Paul Oberjuerge header image 2

Futbol Diaries, Part 3: Hermosillo to Culiacan

June 10th, 2017 · No Comments · Baseball, Dodgers, Football, soccer, World Cup

On our Tijuana-to-Mexico City road trip ahead of a 2006 World Cup qualifier, back in 2005, we noticed that the main north-south road on the western side of Mexico goes right through Navajoa — where Los Angeles Dodgers pitching star Fernando Valenzuela was born.

Back in 2005, I assumed readers would not be interested in six consecutive days about Mexican soccer, so we mixed in a day of Fernando-oriented baseball. Plus, we are fans of the Dodgers and looked at our pause in Navajoa as a sort of pilgrimage to the roots of one of the club’s greats.

Back then, Sonora state did not have a club in the Mexican soccer league’s top division and that probably was because many people in the state represent a national oddity — baseball fans.

The day had been spent driving pretty much directly south and watching the desert of the north turn into more verdant country along the Pacific coast. Traffic was modest and we moved along at a nice clip, and our half hour poking around Navajoa did not put us behind schedule.

We still had not felt any sense of doing something daring or dangerous, the two of us Yankees making a 1,800-mile trip through Mexico.

The story begins:

CULIACAN, Mexico — Skirt the dead dog in the gutter, nudge the car down the pavement into the mud of Avenida Sosa Chavez, maneuver around the burro pulling a man in his cart … and there is Mexico’s Field of Dreams.

It doesn’t look like much, Estadio Navajoa. A single tier of stands surrounded by a dirt parking lot sprouting desert weeds. But this Sonoran farm town of 100,000 souls is considered the hometown of Mexico’s greatest baseball star, Dodgers left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, born here and the native of a nearby hamlet named Etchohuaquila.

“I saw him pitch many, many times,” Raul Chavez, 32, said in Spanish. “He is the hero of this town and the foundation of all sports here.”

Chavez had rolled to a stop on his bicycle just outside the Estadio Navajoa. He wore a New York Yankees cap and a smile as he assured two American visitors that not every corner of Mexico is all about soccer all the time.

“Baseball is the most popular sport here, in Navajoa,” Chavez said with some heat. “More popular than (soccer), American football, basketball. Absolutely.”

Valenzuela came out of Mexico to foment Fernandomania with the Dodgers in 1981, beginning his rookie season with an 8-0 record, including four shutouts. He won the Cy Young Award that season and helped the Dodgers win the World Series.

He galvanized Mexican-American enthusiasm for baseball in a way never before seen in the Major Leagues.

His successes were closely followed in Mexico in the part of the country where baseball is more than a stick and ball game played by gringos — the north of the country and, particularly the dry and dusty northwest of Sonora state.

Valenzuela has returned to Mexico’s winter Pacific League in recent years and fans turn out to see a chubby 40-something man retire batters half his age. In 2001, he helped the Hermosillo Orange Growers win the league championship.

“I was a kid when he played for the Dodgers but I remember him,” said Julio Cesar Encinas of Hermosillo. “He is an inspiration. You can tell he loves to play baseball. He is better than the football players who played in Spain; Valenzuela was great in the best baseball in the world.

To be sure, baseball is miles behind soccer in overall public interest, south of the Rio Grande. The United States-Mexico World Cup qualifying soccer match we are bound for, in Mexico City on Sunday, will draw a roaring crowd in excess of 100,000 and post enormous television ratings in Mexico.

Even in Navajoa and Hermosillo and south to Culiacan, where the Tomato Pickers are popular, soccer remains a bigger lure. The average hombre on the avenida is more likely to be able to name all 11 of Mexico’s current soccer starters than a half-dozen Mexicans currently in the Major Leagues.

To wit: The young man selling hotdogs three blocks from the Navajoa stadium said he not only is not a Fernando fan, he’s never heard of him.

But baseball has its partisans here, just as soccer does in the U.S. Chavez said his favorite current Mexican players are Vinny Castillo, Esteban Loaiza and Erubiel Dorazo, He saw all of them play at Estadio Navajoa, where the price of tickets ranges from $1 to $15.

On our drive yesterday, we rolled through Mexico’s baseball belt, having survived the midnight Tuesday arrival into tidy and thriving Hermosillo, then forging ahead through the Pacific League’s bastions — Los Mochis (the Bucs), Guasave (Cotton Pickers), and Culiacan.

It was a beautiful day for a drive down Highway 15, with wispy clouds, warm sun, semi-desert blooming green, orange and gold. The day ended with us in the agricultural area of Sinoloa’s coastal plain, where farmers grow corn, tomatoes and more corn.

It was perfect baseball weather, warm and dry, but we couldn’t go see a Pacific League game; the season runs from October to January.

When we resume driving, we will approach central Mexico, which is hardcore soccer country, where kids kicking a ball in the street probably could hear the name “Fernando Valenzuela”, look puzzled and say, “Quien?”

Tomorrow: From Culiacan to San Blas.



0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment