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A BIG HIT
Kostya Kennedy
December 29, 1997
THE GOOD DEEDS OF EMERGING BIG LEAGUE STAR MATT STAIRS HAVE MADE HIM A HERO IN NAVOJOA, MEXICO, HIS WINTER LEAGUE BASEBALL HOME
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December 29, 1997

A Big Hit

THE GOOD DEEDS OF EMERGING BIG LEAGUE STAR MATT STAIRS HAVE MADE HIM A HERO IN NAVOJOA, MEXICO, HIS WINTER LEAGUE BASEBALL HOME

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Playing 60 games on dimly lit fields before knowledgeable crowds of some 3,000, Stairs hit .330 and won the league batting championship that first season. "That was where it began," says Cuevas. "That's when people started crying out for Mateo. He gave them something for their spirit."

The town now known as Navojoa was settled in the early 1700s by a tribe of peaceful Indians called Los Mayos. They lived along the banks of the Rio Mayo, which today wends through vast acres of wheat, corn and bean fields. Those fields, as well as many hog and chicken farms, are Navojoa's lifeblood. Cuevas, who has raised three sons there, has made his fortune selling pork and eggs. In 1987 he bought the Los Mayos franchise—which had debuted, along with the Mexican Pacific League, in 1959—because it was struggling to survive, and, he says, "the people need it. They have two things here: religion and baseball."

The smallest of the eight cities in the league, Navojoa has a population of 122,061. Some 70% of the population live within a sprawling slum of unpaved roads in tiny homes made of chipped brick or weathered wood. Children run shoeless in the streets; one-eyed dogs lurk about. Clothes drying on the lines often have holes and have little hope of ever getting clean; orange dust swirls so thick off the bare earth that natives call their home Polvojoa. Polvo is Spanish for "dust."

"You see the way these people live and you have to do something," says Stairs. "You realize how lucky you are, how difficult life can be." The relationship between Stairs and the Navojoans began simply, with Stairs, like many players, signing autographs around the park. Most Americans in the league don't bother to learn Spanish, as Stairs did. He returned in 1991 and again the next year, and he began to be more involved in the lives of the locals. In mid-December he collected money from the other gringos, kicking in hundreds himself. Then he bought pi�atas, cakes and toys. He took those items into the streets, visited schools, made Christmastime feel like Christmastime. "There's not much charity here," says Ortega Orozco. "What Matt did for those people they will never forget. He was like Santa Claus."

After Stairs didn't play in Navojoa during the winters of 1993 (he was in Japan that year) and '94 (he had knee surgery), Cuevas urged him to return. The town missed him, Cuevas said. Cuevas also promised Stairs a surprise if he got Los Mayos into the playoffs.

Stairs came. The opening game of Los Mayos' 1995 season was in Mazatl�n. Kevin Millar, a 26-year-old infield prospect for the Florida Marlins who has been Stairs's teammate in Navojoa for three seasons, remembers the day well. "I'd never met Matt," says Millar. "He was supposed to hit fourth that day, but it was 20 minutes before the game and he hadn't shown up. It got to be 10 minutes before game time, then five, and still no Matt. Finally, when the umpires were meeting at home plate, this guy walked into the dugout wearing jeans and boots and smoking a cigarette. He just pulled on his uniform, went up there and yanked a home run. I was like, Who the f—is this guy?"

Stairs led Los Mayos to the playoffs that season, and Cuevas's surprise gift turned out to be 10% ownership of the club. It hasn't made Stairs richer—Los Mayos struggle just to break even—but he oversees the American players. He helps determine their salary and benefits (most players make $2,500 to $3,000 a month, plus living expenses) and confers regularly with Cuevas and Bundy on all personnel decisions.

Stairs's celebrity is such that the sports section of the region's largest newspaper recently ran a front-page photo of him sitting bareheaded outside the dugout with headphones on. The stop-the-presses caption read MATT STAIRS, LISTENING TO A LITTLE MUSIC. Says Stairs, "They don't miss a thing. I'm fat and I'm bald."

Stairs has fleshed out his legend by playing every position except catcher for Los Mayos. Last year he even pitched two hitless innings in one game. Then, with the season winding down and Navojoa under .500, manager Buddy Bailey resigned and Stairs took over. Los Mayos won nine of 10 and made the playoffs, where they lost in the first round. "Whenever I meet kids, I ask them what they want to do when they get older," says Quiroz. "Many say, 'Be Matt Stairs.' "

After Stairs's breakout performance in the big leagues last season, Navojoans wondered whether he would be back this winter. They thought he might do what other major leaguers do—join the league for a few weeks near playoff time. But 20 days after his last game with Oakland, 15 days after being honored with a Man Stairs Day in Fredericton (pop. 47,000), Stairs played in Los Mayos' opener. When Navojoa hosted the All-Star game in late November, townspeople gave Stairs a plaque acknowledging his humanitarian contributions in a pregame ceremony. That night he hit two home runs.

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