From a commissioner's office in New York or a press box almost anywhere in the U.S., the view was breathtaking. With a population of 2.5 million and a rich baseball tradition, the sprawling city of Monterrey, Mexico, appeared to be the ideal market for major league baseball to enter as it moved into the next millennium.
The San Diego Padres, bumped from Jack Murphy Stadium because of a potential scheduling conflict with last week's Republican National Convention, chose to play last weekend's three-game series against the New York Mets in the 25,644-seat Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey, which thus became the site of the first big league games played outside the U.S. and Canada. For the Padres the series was merely a chance to make the best of the scheduling snafu and increase their burgeoning fan base south of the border. But for major league baseball the series was much more. It was an opportunity to show the world that the grand old game could think globally and act progressively. It was the first step toward Monterrey's getting an expansion franchise perhaps as early as the turn of the century.
Funny thing is, virtually all of the people envisioning what a great addition Monterrey would be to the major leagues had one thing in common: They weren't in Monterrey last weekend. To those who made the trip and saw the games, the prospect of a big league baseball team's being based in Monterrey looked like a distant dream, not unlike the possibility of Mrs. Fields opening a cookie store on Neptune. It may happen by the turn of the century, but we're not talking about the next century.
At this point Monterrey has a better chance of landing the Winter Olympics than a major league baseball franchise. Aside from the oppressive heat, the language barrier, the lack of an adequate stadium and the depressed economy, there's almost nothing to stop the big leagues from dropping a team there. Monterrey might be more useful as a Triple A affiliate. Then, at least, a major league manager could threaten his players with a demotion there.
Among other things, it is impossible to imagine an American-born, English-speaking free agent choosing to play in Monterrey. "Right now, I can't see it," said Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn before Friday's game. "When you reach the major leagues, you want to feel like a major league ballplayer. You want to play in a major league ballpark in a major league city. This just doesn't feel like that."
Monterrey is a picturesque city that loves its baseball—it's the home of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame—but it takes more than that to land a big league franchise. It takes piles of money. The newest expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which make their debuts in 1998, paid $130 million apiece just to take a seat at the major league table. And that sum didn't include the cost of a new stadium or the payroll or the price of paper clips. You don't need Lou Dobbs to tell you that Monterrey doesn't have that kind of capital. In fact, when major league baseball was last accepting applications from possible expansion franchises, in 1994, a group from Monterrey applied. Unfortunately, the Mexican economy slumped while the applications were being processed, and Jose Maíz, the man in charge of Monterrey's bid, wrote a letter to the expansion committee bowing out because of a lack of funds. "We need to let the economy recover," wrote Maíz, a construction mogul who also owns the Sultanes, the local Mexican League entry. "We are not ready yet."
Rodolfo Sánchez, a salesman for a steel company, attended last Friday's Mets-Padres game with his wife, father and brother, laying out 300 pesos ($40) for four seats. Sánchez also took in the Dallas Cowboys-Kansas City Chiefs preseason game at an adjacent stadium on Aug. 5, and he found the baseball game more entertaining. "The football players were just trying to not break their legs," he said as he watched last Friday's game. "The baseball players are giving everything they've got."
Did Sánchez believe the Padres' visit portended well for his hometown's chances of landing an expansion team? "Oh. no," he said. "But it lifts us up just a little, and so it was worth it."
Gene Orza, the associate general counsel of the players' association and a proponent of taking the game international, says expansion to Monterrey is "inevitable." Then he adds, "Of course they would have to build a dome." A dome? Most of the citizens of Monterrey can't afford tickets. The Sultanes, a Double A caliber team, just won their second straight championship, and they averaged only 6,000 fans per game in Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey. A bleacher seat for a Sultanes game sold for five pesos (67 cents).
Naturally prices were jacked up for the Mets-Padres series—bleacher seats were 30 pesos ($4) and the best seats 130 ($17.34)—but it was a surprise when none of those games were sold out. In the opener last Friday night San Diego pitched Fernando Valenzuela. the most beloved Mexican player of all time, who went six innings to get the win in the Padres' ugly 15-10 victory. The evening was a true, proud Mexican baseball celebration. There were fireworks, mariachi bands and chants of "¡Toro! !Toro!" for Valenzuela, whose nickname in his home country is the Bull. But there were also nearly 2,000 empty seats. Attendance slipped to 20,873 for New York's 7-3 win on Saturday night and bounced to 22,810 on Sunday afternoon as the Padres shut out the Mets 8-0.