Sunday, September 27, 2009

MEXICAN BASEBALL HISTORY 4: Mexican Baseball in the 21st Century.

It would be hard to envision a sport not developing deep roots after spending over a century in a prominent position in any given country, and such is the case with baseball in Mexico, where baseball is known as “El Rey de los Deportes,” or “The King of Sports.” Although soccer has surpassed it in popularity across most of the country, baseball is still beloved among sports fans in Mexico, with its long, proud history there.

At the top of the mountain, the Mexican League is one of just three circuits with Class AAA status in Minor League Baseball, and is coming off a season in which over three million people attended games in the Liga’s 16 cities. Although the Mexican Pacific League is not sanctioned by Minor League Baseball, it is one of the best-organized winter leagues in the world and it’s not unusual for two million fans to click the turnstiles at Mex Pac ballparks, though their eight teams play just 68 games per season prior to its January playoffs. It’s not unusual to see the same people play in both leagues, as Mexico is the only nation anywhere in which pro baseball is played year-round. The top Mexican-born players from the Liga and Mex Pac form the core of Mexico’s National Team in international competition, along with select major leaguers.

The Liga and Mex Pac are not the only professional leagues in Mexico, however. During the spring and summer, the eight-team Northern League in Sonora plays a schedule, while there is a ten-team loop in Veracruz playing during the winter months, but there are also a number of smaller independent circuits in pockets of the country.

The Mexican League also operates a Baseball Academy near Monterrey in which over 100 players live in a 56-room dormitory at a complex which includes four full fields, batting cages, weight room, dining hall, infirmary and study facilities. The Academy is in session between June and December, and many products have gone on to play professionally in Mexico and the United States.

Of course, players don’t just pick up a baseball at age 18. Mexico has a well-developed youth baseball system with thousands of players under the auspices of Little League Baseball and the Mexican Baseball Federation (or FeMeBe). Mexico’s Little League program for kids 12 and under has been a strong presence for several decades, with Mexican teams winning the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in 1957, 1958 and 1997 and finishing second another three times.

FeMeBe sponsors competition for players between 11 and 16 years of age in three divisions. Traditionally, Mexican baseball is strongest in the northwest states, and 2009 was no different. Sonora won the national title in the Infantil (11-12) Division, Coahuila broke through to won the Pre Junior (13-14) competition, and Sinaloa came in first among Junior (15-16) teams. In particular, Sonora teams had a great year, adding a second-place finish among Junior teams and coming in third in Pre Junior.

While American baseball has its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Mexican baseball has its Salon de la Fama in Monterrey. Although five people comprised the first class of the Salon in 1939 and another six names were added to the rolls in 1964, it wasn’t until 1971 that a permanent home was built on the grounds of a brewery in Monterrey. Since then, well over 100 players, managers, executives and writers have been elected. Yes, sportswriters are given full membership in the Salon de la Fama as opposed to honorary status in Cooperstown.

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