What it means to be a Mexican ballplayer

By César Augusto Márquez

To be Mexican in the major leagues means more than being born on the right side of the Río Grande. Culture and national pride go a long way in defining an Azteca, whether you are Adrián González from San Diego or Roberto Osuna from Juan José Ríos in Sinaloa.

“I’ve always considered myself Mexican,” said González, the New York Mets’ first baseman who goes by the Spanish nickname El Titán. “While I was born here, I was raised in Mexico by Mexican parents. My traditions and values are from there and you can see it in so many ways, from my accent to my favorite food to my family values.”

Completely bilingual, González spoke about his duality in Spanish during a recent interview with La Vida Baseball in New York. About to turn 36 on May 8, he’s the elder statesman among the two dozen or so Mexicans and Mexican-Americans currently in the major leagues.

Not only has González represented El Tri in all four editions of the World Baseball Classic, he’s considered Mexico’s all-time leader in hits and RBI, and should, in short order, surpass Vinny Castilla’s major league mark of 320 career home runs.

All this is why, on the eve of the 2018 Mexico Series in Monterrey between two of his former teams — the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers — González willingly talked about his Mexican experience.

“My first language was Spanish,” González said. “I didn’t start speaking English until 11. I lived a large part of my life in Tijuana and that’s where I learned about my traditions and values.”

Among his favorite traditions is proudly wearing charro suits during national holidays and special occasions. And, of course, rooting for El Tri.

“I’m a big fan of soccer, especially of the Mexican National Team and the Chivas of Guadalajara. Which, by the way, they just qualified for the FIFA Cub World Cup,” he pointed out with a laugh.

“How else do I identify? Wherever they are serving barbeque beef tacos, I’m there.”

The son of a ballplayer and brother of a major leaguer, González grew up in a baseball culture.

“I began playing when I was 4 or 5 in Tijuana’s municipal stadium and I never thought I would achieve these historical milestones,” González said. “I just wanted to play ball. To be able to reach these milestones makes me proud, because I want to do well for my country, not only in international competitions, but also in the day-to-day.”

While the number of major leaguers born in Mexico — 125 to date — pales in comparison to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the country’s influence is significant. Roberto “Beto” Ávila became in 1954 the first Latino batting champ and Fernando Valenzuela’s legendary 1981 season and the ensuing Fernandomanía helped draw Mexican-Americans and other Latinos to the game.

“Mexico has produced players who have left a legacy in the major leagues,” González said. “And every day, you are seeing more. For the longest time, Mexico has been exporting players to the major leagues. As a Mexican, it makes very proud to wear the national uniform because it’s in my blood.”

View this post on Instagram

The new king of Sinaloa ?? #OsunaMatata #BlueJays

A post shared by La Vida Baseball (@lavidabaseball) on

National pride also inspires Osuna, the Toronto Blue Jays’ closer who in April became the youngest ever to 100 saves — at 23 years and 62 days. As González eyes retirement, Osuna now becomes part of Mexico’s baseball future.

“I’ve represented my country since I was young,” Osuna said in Spanish in an interview with La Vida Baseball. “It’s something that gives me great pride and is characteristic of Mexicans. When I take the mound, I’m thinking of two things — helping my team and making my country proud.”

Like González, Osuna was raised in ballparks, starting at age two. His father, Roberto “El Chufo” Osuna Sr. pitched in the Mexican leagues while his uncle Antonio “El Cañón” Osuna pitched for 11 seasons in the major leagues.

But Osuna’s Mexican experience was different in other aspects from González’s. He dropped out of school at age 11 to work the fields and help support his family. This drive and discipline served Osuna well last year when he overcame a public bout of anxiety. After taking several weeks off, he returned to the Blue Jays and finished the season with 39 saves.

“I come from a hard-working family”, Osuna said. “Since I was a kid, I’ve known about the value of hard work and of an education. And I think those are values that define Mexicans. It’s what my siblings and I learned very early in life and we applied it to baseball. Our story is the same story for many other families.”

Because baseball is the third sport in Mexico after soccer and boxing, sometimes ballplayers and their stories get overlooked. But if all the scouting reports are correct, the pipeline is bursting with new talent. Two of this season’s sensations are rookies from Mexico — San Diego Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva and Philadelphia Phillies reliever Víctor Arano.

“I think there’s a lot of talent in Mexico,” Osuna said. “Maybe we haven’t had the chance to show our wares like the players in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. But there’s as much talent here as it is there. I’m sure if the scouts went looking, they would find it.”

And if the scouts look closely, they would see, as with González and Osuna, hard-working players with pride in their country. It doesn’t matter on which side of the Río Grande they were born.

Featured Image: Paul Bereswill / Getty Images Sport