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With a presidential pitch, baseball gets a boost in Mexico

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and all of Major League Baseball will have one big fan rooting for them when they come together this weekend at Estadio de Béisbol de Monterrey — Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

López Obrador, who took the oath of office last December, is a devoted baseball fan and is trying hard to help the sport succeed in a country where soccer is still king. The Cardinals and Reds meet for games on Saturday and Sunday, and the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels will play another two-game series at the same ballpark in early May.

But López Obrador wants baseball to be more than just a couple of big league sets every year. "It's well known that baseball is my favorite sport, since I was a kid in my town there was nothing more than baseball," said the 65-year-old López Obrador, who has several videos on YouTube where he shows off a good swing. "I can still play, I can still hit above .300, I played center field when I was younger and had a good arm and covered a lot of ground."

MLB began holding regular season games in Mexico in 1996 when the San Diego Padres and Mets played three times. The 1999 season opened with a matchup in Monterrey between the Padres and Colorado. Last May, the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers played a three-game series at the stadium — Walker Buehler and the Dodgers bullpen combined for a no-hitter.

All of those series were a success with sellouts in Monterrey. López Obrador put some action behind his passion and recently created Promobeis, a government office run by Édgar González, a former player who spent a couple of seasons as a Padres second baseman and was Mexico's manager at the World Baseball Classic.

Among other things, Promobeis has a goal to have between 60 and 80 Mexican players in the majors. This season, only eight local players started the season on big league rosters, but González — brother of former All-Star Adrian González — believes that he can he can have success because there are over 160 Mexicans in the minors.

"I love the challenge, it's something that has never been done before and can be a success. I think it's easier to have more Mexican baseball players in the big leagues than players in the NFL. Besides, we believe that we can help to take kids away from the bad habits," González told The Associated Press.

"We believe that having more players in the majors will help us to grow the sport's popularity. Right now we have a little bit over 160 players in the minors, in the majors right now there are 10 because some of them are constantly been called up or sent down. It's a good number and I believe we can grow in the future and have more players signing with MLB clubs like the Puerto Ricans or the Dominicans," González said.

To put the program in motion, González and Promobeis have a $17.5 million budget for 2019. The money will be invested in the opening of 10 baseball academies that are going to be administered by the government.

"It's going to be great if they support baseball like the president wants. You need to start early in the sport to be successful," said former big league slugger Vinny Castilla, considered one of the all-time great Mexican players. "Baseball is our president*s great passion and that's big news because for all of us that love the sport, he is going to support the sport as much as he can."

The idea of having more Mexican players in the big leagues as a way to boost the sport's popularity in the country is not new. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken about it on several occasions as a big factor for the country to be considered like a candidate for an expansion franchise in the future.

Besides López Obrador's ideas, another door to the majors opened for the Mexicans last March. That's when MLB announced an agreement with the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol that allows all players who are under contract to an LMB team to be able to sign with any MLB club as long the player is at least 25 years old or has six or more years of professional baseball experience abroad.

"Mexico is an important market for our game, as demonstrated by our series in Monterrey. We look forward to the opportunities to develop more major league players and baseball fans in the country," Manfred said.

Even though soccer is considered to be Mexico's national pastime, it was not always like that. Football and baseball took turns last century being the nation's favorites. The NFL has had great success in playing in Mexico, and Fernando Valenzuela helped the country's baseball profile when he ascended with the Dodgers in the 1980s.

The Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, established in 1925, had several American greats on its rosters such as Satchel Paige, "Cool Papa" Bell and Josh Gibson, along with the likes of star pitcher Sal Maglie. But eventually Mexican teams were unable to compete with U.S. salaries and the sport's popularity faded as soccer grew in the '60s and early '70s, after Mexico hosted the 1970 World Cup.

The success of the government plan to help baseball rise in popularity in Mexico remains to be seen, meanwhile the country has regular season series guaranteed until 2021 that can also help the sport to become more mainstream.

"It's clear that soccer is the strongest, but we want to compete with them and we want to be able to say that baseball is growing and also that the kids know that they have a chance there," González said.

"While we try to get more Mexicans in the majors, it's great to have this games every year, it's a great way for kids to look at those athletes and know the discipline required to make it, it becomes aspirational and that can definitively help us."

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