Eric and I have known each other electronically for about four years. He and his pal Ted used to run a Web site called Pitchers and Poets. It was a good thing. With me also having a baseball site, we ended up exchanging emails, all three of us. I was emailing my pal Pete about baseball a lot, too, and eventually, the streams crossed and we ended up having a four way email conversation about baseball and hot dogs and jumping frogs and, once in a while, Albuquerque.
Eric and his girlfriend Janelle moved to Mexico City in October. This was the first time we had met in person. Eric is a writer. He likes baseball. He lives in the same city as me. One day, we got to chatting about the Serie del Caribe (Caribbean Series, an annual baseball tournament held between the winners of the winter leagues in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). It’s held in one city from one of the four participating nations on a rotating basis, and this year it was Mexico’s turn, and would take place in Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, about a three hour drive south of the Arizona border.
We both wanted to go. And because he writes about sports (amongst other things), and I often draw baseball-related stuff, it wasn’t a huge leap for us to come up with the idea of up pitching an idea to someone of he and I working together on a co-authored text and images thing about the series.
At the time, I’d recently done some infographics for a new Web site called Sports on Earth. So I emailed Emma Span, the editor I’d dealt with, explained our idea, and would they be interested.
They were. Hurrah. We noodled around for a while, didn’t get our shit together, and eventually started looking for flights, accommodation, and Emma got on the case regarding press credentials for us, even though the Serie del Caribe Web site clearly stated that the time for applications was over.
Hermosillo is a city of about 800,000 people the 20th largest city in the country. There only seemed to be a couple of flights from Mexico City that weren’t booked up, so they were a wee bit expensive. Accommodation proved to be an even bigger issue: we checked and checked and kept finding hotels fully booked for the whole week. We were essentially Mary and Joseph.
When we did come across a hotel with rooms, they were super expensive and only renting rooms for the whole week of the series. We were only gonna be there for four nights, but it looked we might have to stump up the cash for seven just to not end up sleeping under a cactus. With only about ten days to go, we had some good fortune: my friend Adria is from Hermosillo, and her mother was willing to rent out her spare rooms to us for the duration of our stay.
Getting press credentials seemed to be very Mexican in its organisation. I love this country, but it can be frustratingly inefficient at getting things done. Eric and I would be two of very very few gringo “journalists” at the Serie del Caribe. We were there for Sports on Earth, a site put together by USA Today and the media arm of Major League Baseball. A few days before we were due to fly, Emma mentioned that things had started to look a bit more promising. And the day before we left, she told us we should — should — have passes waiting for us at the ballpark. We got the name of a contact at the stadium to help us if needs be. Splendid.
Baseball is popular in Mexico. But only in certain parts of Mexico. Mexico City is one of the parts of the country where it is not particularly popular. We have a team in the summer league, but attendance isn’t great. And this city has three popular teams in the top flight of Mexican soccer. Very few of my friends knew that the Caribbean Series was happening in their country. At the departure gate, though, we saw baseball caps and jackets. People on our flight were going to Hermosillo, like us, to watch baseball.
A couple of hours in the sky, and we were walking through an airport where even more people were dressed in baseball garb. People stood around, waiting for luggage, waiting for rental cars, in hats and jerseys of Mexican, Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and American teams. We had flown from Ciudad de Fútbol to Ciudad de Béisbol.
Hermosillo may well be small compared to Mexico City, but it’s also big. Very few buildings have more than a ground floor. In fact, the only time we had to climb or descend more than a short flight of stairs was when we had to go up to the press box* at Estadio Sonora, the baseball stadium. And because of this, the city sprawls in the desert fairly significantly. It was a long taxi ride from the airport to where we were staying. A taxi ride that had the driver on his cell phone several times talking to a colleague, asking where exactly the place we were staying is.
* I’ve been in press boxes at baseball stadiums before. Once legitimately, and a few times on stadium tours. The Estadio Sonora had a press box where one would expect, up and above home plate, but because the Caribbean Series had way more press members than would be there for future games at the park (the stadium is brand new and will be the home of the local Liga Pacifico team, los Naranjeros de Hermosillo, the Hermosillo Orange Growers), it had been extended to include a long row of high tables and chairs around the top edge of that level of the stands.
The house we stayed at was lovely. Our host, Carmen, was really friendly and a great cook. And there was a terrace which was a great place to spend the mornings, drinking coffee and working on drawings while hummingbirds darted back and forth to the feeders hanging from the roof. After a chicken lunch (pretty much our only non-cow meal of our time there) we were back in a taxi heading back across to the other side of town to the ballpark.
