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Baseball in the back seat

In Mexico, where soccer is king, even MLB games draw poorly, and they're priced prohibitively for casual fans.

Baseball in Mexico seems to be suffering an identity crisis.

In the major leagues, there is a small but impressive group of players representing Mexico. Tampa Bay's Vinny Castilla is considered the biggest star; there are a number of frontline pitchers such as Pittsburgh's Francisco Cordova, Arizona's Armando Reynoso, Anaheim's Ismael Valdes; and a handful of up-and-coming players, including Arizona's Erubiel Durazo and Pittsburgh's Humberto Cota.

But here in Mexico, baseball is not necessarily bien.

Soccer clearly is the No. 1 sport, and some say boxing also may be ahead of baseball. The Mexican League teams are drawing just a few thousand fans per game. And once-common talk about a major-league team coming to Mexico has all but ceased.

"It's a dream," said Eduardo Almada, a longtime journalist whose father was the first Mexican player in the major leagues. "A dream, in my opinion, many of the millionaires have and would like to achieve, but I don't see it happening in the next 20 years."

About the best Mexican officials can hope for is an occasional regular-season game (the Mets and Padres played here in August 1996, the Rockies and Padres opened the 1999 season), and the now annual spring training exhibitions, such as this weekend's Rays-Pirates series.

But even those games didn't draw well, with 24,000-seat Foro Sol Stadium half-empty Saturday night and fewer in attendance Sunday, an announced 10,421.

Given that Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of around 20-million, it would have seemed relatively easy to get 20,000 people out to a game featuring their native son.

But, Castilla said, the smaller crowds just illustrate the problems baseball has here.

"It's all soccer, soccer, soccer," Castilla said. "You watch on TV, especially Saturday and Sunday, and it's all soccer. If you see baseball on the news, they'll maybe show the results, but they show all the soccer highlights. I guess everyone loves soccer in Mexico."

Even the fans who want to go to the games have trouble affording it. That clearly was the case for the exhibitions. The promoter set the prices too high for the average citizens: about $20 for the cheapest seats, which were spots on cement bleachers under a broiling sun, and $100 for the best.

If a major-league team came to Mexico, the price structure likely would be an issue, and a problem.

"It's going to be hard," Castilla said. "I don't think the people every day can afford to pay for major-league tickets. People love baseball here but they don't make that much money. You take two kids and a wife and you're going to spend $100 at least. That's what most people make in a week."

There was talk, especially during the early 1990s, of Mexico City or Monterrey, Mexico, as an expansion site. Those teams went to Miami and Denver.

In 1993, Mexico City Tigers president Chito Rodriguez said a group of investors explored the possibility of buying one of baseball's then-troubled franchises, such as the Padres or Pirates, and relocating that team to Mexico City.

The investment group kept a relatively low profile, but Rodriguez said the plans were far enough along to include specifics of a $325-million domed stadium.

But the Mexican economy turned bad the next year and the devaluation of the peso against the U.S. dollar led to the idea being dropped, and that still would be a major issue if and when the subject is revisited.

"The difference between the peso and the dollar is a strong issue," said Tomas Morales, who has covered baseball here for 50 years. "And, let's face it, in Mexico City we have problems. It's not too safe; it's like New York in the old times."

Given the extensive economic problems in Major League Baseball, it seems unlikely there will be expansion soon. And when there is, a number of options may be ahead of Mexico: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and, should there be a certain pitching change, Havana.

For now, Mexican baseball officials are trying to make the best of what they have, getting ready for the opening of their season today, relegated to dreaming about a future that includes the major leagues.

"I hope it happens," Rodriguez said. "Soon."