They've been revering baseball players in Navojoa, Mexico, for decades, and they've seen their share of fair-haired foreigners. But never in this poor and spectacularly dusty farm town has there been anyone like Mateo Escalera.
That's a translation from the original Canadian Matt Stairs, which means a doughy, goateed and neckless Canuck who last season slammed 27 home runs in only 352 at bats for the Oakland A's and who this winter is again the idol of Mexico's northwestern plains. This is Stairs's sixth season playing for Navojoa's Los Mayos in the Mexican Pacific League, and though he's easily the oddest-looking character in Navojoa—save, perhaps, the occasional wayward boar—the natives have embraced him and are holding on tight. "He's part of us," says Navojoa mayor Carlos Quiroz. "When Matt is hitting well, the people are happy. When he's not, the people are sad."
Victor Cuevas, Los Mayos' principal owner, says, "People love Matt Stairs." And he's right. They love Stairs because he wins batting titles and hits long home runs over the Tecate beer sign in right-centerfield. They love him because he'll play any position at any time. They love him because even though he makes his living as a leftfielder and cleanup hitter in the major leagues, he comes to play in a rickety-bus league. They love him for his jovial unshaven face and his big belly and the way, between spits of chewing tobacco, he takes hard puffs off his cigarettes like a hard-boiled Navojoan. They love him for his easy manner, the money he raises and the way he holds their children. "He's done more for this place than any baseball player ever has," says Antonio Ortega Orozco, who has been a radio broadcaster for Los Mayos for 15 years. "He always has kids around him. When you see the way he talks with them, you can see in his eyes how much he cares."
It's an unlikely love affair for a puck-crazy boy from snowy Fredericton, New Brunswick, but the 29-year-old Stairs has remained faithful to Navojoa even as he has developed into a U.S. phenomenon, mashing baseballs with astonishing efficiency from his foot-in-the-bucket stance. Stairs, barely 5'9" and at least 210 pounds, came up from the minors and hit .351 with runners in scoring position during the Boston Red Sox' drive for the playoffs in 1995. That winter he signed a free-agent contract with the A's, and in '96 he hit 10 home runs in 137 at bats. As fans call him the Wonder Hamster.
"Bad body, weird stance—he doesn't look like he can hit," says Lorenzo Bundy, a longtime minor league instructor and the Los Mayos manager. "He just rips."
Not until injuries ended his career as the star sniper on Fredericton High's hockey team did Stairs begin ripping in earnest. "All I wanted as a kid was to play in the NHL," he says. "I didn't get up at 5 a.m. and go to the rink every day for nothing. Baseball was just a way to kill time in the off-season."
After twice tearing up his right knee, Stairs gave up hockey and joined Canada's national baseball development program. He hit well enough to become Canada's starting shortstop in the 1988 Olympics. In '89 he was signed as a free agent by the Montreal Expos, and the following winter his Navojoan adventure began.
"My first game there, people were throwing roosters in the stands," says Stairs, who was then playing A ball for the Expos. "They were hooting and flinging cornstalks. Then when I'd go to the market, everybody looked at me like I was a freak."
"It was hard," says Stairs's wife, Lisa, who accompanied him to Navojoa in 1990 and has not been back. "Pretty rough around the edges."
Fortunately for Stairs, he could retreat to El Rancho, a pristine white stucco hotel run by Cuevas as an outpost for visiting U.S. hunters who stalk white-tailed dove. Stairs and the other gringos (the league permits five per team, most of whom are Double A or Triple A prospects) lived—and still live—in that cable-ready oasis. The hotel is equipped with a Ping-Pong table, untold cases of Tecate and a kitchen staff that makes exquisite French toast.