaller market teams to equally recruit top Mexican talent, a privilege mainly reserved in the past for high-dollar clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

Erubiel Durazo in 2002.
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Equal opportunity is a good thing, and the Arizona Diamondbacks finally appear to be seizing the moment. Just a few days ago, team CEO Derrick Hall held a splashy news conference to announce the hiring of some key employees. Leading the group was former slugging first baseman and designated hitter Erubiel Durazo, a Sonora native, and super scout Rodrigo “Chapo” Aguirre. Then came the bombshell announcement that the Diamondbacks had reached a working agreement with the Naranjeros de Hermosillo, and that the organization would be the first MLB franchise ever to open a training academy in Mexico.

The Diamondbacks do not employ a single player of Mexican heritage.

“We want to be like the Dodgers once we’re in Mexico,” proclaimed Durazo, who will spearhead operations from an office in Hermosillo that will open in March. “We will be making history.”

These ambitious plans include a blueprint for additional facilities in the states of Sinaloa and Nuevo León, and will certainly be a business game-changer. That said, it seems strange to me that the Diamondbacks are so pumped up about this endeavor, especially since the organization’s track record has been less than bullish with Hispanic personnel on the field. The only Latino player of any significance to ever play in Phoenix was Luis Gonzalez, a Cuban-American and former All-Star who retired in 2008 and now works as a front office adviser for Arizona. Currently, the D-Back’s 40-man roster is under 25 percent Hispanic, below the average for MLB teams. The Snakes do not employ a single player of Mexican heritage.

Sonora stadium where the Caribbean Baseball Series was celebrated in 2013.
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Further complicating matters is that most parts of Arizona, particularly the Phoenix area, are not that friendly toward the large Hispanic population. Former governor Jan Brewer signed numerous state bills into law that many considered to be discriminatory and insensitive, and insisted that Phoenix law enforcement officers double as immigration agents, forcing folks to prove their legal status even in cases of a routine traffic stop. Arizona is also Sheriff Joe Arpaio country, where Latinos are frequently arrested without cause and issued pink jailhouse underwear.

It’s clear that past restrictions have made it difficult to sign Mexican talent, especially compared to Dominican and Venezuelan players. I get it. But there are plenty of MLB clubs that have built their core group around select individuals with great success. Adrian Gonzalez is a hugely popular Dodger, which is understandable in a diverse city like Los Angeles. But the Colorado Rockies have been extremely loyal to star pitcher Jorge de la Rosa, while other hurlers like Yovani Gallardo, Jaime García, and Joakim Soria have thrived in cities with fewer Latino patrons. It’s almost like the Diamondbacks, despite a geographical advantage, contemplated for a decade before coming out of the closet.

The D-Backs face many obstacles in building a large Latino fan base in Phoenix, and change will not occur overnight. What’s important to me is that gifted Mexican kids might finally get some exposure and the legitimate shot they deserve. For that, I give high praise to chief executive Tony La Russa, Gonzalez, Durazo, and others involved for their efforts.

As far as the Arizona Diamondbacks being “Mexico’s Team,” that’s a notion that requires further thought and proven results.