The Mexican League is hardly the place for a baseball player to make a name for himself. It's a Triple A-caliber league, with 16 teams based in the central, north and Gulf Coast regions of the country, bus rides as long as 18 hours and heat that climbs to 120�. The season lasts 122 games, but few are televised, and newspapers offer spotty coverage. The stadiums are old and decrepit. The league's average crowd is a paltry 3,500.
For 25 years, longer than any other player in Mexican League history, Nelson Barrera has endured the conditions and the obscurity, usually without complaint. When younger, less-accomplished players, such as pitchers Fernando Valenzuela and Daniel Garibay, advanced to the majors, Barrera kept belting homers in his homeland. When repeatedly accused of corking his bat—a charge that has never been proved—he kept belting homers. When his knees started to give out three years ago, he kept belting homers. There have been better players than Barrera in the Mexican League, but no better player for the Mexican League.
So on May 31, when Barrera, the 43-year-old designated hitter-manager of the Oaxaca Warriors, hit his 454th career home run, off Tabasco Olmecas righthander Gaudencio Aguirre, to break the Mexican League record, his feat was testimony most of all to perseverance. "The record had survived many, many years," says the 5' 9", 200-pound Barrera, who surpassed the career total that Hector (Superman) Espino set in 1984. "That I got to be the one to break it was really beautiful."
A native of the Yucat�n city of Campeche, Barrera was a scrawny 15-year-old third baseman in 1974, when he began his professional career by signing with a minor league affiliate of the Mexico City Red Devils. During the '76 season he moved up to the Mexican League, but after his first three full seasons there, he had only 12 home runs. As his body and his game matured, he developed into a 14-time All-Star who would be named the league's MVP of the 1980s. In addition to the career home run record, achieved while playing for four teams, Barrera holds Mexican League marks for homers in a season (42 in 1987), career RBIs (1,926 through Friday) and career grand slams (17). He was 72 hits shy of Jesus Somers's career record of 3,004.
Numbers, however, don't fully define Barrera's life. In 1985 Barrera was invited to spring training with the White Sox, with whom he hoped to prove that he could excel in the big leagues. He was sent to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons to start tire season, and after 2� disappointing months, during which he hit .178 with only two homers in 25 games, he quit and returned home. "I don't regret leaving for a second," says Barrera. "I had the best years of my career right after that."
In the mid-1980s, Barrera says, he had a drinking problem and nearly drove his wife, Beatriz, and their four children away. He says he still drinks occasionally. "I'm not going to lie," he says. "Sometimes I have a beer with my wife, but it's not every day." Since becoming an evangelical Christian in 1988, he has stabilized his life by attending church three days a week.
Barrera needed a little help from a higher power on the night he hit homer number 454. He broke the record in the second inning, but soon thereafter it started to rain. Barrera, who had gone 26 days and 20 games without a home run, became nervous. What if the game—and the homer—were washed out? How many more games would it take to hit another one? Finally, after the fifth inning was completed, Warriors catcher Homar Rojas approached his friend. "The record is yours," he said. "Live it. Enjoy it. A moment like this doesn't come often."