Four o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon in late December, and the stands of Tijuana's new baseball stadium are deserted except for a few kids chasing each other through the rows of empty seats. Sunlight still covers the outfield grass, lush and damp from the recent rains, but what little warmth it brings is quickly fading. Two of the ballpark's food and drink vendors appear in an aisle above the third-base dugout. smoking cigarettes and talking in low-voices. They’re killing time before the crowd arrives, and their sweaters and thick coats show they're prepared for another cold night.
Down in the dressing room, members of Tijuana's home team, Los Potros (“Colts”), begin to arrive in twos and threes. They are relaxed and smiling—with seven games left in the season they have already clinched first place in their division. Shouts and jibes in Spanish fill the room, for most of the players are Mexican natives. But here and there a few Americans can be seen. The latter are, for the most part, players who lack established reputations in the major leagues: Jerry Turner, a part-time outfielder with the Padres who may finally become a starter this year; Mark Wiley, a pitcher who. at twenty-nine, is still battling to make it as a regular with his club; Ivan Murrell, an outfielder who once played for the Atlanta Braves and more recently, the Padres; Broderick Perkins, a young first baseman who spent a disappointing half season with the Padres last year. The players finish dressing and move out towards the field, their metal spikes scraping sharply on the dressing room’s concrete floor.
By five o’clock batting practice is underway, but it is loosely organized compared to the elaborate warm-ups of the major-league teams in the United States. Members of the Potros hold long conversations near the dugouts with members of the visiting Venados ( “Deer”) from Mazatlan; some of the players are jogging in the outfield or catching flies, but others sit joking on the bench. The Potros’ manager walks by looking suitably grim in the face of this lack of order, but when the umpires arrive a short while later, he strolls up to one and chats amiably for ten minutes.
The crowd begins to arrive now. and the seats near the dugouts are soon overflowing with boys calling shrilly to the players to sign autographs. Still, it is obvious that there will be less than a capacity crowd this evening, and at game time, seven p.m., the 13.000-seat stadium is less than half full. This is at least partly due to the cold; as the first pitch is thrown the temperature is in the mid-forties and dropping. The fans are bundled in sweaters, jackets, gloves, and caps, but the cold doesn’t prevent them from frequently cheering or whistling (jeering) as the game progresses. Meanwhile, vendors prowl the aisles, their cries of “Cerveza!” “Cacahuates!” “Hot dogs!” rising above the noise.
By the fifth inning the temperature has fallen into the thirties. A portly man in a dark blue baseball cap turns around in his seat to face me. “It’s pretty cold,” he chuckles in accented English. “You have to be a real fan to come out in weather like this!” Soon a fire appears in the cement bleachers down the left-field line: some fans trying to stay warm. Moments later smoke pours over the right-field wall as the players in the Venados’ bull pen build their own fire to ward off the cold. The only ones who seem to be enjoying the weather are the two pitchers, and this is undoubtedly because the batters they face seem unable or unwilling to grip the bat tightly with their cold hands. The game settles into a dull succession of weak pop flies and slow grounders. The Potros, who hold a brief lead, soon fall further and further behind, and for the fans the real competition becomes the damp, freezing air. And still a vendor, an old man in a sheepskin coat and a straw cowboy hat, makes his way from aisle to aisle carrying a yellow bucket full of bottled beer. "Cerveza! ” he cries, weakly. “Cerveza!”
In Mexico, baseball’s popularity is second only to soccer’s. and if you were to look only at the number of games played annually, you might conclude baseball is foremost. Tijuana’s Potros belong to the Mexican Pacific League, a winter league that plays seventy-four games between October and January. The Mexican Central League, which runs from March to September, plays 150 more. (Tijuana also has a team in the latter league, known simply as the Ponies. The similarity in team names neatly eliminates the need for the Potros and Ponies, who arc owned by the same people, to have two separate logos.) As businesses these two main leagues are unrelated to each other or to major league teams in the U.S. At least fifteen of the twenty-two players on each team must be Mexican natives, so many of Mexico’s better players simply move from one league to the other as the year goes by, negotiating separate contracts with their respective teams.
A player who plays year-round in these leagues can make $10,000 to $30,000 and maybe more, depending on his talents. He will travel by bus to cities like Hermosillo, Obregon. Mexicali, and Matzatlan (the Potros, because they arc located so far north of the other league teams, fly to most cities via Aero Mexico). On the road he will stay in first-class Mexican hotels, and eat at the best restaurants. At night he will play in front of crowds of as many as 10.000 to 15,000 people, who, at least in Tijuana, pay anywhere from thirty-seven pesos ($1.65) to seventy-nine pesos ($3.50) for the chance to see a game. So the Mexican leagues offer their nation’s players a chance to make a better-than-average living, and the local slugger or strike-out artist is revered much as a Dave Parker or Tom Seaver is in the U.S.
