Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta: Day Three Report
By Bruce Baskin
After sitting in the press box at Kino Stadium through four games over the first two nights of play at the Mexican Baseball Fiesta, I decided to write tonight’s entry while sitting in the stands. My on-field focus has taken my attention away from what makes the MBF an “event” rather than just another set of ballgames and it’s the event that drew me to travel from Portland to Tucson in the first place. So rather than bring you the dry summaries you’ve been getting so far, I’m hoping to convey more of the atmosphere here in Tucson at the expense of tracking runs, hits and errors (although I’ll throw in some random observations of play and players). Right now I’m sitting in a section on the third base side of the upper level of Kino Stadium extending out from either side of the press box. What follows will be spontaneous bursts of no particular train of thought:
It’s 5:35PM, the first game pitting Los Mochis against defending Mexican Pacific League champion Mexicali has just gotten underway and already the crowd is larger than either of the first two nights. I think the crowd tonight is going to be…WHOA! I just had a foul tip rattle around among the shading right above my head before spitting out to the concourse below. One wrong bounce and this report is finished, as is the Chromebook I’m writing it on.
C.J. Retherford is batting for Mexicali with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the first. He’s become a year-round player in Mexico and I’ve noticed him playing with his very young son on the field during warmups all three nights, a charming sight you’d never see prior to a major league game but things are different in Mexican baseball. Apparently they take the phrase “family-friendly” to heart. C.J.’s son didn’t come close to catching one of the tosses that I witnessed, but he has plenty of time to learn. Despite the threat, the Aguilas failed to score before being retired.
At about a quarter after 6 with the sun going and an accompanying breeze, we’re settling into what should be a pleasant evening for some baseball. Temperatures have reached the mid to upper 90’s every day since I arrived Wednesday night, something I rarely see at home midway between Seattle and Portland, but the low humidity has kept it from being bothersome. The old saw, “It’s a DRY heat” is really true in Tucson.
How’s this for prescience? The first game is now in the bottom of the third (they’ve been playing seven) and Retherford just broke up a scoreless tie by smoking a double against Mochis starter Roy Merritt off a chain link fence atop the 8-foot high wall in the left field corner, driving in Walter Ibarra from third to put Mexicali up, 1-0. Merritt was able to escape the inning without further damage.
Top of the fourth now and the Caneros have tied the game. Ramon Urias, whose brother Luis is a top shortstop prospect in the Padres system, took first after being hit by a Sergio Mitre pitch and then flew around the bases on a Mitchell Walding double. Urias had a terrific summer at shortstop for Mexico City was Baseball Mexico’s Summer 2017 MVP. Tough choice this year but the kid kept the Diablos in the playoff race. He doesn’t look big enough to hit 19 homers in a season but neither does Jose Altuve and the ball DOES tend to carry well in Mexico City’s 7,382-foot elevation.
People continue to file in to Kino Stadium, likely for the Hermosillo-Obregon nightcap (although a live performance by popular Mexican musical artist Freddy Vegas is no doubt at least an added draw). Looking above and beyond the berm in right field, I can see a long string of cars making their way to the Kino parking lot. Yep, it’ll definitely be the biggest crowd of the three nights I’ve been here. I’d guess there are upwards of three thousand people in the stands already. Not impressive at first blush until the independent Tucson Saguaros’ average attendance of 279 for three Pecos League playoff games earlier this year adds a sense of perspective.
Top of the fifth with the score still tied, 1-1. Mexicali manager Roberto Vizcarra has replaced ex-Yankee Sergio Mitre, who allowed one run on two hits in four innings, with Nicolas Heredia, who gives up a leadoff single to left by hulking Mochis veteran Saul Soto. Soto is one of those guys who always hits well north of .300 with power, and it was a measure of respect in the summer of 2016 when he was named player-manager in Aguascalientes late in the season. He did a credible job with the Rieleros before returning to player-only status after Homar Rojas was brought in and led the Railroaders to a fourth-place finish in the Mexican League’s North Division this year.
What had been a quickly-played game started dragging a bit, what with all the Caneros baserunners circling the sacks for three runs in the fourth and another three in the fifth to take a commanding 7-1 lead. Mexicali has had six hits of their own but only that one run in the third to show for them. Merritt pitched through the sixth, although I can make out some soft-tossing going on behind some signs obscuring the Caneros bullpen behind the left field fence and suspect skipper Luis Sojo will make a change for the seventh.
And so Sojo did, bringing in Lenix Osuna to close out the win for Merritt. After getting the first two outs, Osuna ran into trouble and allowed a pair of last-gasp Aguilas runs to narrow the Caneros lead to 7-3 before inducing Retherford to ground out with runners at the corners to end both the surge and game.
Not having eaten for hours, I went down to the concourse for some late (8:00PM) dinner. This weekend the house specialty is Mexican food and although there were several tempting items to choose from, I bought a bean-and-cheese burrito. Along with concerns about eating something that would put me in a state of discomfort at 2 tomorrow morning, I’ve been a gringo pollo when it comes to spicy food ever since I bought a two-star item at a Thai restaurant near Seattle years ago that delivered a five-alarm fire with every bite. I never DID taste the dish. The mediocre-tasting burrito cost US$7.25, proving that you’ll overspend for ballpark food pretty much anywhere in any language.
