MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Exhibition enhancing MLB's ties to Mexico

Country's passion for the game makes growth there a natural step

Exhibition enhancing MLB's ties to Mexico

We've seen the passion when Mexico plays a game in the World Baseball Classic. Fans show up early and stay late, wear their country's colors and wave its flag. They're on their feet almost from first pitch to last.

When Mexico and the United States met in the WBC three years ago, Chase Field in Phoenix was rocking, with more than 44,000 people screaming and chanting. There seemed to be about a 50-50 split in the rooting interest, but there was no question which side brought the energy.

Mexican flags were everywhere -- noisemakers, too, a carnival atmosphere. Mexico won the game, 5-2, and players on both sides said the vibe was part of what they'd remember about the day.

Recap: Mexico 5, USA 2

While many think of Mexico as a soccer-first country, the baseball passion runs deep. And this love of baseball is one of many reasons Major League Baseball will be in Mexico City this weekend for a pair of Padres-Astros exhibition games on Saturday and Sunday. The games are streaming for free on MLB.com.

"There are regions of the country where baseball is the dominant sport," said Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who was born and raised in Mexico City. "Baseball has been able to consistently produce players. I think the opportunities will grow and that we could see expansion or maybe some regular-season games in Mexico."

That sentiment also explains why Commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday announced several initiatives to extend MLB's reach into the country.

MLB will open an office in Mexico City to connect with fans, and there'll be a regular-season Game of the Week on Televisa. As part of the Padres-Astros events this weekend, there'll be an MLB Festival in Zócalo Square.

MLB International

These efforts come at a time of strong growth for baseball in Mexico, which delivered the third-largest television ratings in the world, behind the United States and Canada, for last fall's World Series. The Caribbean Series, once dominated by Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, has been won by Mexico four of the past six years, including the undefeated team of 2016.

Vazquez's walk-off homer

Virtually every Major League team scours Mexico for talent, and MLB recently convinced Mexican League officials to ease the path for young players to play in the United States. Manfred emphasized that MLB is committed to a partnership that will allow the Mexican League to remain strong.

The D-backs have been especially focused on being a force in Mexico, first in beefing up their scouting operation there, and more recently, signing 18-year-old right-handed pitcher Edgar Martinez.

"Mexico is a very important market to us and always had been, as we are a neighboring state with thousands of fans who make the journey to Chase Field frequently to watch us play," D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall wrote in an email. "We have also experienced success in the past with Mexican-born players, but have increased our investment there through the hiring of scouts and former players in an effort to land the next true impact players. Our presence in Sonora is strong, and we are committed to growing our relationships and coverage throughout the entire country in the future."

Mexico has produced some iconic MLB players, most notably Fernando Valenzuela. Dotted across MLB's landscape at various levels are amazingly gifted young Mexican players. Among them: pitchers Roberto Osuna (Blue Jays), Julio Urias (Dodgers), Juan Oramas (Padres) and third baseman Christian Villanueva (Cubs).

Mexico has historically produced more high-level pitchers, but position players are drawing interest, too, including outfielder Tirso Ornelas, who was one of the stars of the MLB International Prospect Showcase in February.

International talent on display

Baseball's 2015 postseason included six Mexican-born players, a number that seems likely to grow.

"When Mexican players do well, they capture the attention of natives in the states," Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said, "and it makes for strong connections back home. When those players return home, they're treated like conquering heroes."

We've seen this phenomenon play out during the World Baseball Classic.

"In the northern sections of the country, there's a deep love for baseball," said Oscar Suarez, an agent who has represented dozens of Mexican players through the years. "And you see more and more kids playing baseball. I think there are probably 100 players from Mexico now in the Minor Leagues.

"And the thing is, these are great sports fans. You see the crowds at the WBC, and they're pretty much consumed by the sport."

Mexico qualified for the 2017 WBC just last week, and the team will once again be led by Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was born in San Diego to Mexican parents, and Nationals reliever Oliver Perez. Among the other familiar names likely to be on the WBC roster next year: Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Miguel Gonzalez.

Mexico advances to 2017 Classic

Manfred has mentioned Mexico City as a possible expansion site once MLB makes the decision to add teams. For now, though, the focus is on building the sport in terms of players, games and fans.

"There's a great tradition of baseball in Mexico," Duquette said. "They play year-round -- summer league, winter league. It's in all the major cities, and there's a real passionate following."

That growth will be evident next spring, when Mexico hosts the Caribbean Series at a new stadium in Culiacan. That's where MLB hosted an 11-day session on coaching and scouting last October leading up to a talent showcase that was represented by 40 scouts from 27 teams.

MLB has also agreed to share business and marketing strategy with leaders of the Mexican League and its teams. As Manfred told USA Today at the time, "We're very interested in having a positive relationship with the Mexican leagues. Just like with every other country, we want the best athletes in the world playing Major League Baseball. In my visit to Mexico, both professional leagues could not have been more forthcoming in terms of their willingness to work with us.''

Manfred is committed to growing the game around the world, from China and the United Kingdom to Japan and Australia. Baseball's relationship with Mexico makes sense on so many levels. It offers not just a potentially deep reservoir of talent, but millions of fans. This week is a significant step for both.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.