By Eric Nusbaum (text) and Craig Robinson (art)
HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- No matter where you are in Hermosillo, there is only one way to get to Estadio Sonora. You drive to the city center, then head west on Calle Luis Donaldo Colosio, a wide boulevard lined by billboards, strip malls, and the welcoming front gates of high-end housing developments. It looks a bit like Arizona. The newer buildings are all the color of sand, but you can tell it is very expensive sand.
Colosio was a native Sonoran politician who ran for president in 1994. He drew huge crowds and massive support, campaigning behind an optimistic, reform-oriented platform. Then, he was shot in the head and stomach at close range at a campaign rally in Tijuana. In the 18 years since, Colosio assassination conspiracy theories have taken a sort of JFK-esque place in the Mexican political discourse. There is an alleged shooter sitting in jail, but there is no clear story as to whether he acted alone or on behalf of somebody else. There is not even agreement over whether the confessed killer in fact pulled the trigger. Many people say it was Colosio's own party, the long-powerful PRI, who had him killed.
At the end of Calle Colosio, you reach a T intersection punctuated by a statue of Mexican baseball legend Hector Espino. The statue marks the beginning of the brand new Calle Hector Espino, which cuts through the massive dusty parking lots and spits you out just a short distance from the stadium's entrance. All this might seem like a great honor for Espino, if not for the fact that until a couple weeks ago, the statue was located in front of Estadio Hector Espino -- the home park of the Naranjeros de Hermosillo for the last 30 years.
Espino is widely regarded as the greatest hitter in the history of Mexico. He is Mexico's Babe Ruth -- all the more beloved for turning down repeated offers to play in the major leagues. He played in Mexico for 25 seasons. The old stadium was actually re-named in his honor in 1976, while he was still active on the Naranjeros. He died of a heart attack in 1997, just 58 years old.
The street name and the relocated statue feel a bit like scraps being thrown at dogs -- hollow gestures meant to obscure the fact that Estadio Hector Espino remains a relatively functional ballpark in a vastly more convenient location than Estadio Sonora. One taxi driver, a man in his early 70s, thought just about everything about the new ballpark was a massive governmental insult being hurled in the direction of Hermosillo's baseball-loving poor and working classes. Estadio Hector Espino could have been easily renovated, he said, but the project would not have been nearly as lucrative. Meanwhile, Estadio Sonora was just too far away for many people to get to. The local government showed no indication of being able to provide adequate bus service.
The new stadium is beautiful, but that does not make it perfect. One thing it's missing: sufficient cheap seats. The outfield bleachers were a party, but a relatively exclusive one. During Mexico games, fans would line up at the gates behind left and right field to suck in a bit of the ambiance, and try for a glimpse at the action. But from where they stood, all they could see was the opposite concourse. We spoke to one family camped out at the gate. "There were no tickets, but it's still worth it just being out here," said Raul, who spent an entire game on his feet outside, holding his young daughter.
At least Raul had a perfect view of the luxury boxes, of which Estadio Sonora has no lack. They wrap snug around the infield on the second level. In this sense, Estadio Sonora is a quintessential stadium in North America: citizen-funded, government-owned, and corporation-friendly. This fact has not been lost on the citizens of Hermosillo, who are heavily taxed but minimally served by state and local government. On Friday, the first day of the Serie del Caribe, activists protested an expensive car tax recently reinstated by a governor who had campaigned against that very thing. Anti-tax bumper stickers were a common site on Hermosillo streets. The concern is not that additional tax revenue would go toward public works that don't benefit the greater good; the concern is that additional tax revenue will simply line politicians' pockets.
One fan I spoke to was a civil engineer with a side business renting out construction equipment. He loved the new ballpark -- after all, his machines had helped build it. I asked him if he had to bid on the contract for the stadium job, but he just laughed and said no, he definitely didn't have those kinds of connections. The government gave construction contracts to big firms, friendly ones. Then, those firms subcontracted bajo la agua (literally underwater, but in effect under the table) to small companies like his. Taxes make above-the-board work untenable. Even horses in Sonora are taxed, said the engineer.
To be fair, the unseemly details of stadium construction and municipal corruption would have been relatively invisible had I not been a reporter snooping around for them. The most outwardly uneasy aspect of the Serie del Caribe was the massive police presence at Estadio Sonora. Local, state, and federal officers roamed the grounds -- many wielding gleaming machine guns. A helicopter flew circles over the stadium all day and night. Armored vehicles lined up in the parking lot.
One Venezuelan fan said he thought the security was excellent, but many of the Mexican fans I spoke to said the heavy police presence made them uncomfortable -- like the higher-ups had a notion that something bad was going to happen. At the very least, the police officers were a constant reminder that in places not so far away, Mexico was fighting a bloody war against domestic drug cartels (who were also fighting a series of bloody wars amongst themselves). For instance, Sinaloa, the state that borders Sonora to the south, is home to the Sinaloa Cartel -- widely regarded as Mexico's most powerful. Chihuahua, which borders Sonora to the west, contains the border city Juarez, routinely listed among the world's most violent.
The federal officers were serious in the face of a decidedly un-serious atmosphere, but also very outgoing. They were there for security, but more than that they were there for presencia, to project the image of security. We chatted with federal police officers Simeon, Arturo, and Lizbeth near the center field entrance. Drunk fans posed for pictures with them. Simeon, from Puebla, was the only baseball fan in the group. He and Arturo had worked previously in Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacán, Veracruz, Tijuana, and Coahuila. When I asked Arturo what the best parts of the job were, he said he found capturing narcotraffickers and rescuing kidnapped citizens to be very rewarding. How did working at the Serie de Caribe compare? "It's good."