Back at my perch next to the suites in time for introductions of players and coaches as well as the singing of both Mexican and USA national anthems by a lovely young lady. At the end of the Mexican anthem (which itself is a longish but lovely song), I heard a male voice in the crowd shout “Viva Mexico!” followed by a loud cheer from the stands. Loved it.
Just moments away from the first pitch of the nightcap and the stands are well over half-full. It seems definitely a pro-Hermosillo gathering, if the number of cheers accompanying the on-field announcer’s mention of the Naranjeros as one of the two teams is any indication. Lots of orange shirts and replica jerseys to be seen. It reminded me of my first visit to Lambeau Field in Green Bay (I’m a lifetime Packers fan) for a night game, when I saw a large number of orange jackets in the stands. Puzzled because the Packers colors are green and gold, I asked a local about the orange. “Hunting vests,” he replied.
Not to be outdone, Obregon fans in attendance had their chance to roar approval on the second pitch of the game when former Orioles outfielder Felix Pie launched a delivery from Naranjeros starter Jose Samayoa to near the top of the berm in right-center field to stake the Yaquis a quick 1-0 lead. Hermosillo came right back with the tying run in the bottom of the first when Domonic Brown ripped a run-scoring double to the wall in right-center to send speedy Jason Bourgeois flying in from first. The Naranjeros then took the lead in the bottom of the second on a two-run double by Roberto Ramos and added another one later in the inning to go up 4-1, but Obregon’s Alex Liddi erased it with a three-run bomb into the left field bullpen in the top of the third to make it a 4-4 game and the Yaquis pushed two more runs across to grab the lead back at 6-4.
As in the States, mascots play a large role in Mexican baseball, perhaps even more than their Yanqui counterparts. Two of the MexPac’s most-popular mascots, Hermosillo’s Beto Coyote and Tigre Chaco of Obregon, are on hand and started working the crowd early. As I type this, Chaco is dancing in the third-base coach’s box as the Yaqui partisans chant in unison from the stands. Whatever the cause, the fairly reserved crowd in the opening game has been taken over by a boisterous gathering of what appears to be at least 5,000 aficionados in the stands for this one.
It’s now the top of the fifth with the Yaquis lead cut to 6-5 and Barbaro Canizares batting for Obregon. Canizares is an interesting case. A Cuban exile who’d been a teammate of Kendrys Morales with the Havana Industriales, Canizares defected with two other players in early 2004 after receiving a lifetime suspension from Cuban baseball for selling his jersey to a member of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. After a few seasons in the Braves system (including a five-game cup of coffee with Atlanta in 2009), Canizares spent time with both the Yaquis and in Oaxaca of the Mexican League, batting .396, .438 and .378 for the Guerreros between 2011 and 2013 before going to Japan. He only played 38 games in three injury-plagued years with the Softbank Hawks and returned to the LMB this summer, but was cut by both Veracruz and Quintana Roo after hitting .244 in 34 games, ending up in the Liga Norte. Approaching his 38th birthday, the 6’3” first baseman is trying desperately to regain some of his old magic and found some in his bright red bat by blooping an RBI single in center to stretch Obregon’s lead to 7-5..
Well, here’s something you don’t always see at a ballpark: A guy just came out onto the field behind home plate and proposed to his girlfriend on the mic (in English and with the gentle prodding of Chaco the mascot). She said yes, thankfully for the guy.
Music is as ever-present at Mexican ballgames as it is in the USA and this weekend has been no different. As might be expected, nearly all the songs pumped out over the PA system between innings and during at-bats is from south of the border and greatly add to the atmosphere. There were mariachi bands playing close enough to the action to conspire with the loudspeaker music to create a bit of a cacophony at times the past two nights, but I can hear strains of live music (Freddy Vega?) emanating from the parking lot without battling the PA system for decibel supremacy. Good move, although it looks like some of the crowd is heading toward the parking lot for some dancing. Beisbol con salsa!
While the stands were mostly full three hours ago, they’re gradually emptying with almost as many cars streaming out of the parking lot as were coming in earlier as the clock atop the left field scoreboard approaches 11:00. The number of people occupying the berms is far fewer. The gathering on the left-field foul territory berm appears to be mostly adults, but the outfield berms are the domain of kids. The right-field berm seems especially popular with the younger set, particularly for rolling down the slope on their sides toward the back of the outfield wall. Sliding on their, uhh, backsides is another favorite, sort of like sledding without either a sled or snow. It’s been a while, but I remember that as a kid, we made things like that work whether we had the proper accoutrements or not. The younger you are, the more expansive your imagination.
Well, this one is finally in the books, with Obregon taking an 9-6 win as the final out was recorded at 11:46. It’s been a long night at the ballpark, but a good one. I’d been in a down mood all day, wondering whether what I’ve been doing with this blog (and Viva Beisbol before it) all these years has made the slightest bit of difference. That’s still as debatable as it was this morning and something I’ll have to confront after I get home, but my blue funk has lifted significantly and these games have been the difference. If the goal of baseball promoters is to surround a ballgame with a party, MBF organizer Mike Feder and the great, friendly ballpark staff have succeeded. Well played.
Now it’s back to my room at the Quality Inn for a late-night discussion with that burrito.