By Eric Nusbaum (text) and Craig Robinson (art)
Every year, the best winter league baseball teams from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico meet in a round robin tournament called the Serie del Caribe, or Caribbean Series. The Serie is part high-level tournament and part celebration of Latin American baseball. This year, the event is being held in Hermosillo, Mexico, a city of about 700,000 people located just three hours from the Arizona border.
Craig Robinson and Eric Nusbaum were on the scene for Sports on Earth, strolling the concourse at the brand new Estadio Sonora to report on important subjects such as bacon-wrapped hot dogs, bootleg merchandising and, of course, the action on the field.
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HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- Craig and I live in Mexico City, which is about a thousand miles away from Hermosillo, Sonora. Mexico City is also a long ways away culturally. For one, Mexico City is a massive, pulsating metropolis, and Hermosillo still has the air of a pueblo. For another, baseball is not particularly popular in the capital, where soccer is king, queen, prince, princess, duke and duchess of the sports. The friends we told about our trip -- even friends who could lecture you for three hours about Chivas de Guadalajara's recent dismissal of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff as a special advisor -- were often benignly unaware that the Serie del Caribe existed, much less that it was being played in Mexico. So when we got to the airport and saw a pair of men in bright Venezuela jackets standing around near our gate, we felt like we had already arrived in a new place.
When we landed in Hermosillo, the excitement only increased. Giant billboards announced the Serie del Caribe, and every third person seemed to be wearing a baseball jersey or cap. Cars had Dodgers and Yankees and even Montreal Expos window decals. Sonora loved baseball, and the evidence was everywhere. Of all the international teams, the Venezuelan contingent was by far the most visible -- waving giant flags inside the stadium, sitting at long tables in carne asada restaurants and wandering in gentle packs around the historic center.
We finally caught up with the two jacket-wearers from the airport behind the Venezuela dugout during their victory over Puerto Rico on Sunday afternoon. They were two brothers, Andres and Victor, and this was their third consecutive Serie del Caribe. (Sitting in front of them was an old man who had been to 17 in a row and would soon be heading to San Francisco for the World Baseball Classic).
The brothers were from Valencia, an industrial city of about two million people, and the hometown of the Navegantes de Magellanes, who were playing in their first Serie since 2002. They beamed about Navegantes manager Luis Sojo, and danced along with the team's mascot, Capy, a parrot in a pirate's costume who stubbornly refused to get down from the top of the dugout when an usher asked him nicely. "The ambiance is great," said Andres, "The truth is that the people are likable here, they're excellent people, very cordial, and the security is first class."
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This is not normally a statement you can make about ballparks, but Estadio Sonora was designed to look like a volcano. The architects were thinking about desert landscapes when they designed the stadium as the centerpiece of what is intended to be a giant commercial-residential-beisbolista complex west of Hermosillo, a city growing outwardly (but never vertically) into the seemingly endless Sonoran desert. But right now, there is no complex. There is just a long road leading out through sagebrush and dirt toward the brand new ballpark.
The result is that at night, when Mexico is playing, the stadium feels a bit like a party at the end of the world. You can see the city lights in the distance and the low jagged silhouettes of mountains beyond them, but real life feels far away. The speakers are turned all the way up. The 20,000 fans are cranked up too.
After a few hours you begin to feel like Estadio Sonora is utopian world where baseball is literally the only thing that matters; not a sport so much as a natural process, like the slow erosion of a mountain into a pitcher's mound. The field sits in a mild crater below the level of the parking lot -- somewhat reminiscent of Chavez Ravine -- and the outside of the structure slopes up gradually behind the outfield bleachers, which are lined on the outside with sagebrush planters. The roof is meant to evoke a mountain range. There is a massive stage just outside the stadium on a concourse behind the first base line. Fans line up for an hour just to get into the official store. There are at least six different mascots roaming around, all with a legitimate reasons to be here.
In other words, Estadio Sonora has the chance to be a special place for a long time -- if not a particularly Caribbean one.