But Americans generally play baseball in Mexico only in the winter, and for the most part they are younger players who haven’t quite blossomed, or older players trying to work their way back into the major leagues before age brings their careers to an end. They tend to view the Mexican leagues as a place to stay in shape, an off-Broadway theater where they can polish their act. And for many of them, playing baseball in a foreign country is rife with difficulties. There arc language barriers, perennially late buses and planes, and adjustments to water and food that leave many players sick or indisposed. There are the fans, who seem fickle by U S. standards, jeering mistakes as quickly and energetically as they cheer a good play. And the stadiums and other facilities, while fairly modern and clean, don't come up to the opulent standards of the U.S. Even Tijuana’s new $1.5 million stadium has unheated dressing rooms. “It’s no way comparable with the States,” Ivan Murrell grinned when I asked him what playing baseball in Mexico was like.
I ran into Murrell on a dreary Sunday afternoon recently at the Tijuana stadium. A heavy rain had been falling since early that morning, and first and third base had long since vanished under pools of water. The scheduled game had been cancelled, but Murrell showed up at the empty stadium anyway, explaining cryptically, “I knew the game would be cancelled, but I’m the kind of guy who just likes to come out and see for himself. ’’ He led the way to his car, a metallic blue ’66 Pontiac which was given to him for being the Most Valuable Player in the Texas League a few years back. Rain drummed on the roof as we talked.
Followers of the Padres may remember Murrell’s name from 1976, when he played for the club as a reserve outfielder. He injured his knee the following year, the Padres released him, and he has been playing in Mexico ever since. Murrell has a sturdy, handsome face, with brown eyes so dark they are almost black. Raised in Panama and Costa Rica, he has become sensitized to cultural differences between North America and Latin America after nearly fourteen years of playing baseball in the U.S.
“If you play down here you have to realize you’re going to get sick,” he told me. "First you’re gonna have the stomach, then you’re gonna have diarrhea and then the flu.” He sniffed. “I’ve had these sniffles and a little fever for three weeks now, but if I told the coaches I couldn't play because of that, man. I'd never play.” He added that adjusting to Mexican fans also presents a challenge, and nearly all the American players I talked to agreed with him. Like sports fans everywhere. Mexican fans tend to be highly emotional. but it can't be denied they savor their lot with a special flair. Grown men listening to radios have been known to weep as their team goes down to defeat. Players regularly complain of having to dodge bottles, fruit, and even snakes which irate spectators are liable to hurl at them from the stands. In one recent game I watched the third baseman for a visiting team sprint towards the bleachers in pursuit of a pop fly, and when the ball dropped out of play, he turned and ran even more quickly back towards the field in order to stay, as it were, out of range.
“They are amazin'," Murrell continued. smiling and shaking his head. "They appreciate you if you ’re doing good, but if you're doing bad you might get a bottle in your head. I'm having a good year down here, and right now I can go almost anywhere in Tijuana and someone will try to give me something or do something for me. I'm the big hero now, but if I was having a bad year they'd run my butt out of town."
Murrell is indeed having a good year. He is among the league leaders in doubles, home runs, and runs batted in. and his average is up near .300. He talks about these accomplishments as if they might get him back into the big leagues in the U.S., and as if he wants that to happen. Nevertheless, when I asked him directly if it was his goal to play again in the U.S., he hesitated. “I don't like to set goals,” he said finally, “because that’s how your feelings get hurt. If it works out. fine; if it doesn't, I won't be unhappy." Murrell is thirty-three, and probably realizes that his chances of returning to the major leagues grow slimmer with every passing year. Most teams are reluctant to pay today's high salaries to older players who. because of their age. may get injured more easily or suddenly lose their ability. Currently, Murrell makes an estimated $3000a month playing in Mexico, and if he continues to play there he figures he has about six or seven good years left.
“But I’m getting offers from all over,” he continued. “The Dodgers have sent a scout down to look at me ... . Puebla, in the Mexican Central League, has sent me a contract . . He picked up a contract lying on the dashboard and glanced through it. “I don't know if they're willing to pay enough money, though. I’ve got an offer from Japan, and they're talking good money over there. About $35,000, with an automatic $15,000 bonus the second year.”
