YOKOHAMA, Japan – Mexico, a country where football reigns supreme, has nevertheless produced former baseball stars such as Fernando Valenzuela, Bobby Ávila and Vinny Castilla.
None of them played in the Olympics.
Baseball has been absent from the Games for 13 years, and Mexico had never qualified for the tournament when it was played.
That changed on Friday, when Mexico debuted in the Olympics against the Dominican Republic at Yokohama Baseball Stadium, instilling a sense of national pride at home and hoping that the sport can also have a higher profile.
“It’s a gift to many of us here now,” said Oliver Pérez, 39, in Spanish. He has beaten for eight major league teams over 19 seasons. “And it is a great opportunity. We know there is a lot of talent, and this type of tournament lifts up Mexican baseball. ”
To reach this point, the national team had to navigate a winding and at times bumpy road. During an Olympic qualifying tournament in November 2019, Mexico made history. It upset the United States during pool games and again in extra innings during the bronze medal match to earn a place in the Tokyo Games.
But between the happy moment of its Olympic debut, the Mexican national team has had to contend with not only the coronavirus pandemic like everyone else, but internal drama and a virus scare days before leaving for Tokyo which threatened the team’s hopes.
In June, about a month and a half before the start of the Olympic baseball tournament, Mexican baseball officials rejected the team leaders who led them here: general manager Kundy Gutierrez and manager Juan Castro.
In a June 6 tweet announcing the move, Castro called it “very sad and unfair“News. Gutierrez and Castro told later news in Mexico that their dispute was mainly about lack of funding from Mexican officials and the National Baseball Association. (And this despite the stated support of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an avid baseball fan who has carved out special resources for the development of the sport in the country.)
La Liga Mexicana de Beisbol, the top professional league in the country, needed people to lead the national team, and asked a member of the head office, Patricio Pérez, to take over as general manager. Benji Gil, the leader of the league’s Mariachis de Guadalajara and a former big league player, was asked to take over as national team manager.
It has been a collision course for both of them – especially Pérez, who said he was still juggling his duties overseeing the day – to – day running of the Mexican league from Japan with little sleep. He has nevertheless enjoyed it.
“It’s a historic moment,” Pérez said in Spanish. “I am convinced that the right moments exist, and we are in the right moments.”
Previously, however, it was not. Many factors most likely prevented Mexico from qualifying for previous summer games. Among them: a lot of turnover that leads their national teams, the best players who play abroad and competing calendars of professional leagues around the world and international events.
The list that the team brought to Tokyo has many players from the Mexican league and is one of the most experienced in the six-team Olympic tournament. (Due to Major League Baseball rules, no player on a 40-man list in a major league can compete in the Olympics, so countries end up using free agents, young prospects or players from other leagues.)
“It’s ironic to say that, but I think it’s a better equipped team than the one that qualified, with the level of players, quality, name, pitching, versatility,” said Pérez.
The first baseman Adrián González, a former five-time All-Star with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, is the most decorated player on the list. Among the others with experience in the major leagues: infielders Ramiro Peña, Brandon Laird and Danny Espinosa, and pitchers Fernando Salas, Manny Bañuelos and Pérez.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m taking full advantage of it,” said González, 39, who had not officially withdrawn from playing because he wanted to represent Mexico at the Olympics after doing so as a youth player. at the Caribbean Series and the World Baseball Classic.
Pérez, also 39, said something similar: After Cleveland cut him loose in April, he and his wife agreed that he would not hang up the cleats yet, so he could wear the Mexican uniform at the Olympics. He played with Toros de Tijuana as a tune.
However, due to the team’s recent Covid scare, Mexico’s practice until Friday was incoherent. The pitchers Hector Velázquez, who most likely would have started on Friday, and Sammy Solis – who both have extensive league experience – tested positive for the virus when the team started training in Mexico City last weekend before traveling to Tokyo. General Manager Pérez, concerned.
“Many of them are vaccinated and they are athletes,” he said. “So at the end of the day, the concern was not so much the virus, but about making a list.”
For three days, the entire team isolated at their hotel, missed practice and was tested daily, Pérez said. When no one else tested positive and the team met the requirement of two negative tests within 96 hours to enter Japan, they flew to Tokyo. Velázquez and Solis were left behind, and the last of their replacements arrived on Thursday.
Three pre-Olympic training matches against Japanese teams were canceled due to uncertainty surrounding the cases, Pérez said. To do so, the Mexican team found an open grass area in the Olympic village to stretch and play catch.
Although Pérez said that the current squad had not yet played together, González said that the interrupted schedule had not been a problem.
The team practiced at a stadium near Tokyo on Wednesday, and then at a university in Yokohama on Thursday. A day later, after all, Mexico finally played its first Olympic baseball game, a 1-0 loss.