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This is Geraldo. We came across him in the bleachers at Saturday night's Mexico-Venezuela game, first noticing his jacket (Hermosillo is a paradise of really old and cool baseball jackets), then the fact that he was carrying a stack of rolled up little pieces of paper in one hand, and a wad of cash in the other. He looked like he was dealing drugs. It turned out Geraldo was a different kind of entrepreneur.
The papers are called qunielas. Geraldo sells them inning by inning for 10 pesos each. On every quiniela is listed a position. If the position on the card you draw makes the last out in the bottom of the inning, you win back 60 pesos, which happens to be the exact price of two cervezas. If not, you just play again. Hundreds of fans play, mostly drunk people buying handfuls at a time.
By the eighth inning, I had consumed enough Tecate to play for myself, drawing el cuatro -- the second baseman. Unfortunately for Mexico, the Venezuelans scored two runs that inning to tie the the game at 3, and they would go on to win on a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. (It is very strange to watch a team that is very clearly playing at home, in front of thousands of rowdy fans, lose on a walk-off hit). But fortunately for me, second baseman Reggie Corona made the last out of the inning.
The reward was slow in coming. At first Geraldo claimed he didn't see who had made the last out -- he had been talking to a friend and not paying attention to the game. He asked around and finally found a neutral source to confirm my victory. I handed him ten pesos back to try and extend my run the ninth in the ninth inning. This time I was not so lucky. But what I lost in pesos, I made back in the wisdom printed on the quiniela: "Say no to drugs...yes to quinielas."
The concourse behind the bleachers is the best place to talk to people at Estadio Sonora, especially during Mexico games, which are always scheduled at night. The light from the giant scoreboard gleams down over the fans on the left field side, and vendors in neon jackets sell Tecate cans from tall stacks of cardboard cases. In addition to Geraldo, we met an electrical engineer from Chihuahua waving a horse whip made out of a deer foot, a scientist whose job is to invent cost-effective formulas for shrimp food, and a very drunk nightclub employee wearing a lucha libre mask with a Naranjeros de Hermosillo cap over it. His real name, we eventually learned, was Jesus, but mostly he liked to pose on one knee with his arms outstretched and scream out his wrestling name, which was Dr. Wagner.
The real Dr. Wagner was one of lucha libre's most famous rudos, or villains. Apparently named after the German composer Richard Wagner, he was known for being especially brutal to opponents and for cheating without compunction (a hallmark of the rudo persona). Like many wrestlers, the man behind the mask died young.
Our Dr. Wagner was somewhat more kind-hearted, if also abrasive. Everything he did, he did at least five times, including: inviting us to a nightclub where -- don't worry -- he would pay for bottle service; telling us that he used to live in Tucson, Arizona; posing for pictures with nearby people who did not ask to take pictures with him; dramatically kissing the hands of women despite the presence of his girlfriend; and, most of all, screaming out the words DOCTOR VAAAAAGNEEEEER. (He used the German pronunciation).
Dr. Wagner was part of a makeshift crew of fans standing behind the bleachers in left-center field on Saturday night. I say makeshift because at first we thought everybody knew each other, but that turned out not to be true -- they just happened to be standing near each other. The first person to talk to us was Enrique, a baseball fan from Hermosillo who later gave us a spectacularly good recommendation for a carne asada restaurant called Mariachísimo (the carne asada was so soft that at one point I actually realized I had been cutting it with the dull side of my knife blade).
In many ways, Enrique was emblematic of the fans at Estadio Sonora: extremely friendly and thrilled to be at the game, regardless of the outcome, and regardless of the fact that he was typically a fan of the Naranjeros, not Yaquis de Obregón, the team representing Mexico. Los Yaquis have won the Liga Pacifico de Mexico for three years running, but in attendance you could find fans wearing the caps for every team in Mexico, plus most major league teams. National pride trumped regional pride -- which is why instead of their usual uniforms, los Yaquis wore national colors.
