by Dave Simpson

“The balls are American, the bats are American, the bases were bought in America, the shoes that we have on, the New Balances, I got them because I have a contract with them,” says Pooky Gomez, who’s also American, as we watch the teams warm up at the beautiful Estadio Gasmart in Tijuana. “So the only thing that’s done in Mexico is the uniforms.”

About a mile north of the ballpark is the Foxconn factory where 4,500 employees make LCD screens for American phones, televisions, and computers. Tijuana is a city that typically offers itself to its northern neighbor—its wild nightlife and its cheap labor force—its baseball team relies on American goods and workers hopping the border in the opposite direction.

Lew Ford, who lives in Long Island most of the year, is hitching his hands back and down — shades of Ted Williams, mechanically — then mashing batting practice pitches into the Tijuana hills, two green backdrop bumps.

Ford, 39, played in a low-paying independent league in the States during the regular season but was signed as a well-paid mercenary for the Tijuana Toros’ playoff run.

For baseball-obsessed Americans like Ford and Gomez, Mexico is the land of opportunity.

Back in Los Angeles, Gomez, 35, drives a truck delivering 7Up to retailers 32 hours a week for the health insurance.

Down in the Mexican League, a minor league branch of Major League Baseball in name only, he’s a respected broker, someone who understands baseball on both sides of the border.

During the game, he sits directly behind home plate, sporting nice sunglasses, sharing the box with scouts and Toros executives who rely on him for his knowledge of American ringers like Ford. He also sells MaxBats for the Minnesota-based company, a job that gives him access to locker rooms and front offices throughout the United States and Mexico. “They would call me for bats,” he says, “but then they’d be like: you came from America, do you know any players available?”

Today is the fourth game of the semi-finals and Gomez, whose parents came to L.A. from El Salvador, where they play even less baseball than in Mexico, is leaning on the railing of the dugout with a veteran’s calm as the sunset’s afterburn plays off the hills just like it does at Dodger Stadium. There’s a baseball-addicted pain behind his eyes. It’s common, I think, among the American players and agents in Mexico.

Lew Ford, who garnered an MVP vote after an excellent season with the Minnesota Twins in 2004, looks haggard on the sidelines but more alive than most people when he’s in a batter’s box.

“The money is better here than in independent leagues,” says Ford, a father of three, “but if you’re in the independent league you’ve got a better chance to get picked up by an affiliated team. If you think, ‘hey I’m probably done MLB-wise,’ you can come down here and make some money.”

It’s different for Mexican-born players who, though paid well—$2,500 to $10,000 per month—are trapped by never-ending contracts that often keep Mexican talent from making it to the MLB.

“My opinion, it’s manageable,” Gomez says of the contracts for the Mexicans. “Why is it manageable? Because you still make a living. At the end of the day you look at it like what else are you going to be doing? Are you going to be driving a taxi?”

The league itself is a bizzaro version of the major leagues. In the United States, Mario Mendoza gave his name to the “Mendoza Line,” a batting average of around .200, below which a hitter is considered to be incompetent. In Mexico, where he spent much of his career, he’s a Hall of Famer with the nickname Manos de Seda: hands of silk. It’s a league where a team stacked with former MLB heavyweights Kyle Farnsworth, Armando Galarraga, and American League MVP Miguel Tejada failed to make the playoffs. It’s a league where Jorge Cantu, who once signed a $4.5 million contract, rides a bus through a lonely desert mountain pass to play in a 9,000-seat stadium.

Baseball is, at best, the third most popular sport in Mexico, behind soccer and boxing—a convenience store clerk a mile from the stadium had never heard of the Toros. But for the playoffs, hundreds of dedicated fans show up.

Before game four they are tailgating outside or watching the entertainment behind the grandstands, which consists largely of scantily clad women in thigh-high boots repping various local brands. A man without legs is wheeled out to the center of the plaza and placed on the ground to sell sodas. The music is a mix of banda and American pop songs. The smell of burning radiator fluid mixes with the smell of overfried churros.

