With an MLB Expansion on the Horizon, Is Mexico the Next Stop?

The baseball postseason is set to begin, and new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is about to finish his rookie year with mostly positive reviews. Manfred was groomed for this gig by the game’s longtime czar Allan “Bud” Selig, and he was supposed to be a conservative carbon copy of his former boss. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case.

Manfred, 57, has shown that he is capable of thinking outside the box. He understands that new rules pertaining to catchers and umpire reviews need some tweaking. To Selig’s chagrin, he has been talking to Pete Rose. And while expansion is not considered a hot topic, the commissioner is candid about the fact that as the game grows, the process will become necessary. But when will that happen? And most importantly, in what geographical region? With baseball continuing to emerge as an international sport, is it possible that the next pair of big league teams could be headquartered on foreign soil? It’s no secret that Montreal would be first in line for a new team, just because baseball should have never abandoned the French-speaking metropolis of Québec in the first place. As for the second franchise to balance out those plans, rumor has it that fans could be cheering in Spanish from a stadium in Mexico.

“Canada and Mexico present the most fertile ground (for expansion) in terms of baseball interest,” Manfred informed the media prior to the current season. “Obviously, Mexico and other countries in the Caribbean have baseball ingrained as a part of their culture.”

Chatter regarding a proposed MLB franchise in Mexico has been building steam since 2012. At that time, I felt that the powerful Liga Mexicana and its political tentacles would never allow that to happen. Much like the infamous cartels, Mexico’s professional baseball syndicate recruits youngsters as early as 13. These kids then become soldiers of the league, doomed to a career of meager wages unless a wealthy organization like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers make a financial offer the league can’t refuse. If a player leaves without a formal release from both his team and the league, he is blackballed for the rest of his career. Gradually, though, I have seen things loosen up a bit, with Liga Mexicana officials seeming to realize a need to co-exist if MLB expansion plans come to fruition.

“The Mexican fan has become a lot more sophisticated, especially now with social media,” commented Sergio Merigo, a close friend who played professionally in Mexico before returning to school and earning an engineering degree. “They want to see their favorite players compete at a higher level.”

“The Mexican fan has become a lot more sophisticated, especially now with social media.”

There are really only two locations where an MLB team in Mexico would be successful. The logical site is Mexico City, with an urban population in excess of 21 million. The capital of the republic has a GDP of $412 billion and a brand new stadium will be unveiled in 2017. That said, the travel and altitude would be problematic, and fan interest is still dominated by fútbol. By contrast, baseball is king in northern Mexico and the city with the best current facilities is Monterrey. It also hosted Mexico’s first taste of big league ball in August of 1993 during a three-game series between the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets. A major issue in the region that can’t be ignored, however, is the frequent robberies, kidnappings, and murders from drug turf wars, and the situation remains fluid. Then again, is the city of Monterrey really more dangerous than the south side of Chicago or Oakland, where the White Sox and A’s reside? I think not, and the baseball fans in those cities aren’t as knowledgeable as most Mexicans, at least in my opinion.

It still remains to be seen if there are any businessmen in Mexico besides Carlos Slim and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán with enough financial clout to draw up a proposal for a major league franchise. A new 32 team alignment would change the MLB format to four teams in four divisions in both the National and American leagues. With that in mind, where would a team from Mexico fit into the mix? Expansion is a complicated process and all franchise owners must be on board. Also, you can bet that several U.S. cities like Charlotte, South Carolina, and San Antonio, Texas would want to be considered.

Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey
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Before fans get too excited, MLB expansion is still five years away at best. So for now, I’d like to see interest continue to peak in Mexico by playing more meaningful games there during the regular season. While the 2016 schedule has already been announced, the San Diego Padres would certainly fit in that scenario for 2017. That’s because Alfredo Harp Helú has a piece of the action in San Diego and also owns the Mexico City Red Devils, the team that calls all the shots in the Liga Mexicana. A series between the Padres and another MLB team would coincide beautifully as an inaugural event for the new stadium.

It seems like everyone involved in baseball south of the border recognizes the positive impact a major league team would bring to Mexico.

The Arizona Diamondbacks also have a special relationship with the city of Hermosillo and Estadio Sonora, easily the most plush and immaculate venue in Mexico. Sal Rodriguez is another friend who builds golf courses for the legendary Jack Nicklaus, and he dialed in the playing field there just prior to the Caribbean Series games in 2013. The stadium would be a great spot for the D-Backs to host a home series in 2017, or even play some Cactus League games there next spring.

It seems like everyone involved in baseball south of the border recognizes the positive impact a major league team would bring to Mexico, yet they tend to be tight-lipped about expressing their feelings. Maybe it’s because such an attraction would forever change the way baseball business is conducted there. When I spoke with Donald Canedo, a baseball lifer living in Mexico as a player, manager, and executive who is now a coach with the Culican Tomateros, I wasn’t surprised at his short response on the subject of expansion. “It would be nice for Mexico,” he replied simply.

Yes it would, Donald. Despite all the obstacles, Mexico will one day be part of the MLB fraternity. It’s only a matter of time.