When Mexico lost on a walk-off single, Enrique did the same thing everybody else did: he said goodbye to his new friends, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders before strolling out to the dusty parking lot, where cars would line up for close to a mile in traffic, and fans would wave massive Mexican flags from the beds of slow-moving pickup trucks as they joyfully made their way home.
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The Serie del Caribe is an international feel-good event, which means it is also a heavily sponsored one. The entire scene inside and around Estadio de Sonora looks like it was painted onto a giant Tecate billboard. Beer ads are so ubiquitous that you almost don't notice them. The advertising here has that organic quality -- it feels like a natural part of the Serie del Caribe experience. Ads are chalked onto the field just beyond the base lines, stitched into players' uniforms, and floating via blimps and balloons above the stadium (blimps and balloons that Craig and I have repeatedly mistaken for the moon).
Craig's favorite advertisements were the sky dancers. Sky dancers are those floppy inflatable tube things whose native habitat is on a busy highway in front of a used car dealership. If there wasn't work to do, Craig would have just stared at them for hours on end, possibly drooling meanwhile, and certainly not drawing anything. We spoke with Omar and Ricardo, two men whose job it was to raise and lower the Tecate sky dancers behind the right field bullpen (there were also Coca Cola sky dancers present). They stood on guard waiting for breaks in the action -- third outs, pitching changes, home runs -- during which they would shout code words into walkie-talkies and scramble to turn on a pair of nearby generators. But almost as soon as the sky dancers were inflated, the baseball began again, and they were empty, flopping lifelessly to the concrete in a tangled mess.
The sky dancers were provided by a Monterrey-based company called that is handling all of Tecate's inflatable advertising at the Serie del Caribe. This includes blimps, fanfest promotions, and a beer can the size of a small building in the parking lot. The company brought a bunch of employees to Hermosillo for the week-long event, including Omar and Ricardo, who normally work at baseball and soccer games in Monterrey.
One of the best things about the Serie del Caribe from a fan perspective is how easy it is to get free stuff. Packs of women in scantily clad outfits wander around the stadium with giant bags of foam baseballs, t-shirts, and other souvenirs that you badly want at the time, then immediately realize you have no use for. They work for all sorts of companies, ranging from Tecate to Telmex (Mexico's telephone monopoly). Sometimes the women wear bright spandex; other times the costumes are more creative. The Coca Cola promotional crew was wearing mock baseball uniforms, with pin-striped pants and high white boots. Men drifted away from their friends, and lined up to take pictures with the girls.
I spoke to Flor (second from the right in Craig's drawing) about her experience on the promotional crew. She said that she and her coworkers do this all year round. Coca Cola is present at basically every event in Hermosillo -- the Serie del Caribe is just one of many. (This is not a big surprise, as Mexico routinely leads the world in Coke consumption; in 2010, the company said Mexicans drank about 5,400 ounces of Coke per capita.) Flor was exactly as bubbly as you would expect a person with her job to be. She loved being at the new stadium, and loved promoting Coca Cola. But she said her job was more about creating a fun atmosphere than actually selling a product. The atmosphere, in effect, was the product.
And so it has gone in all of Hermosillo, where in addition to being the highly public debut of a brand new stadium, the Serie del Caribe has been a major economic event. You can't help but notice that all over town, every kind of business is branded with the orange Serie del Caribe logo, ranging from taxis to restaurants to housing developments. You don't get the sense of a city in dire need of a business boom (Hermosillo has a solid manufacturing economy), but you do get the sense of a place taking advantage of this fleeting moment as a tourist destination. The Spanish word I'd use here is aprovechar, which is literally translated to "take advantage of," but actually means something more immediate, and less amoral.
The best example of Sonorans' aprovechando is the parking lot outside of Estadio Sonora, where a dozen or so makeshift tents are set up to sell unofficial merchandise. It's the sort of black market setup that would never, ever exist in an American stadium -- especially while fans are lining up for more than an hour to enter the official Serie del Caribe store. But there the markets are, selling shirts and jerseys and caps and pennants and magnets and beer koozies and pens and basically anything else a person could want. Monday night, we bought burritos from a folding table at the market. Tuesday afternoon, we saw a nun selling Catholic Serie del Caribe keychains. There's more than enough business to go around.