As mentioned, this park is new. Up until the end of the Liga Pacifico season a few weeks ago, the city’s ballpark was Estadio Héctor Espino, named after a player nicknamed “The Babe Ruth of Mexico,” conveniently centrally located. Estadio Sonora is a long drive for the good people of Hermosillo. A long straight road, punctuated by temporary police checks. At the end of that long road is a statue of Héctor Espino. The only place to go from there is to take a left turn, on to the approach road to the stadium. Lots of parking lot areas, and in the distance, the brown roof of the park.
Outside the park, we began our search for the press credentials that were supposedly waiting for us. We asked at a gate, they sent us around the corner. We saw a couple of women who looked like they worked there, and asked them. They made a quick phone call, and told us to go to another gate. We chatted with someone on the other side of the gate. They didn’t have our specific passes, but, rather than being super strict or jobsworthy about things, gave us general reporteros passes; passes we used for our whole time there.
And what a lovely park it is. I’ve only been to a handful of baseball parks in Mexico, but I’ve looked at photos of a lot of the other ones, and the Estadio Sonora seems to be by far the best in the country. It’s like a nice minor league park. More or less 20,000 capacity. The roof is my favourite feature. It’s irregular, but not annoyingly wacky like Frank Gehry’s stuff. It has subtle peaks echoing the mountains that you can see from everywhere in the city.
We arrived in time for the second game of the day, Mexico vs. Venezuela. Cleverly, the Serie del Caribe schedule had Mexico playing in the evening every day. People who bought tickets got day tickets, allowing them access to the afternoon and evening games, but attendance for non-evening, non-Mexico games was tiny compared to the totally packed stadium in the evenings. And that evening, we were there for what was by far the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a baseball game. Strikeouts were cheered like it was a World Series game. The people clearly loved baseball, and clearly loved being there to watch Mexico play baseball.
When I say Mexico, though, it’s not really a national team, in the way that a Mexican team would be in a soccer tournament. The winning team of the Liga Pacifico was the Yaquis de Obregón (who play in another city in Sonora, Ciudad de Obregón). They were Mexico’s representative in the Serie del Caribe. Same goes for the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan teams (Criollos de Caguas, Leones del Escogido, and Navegantes del Magallanes respectively). All but the Venezuelan team wore uniforms with their nation’s name on the jersey. Eric did some research and found that, for some reason, Venezuela didn’t stump up the cash for uniforms, so the Navegantes wore their own uniforms.
For most of our time there, we did the same thing with our days. We’d arrive before the first game, head straight up to the press area, and work on our drawing and writing. It was nice and cool and shaded up there, a good view of the field. Pretty much the perfect office: I could draw and watch live baseball at the same time. I very much enjoyed the experience of having a pass on a lanyard around my neck, and using it properly: working. It was good to have deadlines, to know that I had to do three drawings a day. And it was good to collaborate with Eric, too. Normally when I do work, the client tells me what to do with varying amounts of leeway. But this time, we were on our own. Our only brief was to capture the experience of the Caribbean Series. It’s a credit to Emma and Sports on Earth that they trusted us to do something that wouldn’t embarrass them. And I think we worked well together. It was nice being able to show Eric a drawing, and he’d find something to write about that fitted with it. And it was nice for Eric to say, I’m writing about such and such, you think you can find something to draw?
So after the first game, the press area would fill up with Mexican journalists, and the Wi-Fi would slow to a snail’s pace, and that was our cue to finish up our work, and get down into the park, and do the research-y part of our assignment: to experience the Caribbean Series. This is a fancy way of saying that we were gonna get a beer and hang out watching baseball. One thing we soon learned is that, despite having access to the whole park, the best place for us to experience the series, and in many ways, to experience Hermosillo, was to head straight to the bleachers, to the cheap seats. Seats in other parts of the park were numbered. And the games were sold out. We’d occasionally sit down for a while, and eventually have to move when the seats’ ticket holders turned up. In the bleachers, it was general admission. And we didn’t sit down once. The fun was to be had stood behind the back row of bleachers, where people milled around, and went to get more Tecate.
Every night, we would find ourselves suddenly chatting and laughing and drinking with strangers. People would hear us talking in English, give us a glance, catch our eyes, and off we would go. It was fantastic. The people in Hermosillo are amongst the friendliest I’ve ever experienced. We had beers bought for us. One guy in particular, grabbed my shoulder to prevent me going to buy beers, because he couldn’t have a visitor paying for his own beer. On our last night there, we met three lovely people, Jesús, his brother Luis, and his girlfriend Angela. After knowing them for about four innings of baseball, they took us for tacos, they let me get out of the car to throw up in the middle of a street, and they went out of their way to drive us home. That’s hospitality.
After having a couple of months where I’ve been generally feeling kinda shit about life, it was wonderful to have four days away from Mexico City, in this wonderland of béisbol, carne asada, and incredibly lovely people. I can’t remember a time in my life where I look at photos of myself and see a genuinely relaxed and happy person there. Hermosillo was amazing, and I can’t wait to go back for some Liga Pacifico games in the winter.