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Two-game trip solidifies ties in Mexico for Rays

Chuck LaMar remembers his first trip.

He was a second-year Cincinnati scout and made what seemed like an obvious observation after attending the 1986 All-Star Game in Houston: If one of the National League pitchers, Fernando Valenzuela, was from Mexico, and one of the American League pitchers, Teddy Higuera, also was from Mexico, shouldn't the Reds spend more time scouting in Mexico?

LaMar volunteered, jumped in his white Chevy Impala and drove from Texas to Mexico City, spending 10 days learning names, places and enough Spanish to at least order dinner. Just a few months later, he was finalizing the first of what are now common working agreements between major-league organizations and Mexican League teams.

"I always felt with the proximity between our two countries and the long-standing relationship we had, I thought it was necessary for a major-league club to have some type of presence in Mexico," LaMar said.

Now in his sixth year as Tampa Bay's general manager, LaMar is back in Mexico as his Rays play exhibition games against the Pirates tonight and Sunday.

At a time when people flock to Florida for fun and sun, the Rays volunteered to fly 1,225 miles away, arriving Friday night, for a number of reasons.

They are here to spread the word of Major League Baseball, which is aggressively trying to expand its international presence. They are here to increase the profile of their franchise and that of their partners, the Mexico City Tigers. They are here to showcase Vinny Castilla, who is Mexico's most favored baseball-playing son and was mobbed by TV crews as the team arrived at the Inter-continental Hotel.

And they also are here to get away from home, figuring the 52-hour spring break will ease the monotony of training in their regular-season city.

"It's a very limited time, but it does give the players a chance to be together," manager Larry Rothschild said. "For us, it's different having spring training (in St. Petersburg) because a lot of players have their families here. In other spring trainings, a lot of them are staying in hotels or apartments and spend a lot of time together. It's a little bit different for us and I think it's good we at least get a couple days."

As part of a five-year business plan of internationalization, MLB officials are staging an increasing number of exhibitions and regular-season games abroad. "We realized that to support our international fans and our international business we need to play games," said Paul Archey, senior vice president of MLB International. "We can't just put games on TV. We need to take games to those fans."

With managing general partner Vince Naimoli an active member of MLB's international committee, the Rays volunteered for the road trip, paid for by MLB.

They went to Venezuela last spring for games against the Braves, part of MLB's Month of the Americas series that included exhibitions in the Dominican Republic and Hermosillo, Mexico. Plus, the Mets and Cubs opened the season in Japan.

The Rays-Pirates games are part of this year's expansion plan: the Indians and Astros played in Venezuela last weekend, there are also exhibitions in Culiacan and Hermosillo, Mexico, this weekend, and the Rangers and Blue Jays open the season in Puerto Rico.

"Vince has been very supportive on our committee and very willing to play international games," Archey said. "I think he understands we need to play games to grow our international fan base. And a lot has to do with him being a new team and realizing the opportunity to go out and promote a new team."

Once the decision was made to play games in Mexico City, the first appearance there by major-league teams in more than 20 years, the Rays and Pirates were the obvious choices.

The Rays have a working agreement with the Mexico City Tigers and the Pirates have the same with the Mexico City Reds.

Under the arrangement, the Rays provide the Tigers with up to five "foreign" players a year _ Luis Polonia in 1998, Julio Franco in 1999 and Santos Hernandez last season _ and pay their salaries. In return, the Rays have the services of the Tigers' Mexican scouting staff and the right of first refusal on any player the Tigers sign.

The arrangement has netted the Rays a handful of players, including catcher Humberto Cota, who was integral in the trade for Jose Guillen, and promising shortstop prospect Jorge Cantu.

"They help us scout the country of Mexico in a much more efficient way than we could on our own, and I think the benefit of us paying for four or five of our players comes back to us even more so," LaMar said.

The weekend games will be a showcase at the new 25,000-seat Foro Sol Stadium, though ticket sales are slow due to prices running from $20-$100. Still, it should be an exciting weekend for all involved.

"I think it will be a big deal for fans in Mexico," Castilla said. "It's been a long time since Mexico City had a major-league game. Plus it's good to promote baseball in Mexico City because it's all soccer, soccer, soccer."