The rain had let up, and Murrell rolled down the window of his Pontiac and glanced out across the empty parking lot. ‘ ‘They ’re talkinggoot/ money over there, ” he repeated. “But Japan—I don’t know— it’s a long way away.”
"There are three reasons a guy [from the U.S. ] would want to play winter ball,”said Mark Wiley. “One—he needs a job. The pay down here isn’t bad.Two—he needs extra work getting in shape. Three—he might think it will help his chances with his home club. If you’re not a star in the big leagues, you find that the more you play baseball the more it’s beneficial for you. A big-time guy wouldn't come down here; wouldn’t want to get injured, I suppose.”
Wiley, who has bushy brown hair and a wide, catlike smile, was sitting on a bench in the Potros’ dressing room before a game. He graduated from San Diego’s Helix High in 1966 and pitched at Cal Poly Pomona until 1970, when he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins. For the next eight years he pitched in the minor leagues, with only brief stints in the majors, first on the Twins and later the Padres. Last fall the Padres traded him to Toronto, who asked him if he would be willing to play baseball in Venezuela over the winter.
“They didn’t really push me—most major league teams don't push the players to play winter ball,” Wiley said. “They might push the guys who were injured (to see if they have fully recovered). but for the most part it's up to the players.
“I told them 1 was already planning to play in Tijuana, and they said thut was fine. I played with the Potros last year and they treated me real good. When I hurt my arm they didn't try to rush me back into the lineup. So I felt a little obligation to them."
Doug Wantz, a teammate of Wiley's at Toronto who joined us briefly on the dressing-room bench, told a different story of how he had come to play for the Potros. "The front office called me up and asked if I wanted to go. and I told them no, not particularly. A little while later the team secretary called me back and said. ‘You better go.' And when the secretary says you better go. you better go."
Wantz and Wiley had differing perspectives on the hardships of playing ball in Mexico. "The third day I got here I got sick.” Wantz said. "I couldn't believe it. Then we went on a road trip to Guaymas and I got sick again." Wantz's experience is not uncommon among American players in Mexico; it was at least partly sickness that led two younger players from the Padres organization—Steve Mura and Jim Beswick—to quit the Potros earlier in the season. But Mark Wiley speculated that these players, while tired of sickness, rowdy fans, and maybe Mexico in general, left mainly because they had played a lot in the U.S. during the summer and simply needed some time off. Wiley, who has three years' experience playing winter ball, claimed that playing for the Potros is relatively easy. The team rarely makes a road trip of more than four or five days, he said, and when they’re at home he commutes to games, as do most of the other American players on the Potros, from an apartment in San Diego. "It hardly even seems like winter ball,” he commented with a laugh. "When I played in Venezuela two years ago, the stadiums had barbed wire between the seats and the field. The security guards carried submachine guns. Here they have a lot of fights in the stands; people spill drinks on each other; they throw firecrackers all the time. But they never really get out of hand.”
Among the players I talked to, the language barrier presents surprisingly few problems. Most of the Americans get by with bits of Spanish, occasionally relying on a teammate or coach who is bilingual. Wiley admitted that "the language keeps you (the American players] apart to a certain extent. But amazingly, most of the Mexican players understand English better than we understand Spanish. We all eat together; there are a lot of mutual friendships and all that."
The hardest thing for Wiley to adjust to is the general lack of efficiency and organization, a complaint echoed by teammates such as Ivan Murrell. “You're supposed to be someplace at a certain time, but when you get there you always have to wait around," Wiley sighed. "The planes don't ever take off on time.
"Staying in shape is the most important clement of winter ball," he went on quietly. It was nearly game time, and the dressing room was empty. "It's like a guy playing the piano—he’ll practice all the time. If you’re a baseball pitcher, the more hitters you face, the more you learn. It’s not much fun to be away from home in the offseason, but you gotta sacrifice to get better.
"I enjoy playing here—I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. But I'm looking forward to the year when I won't have to play winter ball . . . when I can sit back and enjoy Christmas with my family."
The Estadio Potros lies well beyond the Tijuana airport. where the shops and houses give way to fields that stretch away toward low, black, distant mountains. Driving the road through these fields you can be lulled into thinking you have left civilization behind, but suddenly you descend into La Mesa, a small suburb southeast of Tijuana. Following the Potros signs (often no more than a drawing of a horse’s head and two crossed bats), the stadium eventually comes into view, high on a hill to the left of the road.
