MLB looking to expand its reach into Mexico

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- San Francisco Giants reliever Sergio Romo’s grandfather played for the successful Mexico City Diablos Rojos in the Mexican League. He says the sport has become more popular than it was in his grandfather’s day, partly because of the Internet makes it easier to follow. And he is eager to see Major League Baseball work to increase the sport’s popularity.

“There is a lot of talent out there, so I think [MLB should just do] what they’ve done in other countries and open up academies, open up more schools and programs. So the kids have the proper coaching and training,” said Romo, who grew up in California. “I do know the interest is growing. It’s always been there, but it’s definitely growing. The following is getting bigger and you’re seeing more talent coming from Mexico.”

MLB is hoping to further that this weekend with two exhibition games between the Houston Astros and the San Diego Padres in Mexico City. Unlike this week’s game in Cuba, which drew President Obama, the games in Mexico City probably will not draw the same attention in the United States. But MLB hopes they will gain attention in Mexico, and traction beyond then as well.

“This is the first time in over a decade that we have played games in Mexico City,” said Chris Park, MLB’s senior vice president for growth, strategy and international. “Hopefully, this is just the first taste of being a regular presence in Mexico City and across the country.”

Houston and San Diego play a night game Saturday and a day game Sunday. There also will be a fan festival in Mexico City's Zocalo Square and youth baseball clinics.

MLB has played several spring-training exhibition games in Mexico, along with a couple regular-season games as well. In addition to this weekend’s games, the league announced Thursday it is opening an office in Mexico City this year. It also has a deal with the Mexican network Televisa to broadcast a major league game nationwide every Saturday during the regular season.

It’s all part of a goal to expand baseball’s presence in Mexico.

“I like the idea. It’s good for Mexico, a good opportunity to get more talent to get here,” said Rockies pitcher Jorge De La Rosa, who is from Monterrey, Mexico. “I’m excited to see more players come to the United States.”

Roughly a dozen players born in Mexico played in the major leagues last season, not counting Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was born in the United States but spent part of his youth living in Mexico. Gonzalez recently helped Mexico qualify for next year’s World Baseball Classic, the fourth time he has played for that country in a WBC event.

De La Rosa said soccer is a more popular sport in Mexico, but that kids have started playing baseball more often there in recent years.

“I think there’s more talent in Mexico,” he said. “With this, maybe it will help, whether to get more players in the Mexican League or to get discovered to sign here.”

That’s the plan.

“We’re pretty optimistic about the overall interest in baseball and MLB overall,” Park said. “I think we measure up with other American sports and global sports. We’re looking to have a more structured, more consistent relationship with the fans. Certainly some of our franchises have a real heritage with Mexican fans -- the Dodgers, the Astros, the Padres.

“Unlike in some other countries around the world, we’re not looking at a real uphill battle. There is a very strong base not only of baseball fans in Mexico, but of MLB.”