Mexico Makes Its Olympic Baseball Debut Against the Dominican Republic
TOKYO – Mexico, a country where football reigns supreme, has nonetheless produced former baseball stars like Fernando Valenzuela, Bobby Ávila and Vinny Castilla.
None of them have played in the Olympics.
Baseball was out of the Games for 13 years, and Mexico had never qualified for the tournament when it was played.
That changed on Friday, when Mexico made their Olympic debut against the Dominican Republic at Yokohama Stadium, instilling a sense of national pride at home and hoping that baseball could gain greater visibility there as well.
“It’s a gift for many of us here now,” Oliver Perez, 39, said in Spanish. He pitched for eight major league teams in 19 seasons. “And this is a great opportunity. We know there is a lot of talent, and this type of tournament elevates Mexican baseball.
To get there, the national team had to take a winding and sometimes bumpy road. During an Olympic qualifying tournament in November 2019, Mexico made history. This shocked the United States in group matches and again in extra innings in the bronze medal game to earn a berth at the Tokyo Games.
But between this happy moment and its Olympic debut, the Mexican national team had to deal not only with the coronavirus pandemic like everyone else, but also with internal drama and fear of the virus a few days before leaving for Tokyo. which threatened the hopes of the team.
In June, about a month and a half before the start of the Olympic baseball tournament, Mexican baseball officials fired the team leaders who had brought them here: general manager Kundy Gutierrez and manager Juan Castro.
In a June 6 tweet announcing the moves, Castro called him “very sad and unfairnews. Gutierrez and Castro later told Mexican media that their dispute mainly centers on a lack of funding from Mexican officials and the national baseball federation. (And this despite the declared support of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a baseball enthusiast who has carved out special resources for the development of the sport in the country.)
Needing people to lead the national team, La Liga Mexicana de Beisbol, the country’s top professional league, have asked a member of its central office, Patricio Perez, to take over as general manager. Benji Gil, the league’s Mariachis Guadalajara manager and former major league player, has been asked to take over as manager of the national team.
It’s been a crash course for both – especially for Perez, who said he always juggles his duties overseeing the daily Mexican league operations from Japan with little sleep. He still savored it.
“It’s a historic moment,” Perez said in Spanish. “I believe there are good times, and we are at the right times.”
The roster the team brought to Tokyo has many Mexican league players and is one of the most experienced in the six-team Olympic tournament. (Due to Major League Baseball rules, no player on a list of 40 Major League players can compete in the Olympics, so countries end up using free agents, young prospects, or players from the Olympics. ‘other leagues.)
“It’s ironic to say it, but I think it’s a better equipped team than the one that qualified, with the level of the players, the quality, the names, the pitch, the versatility,” said Perez. .
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 roster. Among others with big-league experience: infielders Ramiro Peña, Brandon Laird and Danny Espinosa, and pitchers Fernando Salas, Manny Bañuelos and Perez.
“It’s a unique opportunity, and I’m taking full advantage of it,” said Gonzalez, 39, who had not officially retired because he wanted to represent Mexico at the Olympics after doing so as that young player. at the Caribbean Series and the World Baseball Classic.
Perez, also 39, said something similar: After Cleveland let him go in April, he and his wife agreed he would not hang up his crampons just yet so he could wear the uniform. Mexican at the Olympics. He played with the Tijuana Toros as a tuner.
Due to the team’s recent fear of Covid, Mexico’s practices until Friday were rambling. Pitchers Hector Velázquez, who would most likely have started on Friday, and Sammy Solis – both of whom have major league backgrounds – tested positive for the virus when the team started training in Mexico City over the weekend. last before heading to Tokyo. Perez feared the worst.
“A lot 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 as the building of a list.”
For three days, the entire team isolated in their hotel, skipped practice and were tested daily, Perez 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. Velazquez and Solis stayed and the last of their replacements arrived on Wednesday.
Due to initial uncertainty over their cases, three pre-Olympic training matches against Japanese teams have been called off, Perez said. To get by, the Mexican team found an open grassy area in the Olympic Village to stretch out and play wrestling.
Although Perez said the current squad haven’t played together yet, Gonzalez said the rambling schedule hasn’t been an issue.
The team trained at a stadium near Tokyo on Wednesday, then at a university in Yokohama on Thursday. A day later, after all, they will finally play their first Olympic match.
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