Two days after Christmas I drove down to watch a doblejuego (“double header") accompanied by Pedro Ortiz-Vasquez, a San Diego poet and baseball fan who had kindly agreed to augment my almost nonexistent Spanish. We found Ivan Murrell sitting on a bench in the Potros ’ dressing room before the games began. “Al Campanis, the general manager of the Dodgers, might be here to take a look at me, “ he said, leaning over to lace up his shoes. "He might be here. ”
The teams began their warm-ups, and as the evening faded and the stadium's lights burned brighter, rock music from the United States blared out over the P.A.
Though these were the last two games of the regular season, the stands were only about a third full. At last the warm-ups ended, the umpires in their sky-blue jackets and black pants appeared, and at a few minutes after six the first game began.
The pitcher for the Potros was a rather short left-hander named Solomon, who, like many Mexican pitchers, relies mainly on curves and off-speed pitches. In the first inning he set the Mazatlan Venados down in order. But the Venados’ pitcher, no taller than Solomon, pitched nearly as well, and in the bottom of the inning only one of the first three Potros reached base. Then Ivan Murrell came up to the plate and the fans began to cheer and stamp their feet. Murrell took a ball inside, then lashed out at the next pitch and drove it deep to left field in a long, high arc. The left fielder raced back, suddenly ran out of room, and could only watch as the ball descended through the misty air and landed on the embankment twenty feet beyond the fence. The crowd, of course, went crazy, and Murrell's team-mates streamed out of the dugout and lined up along the third-base line to congratulate him as he trotted home.
The Venados’ pitcher battled back after this, but two innings later he gave up another run and the Potros went on to win 3-0. The game ended when Juandedios Chavez, the Potros twenty-three-year-old second baseman, fielded a hard ground ball, tagged the runner going by. and threw-to first for a double play. As the teams left the field, the Potros fight song came on over the P.A., so garbled that only the words “Potros! Potros! could be fully understood.
In the Potros dressing room between games, many of the players were gulping down sandwiches and coffee. Juandedios Chavez sat alone on a bench on the far side of the room. He shook his head when I asked if he spoke English. but with Vasquez's help we talked briefly. “You don't even have to ask that!’ he laughed to my question if he would like to play in the major leagues in the U.S. “Of course!” Did he think he had a chance of making it? Chavez made his reply to Vasquez and then hurried off towards the field. “He says he thinks he has a good chance because the Mexican leagues are considered as good as the best minor-league teams in the U.S.," Vasquez told me. “He feels he’s a pretty sound ballplayer defensively, and if he can hit .300 he can attract the attention of U.S. teams.”
Not far away, Ivan Murrell stood in a comer near the lockers, and for once his good humor seemed to have left him. A well-dressed man standing near him was saying, “Too bad Campanis couldn't make it.”
Mark Wiley was scheduled to pitch the second game for the Potros, and as we made our way back up to our seats he was already throwing to the first batter. Wiley, who is six feet, two inches, looked like a giant on the mound compared to the previous game’s pitchers. His fastball was coming in hard, but he was having trouble throwing strikes I remembered what he had once told me, how it was harder to maintain your concentration as a player in Mexico because it wasn’t the big time. “You go through mental lapses.” he said. “You get tired of playing. But i I you’re a professional you learn to bear down the same against these guys as you would against the Yankees. ’
The fans, meanwhile, wasted no time jeering Wiley because of his wildness. But they also wasted no time jeering the security guards w ho chased unruly kids through the stands, or the umpires when they made a questionable call. In Mexico, it seems, jeering and baseball go together like eggs and toast. When Wiley finally threw a strike, he w as greeted with derisive cheers, but after that he seemed to settle dow n and so did the fans.
Out in center field Ivan Murrell began doing a little routine to stay warm, walking around waving his arms between pitches. The temperature was dropping fast, and in spite of all his gyrations, he looked cold. The Potros look an early lead, but the Venados threatened several times and finally broke through w ith a single run in the fifth inning. Then Wiley came back with a couple of strikeouts and the game was soon over: Potros 3. Venados 1.
When the last out had been made, the fans cheered briefly and then stood up to leave. Their team would go on to the playoffs, and after that, perhaps, to the Mexican championships. But for now the season was over, and there was nothing left to do but shuffle slowly toward the exits. The unintelligible Potros fight song came on again over the P.A., and I suddenly recalled a story Doug Wantz had told me about Willie Crawford, the former Los Angeles Dodger outfielder. Crawford was playing for the Potros earlier this year but was hitting poorly, and Wantz, on his way to a game, happened to see him getting out ofacarat the Tijuana airport. “Hey Willie, what’re you doing?” Wantz called.
“Nothin’,” said Crawford. “They released me. I’m goin’ home.”