By the second inning, every one of Estadio Gasmart’s 16,000 seats is filled. Petco Park—which, to be fair, has many more seats—was only at half-capacity for the San Diego Padres game twenty miles north that night.

The roving vendors are a glorious hodgepodge, a far cry from the corporate hawkers in the States. One man with a graying beard, wearing a black leather vagabond hat, sells nuts and local candies. A kid wearing a pot leaf shirt takes michelada orders. An old woman adds hot sauce to Styrofoam plates of fruit salads topped with crackers and pineapples.

Beyond the fence are flecks of light move up and down the hills, hundreds of them. It’s unsettling at first. An ignorant gringo, I assume desperation in the large swaths of people moving at night in Tijuana. Later, I learn they’re hikers taking in the view from atop Cerro Colorado.

The game itself is unremarkable. Offense is strong in the league because pitching is weak, or vice versa; most pitching prospects are quickly gobbled up by major league clubs. There are lots of calls to the bullpen so the game lags in the late innings.

Fans pump air horns and plastic trumpets in unison, sounding like the staccato discordant soundtrack from a horror flick. Cheers are loud throughout, though more likely to erupt for a long fly ball, mistaken, at first, for a home run, rather than quieter plays like a ground ball that advances a base runner.

“Blurred Lines” is blasting on the stadium speakers. It cuts abruptly as the pitcher comes set. He winds up, pitches, and the moment the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, the song resumes exactly where it left off, like musical chairs. On the field a chicken and monkey mascot make obscene gestures at one another. Everybody get up!

“It’s kind of like a constant party,” Toros pitcher Barry Enright tells me. Lanky with red hair, the Northern California native was drafted high by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He ascended quickly to the big leagues, where he struggled and was ultimately cut.

After a big strikeout in an earlier game, I saw Enright storm off the mound screaming like he was pitching in the World Series.

American minor league games are essentially tryouts for players fighting to make it to the next level. The centerfielder might be competing with the leftfielder, a teammate, for the same roster slot. The great players are promoted, gone from the team before the playoffs. The competition and camaraderie just isn’t there.

In the Mexican League, the players aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They stick around for decades. Chemistry develops. And while the level of play is often worse than the American minor leagues, the games are more competitive. “This is their big leagues,” Enright tells me, “so it’s my big leagues.”

He pitched well during the season, something he attributes, in part, to being able to forget about the never-ending fight for a spot in the majors.

“Being here has helped me stay in the moment and just enjoy it,” he says. “I’ve always loved baseball and getting back here and being around a fun atmosphere has let me kind of clear my head. Who knows if I’ll ever go back over there or play in the big leagues again but it’s helped me not think about next year.”

Many of the players, including Ford, live out of the team hotels but Enright got himself an apartment in San Diego.

“Passing the border’s pretty easy,” he says, “I’m always going the opposite direction of traffic.”

After the Tijuana series, I was fairly certain I had everything I needed for the story I was working on at the time (about a now-erased blacklist) but I kept traveling to games. As a middle-schooler, I’d wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to lift weights in the hopeless pursuit of playing professional baseball. It’d been more than a decade since that dream died and I think I kept traveling to games because I liked being able to stand, as a member of the press, on the field with the players.

In the desert between Monterrey and Monclova, a baseball-crazy steel town with a fire-spewing mill whose flames could be seen from behind home plate, my bus broke down. I’d read, the night before, on the State Department’s website, that Americans should “defer non-essential travel” throughout almost the entire state of Coahuila, where I was stranded.

“The state of Coahuila continues to experience high rates of violent crime, including murder, kidnapping, and armed carjacking,” it said.

Gomez, Ford, and Enright make road trips like this all the time for a chance to stand out on the field. Mexican immigrants make even more astounding trips across similar landscapes to make it to the United States.

Sitting on the side of the road, a dusty mountain pass, I tried to define the word “essential.”


Image at top by Eric Frazier.

Posted by Boom California