Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY Sports.
As part of its All-Star Week celebration in San Diego, Major League Baseball will dedicate a new sporting complex in neighboring Tijuana on Monday, with Commissioner Rob Manfred in attendance. It’s a continuation of MLB’s efforts to expand its foothold in Mexico, which began with Manfred’s trip to meet baseball officials in Culiacan late last season.
He won’t have to drive over, around or through a huge wall for Monday’s ceremony, but that might change in future trips depending on the outcome of November’s presidential election.
The repeated vows by presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump to build a wall separating the USA from its neighbor to the south not only stand in contrast with MLB’s attempts to tap into the Mexican market and talent pool, but they’ve also raised concerns among foreign major leaguers.
While nobody is suggesting that baseball may have to close its doors to players from abroad – who made up 27.5% of Opening Day rosters this season – some fear finding a hostile environment in America under a Trump presidency.
“It does worry me a lot that he could be elected president,” said San Francisco Giants infielder Ramiro Pena, a native of Monterrey, Mexico. “For the Latin community, I think it would make things more difficult when it comes to immigration, based on what he has said. The comments he has made about Mexicans worry you.”.
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Besides promising to erect a wall and have Mexico pay for it, Trump has accused an Indiana-born federal judge of being biased because of his Mexican ancestry and proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants. Over the weekend, Trump sent out a tweet featuring a Star of David that appeared to have anti-Semitic connotations.
His position on immigration worries players from other countries besides Mexico, especially Venezuelans, who have moved stateside in large numbers as rampant crime and chronic shortages of food, milk, medicine and other basic necessities have thrown their native land into turmoil.
One Venezuelan veteran, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said of Trump: “If that guy wins, the United States is going to become like Venezuela under (President Nicolas) Maduro.”.
It’s safe to say few players feel that way, but some wonder whether their chances of setting roots in the U.S. Would be hampered if Trump took over the White House.
Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco is among them. Blanco, the father of three, lives in Florida during the offseason but has to return to Venezuela for two weeks every year to request a work visa. He’s seeking permanent residency and believes immigrants may find the road to the USA harder to navigate with Trump as president.
“It’s sad because some of the people who maintain the country are immigrants,” Blanco said. “They contribute to the country and help make the United States the country it is today.”.
If polls are to be believed, it’s a country unhappy with the leading presidential choices of Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University survey this week, 61% of the respondents said they were alarmed over the election.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano, a 12-year veteran with an economics degree from Duke who said there has been more clubhouse discussion about this election cycle than previous ones.
“I think it is pretty polarizing,” Capuano said. “I think for most people, it’s kind of just frustrating, because it’s not as much about substantial issues as much as it is about reality-show discourse. It’s led to me personally do a lot of research outside the two-party system.”.
Capuano said he hasn’t noticed the debate creating any internal strife, but it’s not difficult to envision positions hardening if a candidate’s policies hit close to home. Foreign-born players often bring their relatives stateside, either temporarily or permanently, and would resent losing that privilege.
Colorado Rockies All-Star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who has permanent residency in the U.S., Moved his family to Florida when he felt life in Venezuela had become too dangerous.
“That’s the main thing people should keep in mind,” Gonzalez said, “that we’re not coming here to try to take anybody’s food away but to provide better opportunities for our kids.”.
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Gonzalez said foreigners should also strive to improve their homeland, a point made by Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Madson, a Trump supporter.
While many in the game would rather avoid talking about the possible impact of a Trump presidency – MLB, the players association and even outspoken A’s reliever Sean Doolittle declined to comment – Madson has read up on the candidate and is happy to share his thoughts.
“I don’t think he’s worried about any Cuban players or any Mexican players,” Madson said of Trump. “Like he’s said, he has many Mexican Americans working for him, high up in his company.”.
Madson, who hails from Southern California, believes the idea behind the wall is to keep away terrorists – not necessarily from Mexico – who might try to infiltrate the U.S. Through its southern border.
“I think the media has spun it in a way to make him look like he’s anti-immigrant, so I think it’s more their fault and how they’ve made him look than what he’s trying to do,” Madson said. “I don’t think he’s doing it in a way to be a Zionist. He’s not trying to seal us off from the world. He’s trying to just slow down or stop as much as he can what’s been happening here in America with the terrorists.”.
Not far from Madson’s locker, teammate Jed Lowrie has a differing opinion, calling Trump’s rhetoric, “inflammatory.”.
“I don’t think building a wall is a sound strategy, both theoretically and realistically, the actual nuts and bolts of building it,” said Lowrie, a Stanford-educated infielder. “It’s a wild idea, and I don’t think the policy would make sense.”.
While it’s hard to estimate how many big leaguers agree with Trump’s policies, it’s instructive to know baseball draws much of its talent from the suburbs and rural areas, typically Republican strongholds. And major league clubhouses are largely populated by white, affluent men, who also tend to vote Republican.
Amid this landscape, MLB is trying to grow its business by promoting baseball in Mexico, a country of 120 million people where soccer reigns as the top sport, but where baseball has made noticeable inroads. A 2015 study commissioned by MLB indicated 21% of Mexican sports fans had adopted baseball in the last year.
Among foreign countries, the World Series has drawn its largest TV audience from Mexico in two of the last three years. In March, MLB announced the opening of an office in Mexico City just before holding two exhibition games in the country’s capital.
Manfred sees a larger presence of Mexican players in the big leagues – their numbers have hovered around 10-12 yearly – as an avenue to reach the growing Hispanic market in the U.S., A point he made clear during his October visit.
“They want more Mexican players to reach the majors, they want teams to be able to sign them at a younger age – between 16-19 – and for them to get to the majors more rapidly,” said Plinio Escalante, president of the Mexican summer league.
Manfred is so bullish on the Mexican market, he has mentioned Mexico City and Montreal as the frontrunners for baseball’s first expansion since 1998.
In March, he told the Canadian Press: “Mexico and Canada present the most fertile ground just in terms of the level of baseball interest and the proximity to our existing franchises.”.
For one of those destinations, the proximity might be impaired by the presence of a large wall.
Contributing: Gabe Lacques.