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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."
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MEXICO CITY -- The Serie del Caribe ended early Friday morning with Mexico's Yaquis de Ciudad Obregón defeating the Dominican Republic's Leones de Escogido 4-3 in 18 innings.
Yaquis left fielder Douglas Clark hit the go-ahead home run, finishing the week with a .393 average. And this time, the Yaquis bullpen -- which had already blown handful of late-inning leads during the tournament, including one after a Karim Garcia blast four innings earlier -- held on. At one point in the night, ten thousand Mexico fans had reportedly gathered outside Estadio Sonora to be close to the action. The fans who stayed were treated to a celebration. The Dominican team ended the series with a record of 5-2, and the Mexican team with a record of 4-3. But for the second time in three years, los Yaquis are champions.
If you have been reading along this week, you might notice that this is the first thing I have written about actual baseball being played. Craig's drawings below this paragraph are the first you will have seen that are set on the field in Estadio Sonora, as opposed to in the bleachers or outside the ballpark completely. This is because we are back in Mexico City, where there are no fans to talk to; there is no ambiance to soak up. We watched most the final game on tape delay in my apartment because we could not find it on in a bar.
It was sad leaving Hermosillo. We boarded an airplane in a city where baseball ruled everything in site and landed a couple hours later in a city where baseball -- much less an international baseball tournament happening in the moment, in the very same country -- hardly even registered. This is partly a reflection of baseball's status in Mexico City. "That's baseball right?" said the waiter in the bar we told him we were looking for the Serie del Caribe. But it is also a reflection of the atmosphere in Hermosillo, which even now hardly feels like it could have been real. Hermosillo is a city where even ordinary fans can show up to every day of a seven-day baseball tournament in a different version of their favorite team's jersey; where mixing and matching major league hats with Mexican team shirts is not strange, because the thing people are rooting for most is baseball itself; where people drive 10 hours from Estado Chihuahua in snakeskin cowboy boots just to watch a single game.
The best way to explain things would be to say that baseball in Hermosillo is not only a pastime, but a fundamental part of culture. During the Serie del Caribe, the foundation was highly visible. For example, we rode to the park one day in a taxi that had a baseball mounted on top of the gearshift; we heard a priest speak at length at Fernando Valenzuela's Caribbean Hall of Fame induction about baseball as a model for Catholic faith; we spent a night talking baseball and singing ranchera songs with the broadcast crew of another Liga Pacifico team, the Aguilas de Mexicali (they did the singing).
The Serie del Caribe was also an introduction to a different notion of what baseball culture could be. There was a beautiful self-awareness about fandom there -- perhaps the Spanish word for fan, aficionado, is enlightening. People knew they were not watching or celebrating major league quality players, but they did not seem to mind. The fact of baseball -- especially Latino baseball -- was enough. Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Tejada were exciting to watch, but so were Donell Linares and Iker Franco. At the Hall of Fame ceremony, Latino baseball celebrities like Jaime Jarrín, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame Spanish-language announcer, were introduced to massive ovations. (Jarrín is baseball's foremost Ecuadorian native.)
Mexico is the Serie del Caribe champion. I can only imagine what the bars were like after the final -- if they were even still open after the seven-hour game. But for us, the celebratory nature of fandom in Hermosillo was at its most evident in defeat. Earlier this week, I attempted to describe the parking lot outside of Estadio Sonora after games. The vibe fell somewhere between a college football tailgate and an under-lit, slow-moving parade. Billboard trucks with dancing girls moved among the traffic at walking speed. A thousand car radios blared together. In other words, it was nothing like my apartment.
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Craig Robinson is the proprietor of FlipFlopFlyBall.com, a baseball infographics maven, and can be followed on Twitter @flipflopflying. Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His writing has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast and The Best American Sports Writing. He is a staffer at The Classical. You can reach him @ericnus.