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Baseball Season To Open in Mexico

January 8, 1999

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Last time the big star was Fernando Valenzuela. Now it’ll be Vinny Castilla as major league baseball again goes south of the border, this time for the season opener.

Castilla’s Colorado Rockies will play the defending NL champion San Diego Padres on Sunday night, April 4, in Monterrey, Mexico. It will be the first time two big league teams have opened a season outside the United States or Canada, and likely won’t be the last.

The game, to be played at 26,000-seat Estadio Monterrey, will be called the ``Apertura Internacional″ _ the International Opener. It will be shown on ESPN in the United States, and officials say it will be televised to 200 other countries.

``It’s a very significant step for baseball, a very symbolic step for baseball, and the name is not an accident,″ Padres president Larry Lucchino said during a news conference Friday. ``This is the first international opener. I suppose the NFL would put a Roman numeral I next to it. Maybe we should do that as well.

``I think you’re seeing what I hope will be a perhaps annually, maybe periodically, series of international openers.″

The Padres got into the spirit Friday, serving up both a mariachi band and fish tacos, the latter a staple at Qualcomm Stadium, which sits about 20 miles due north of Tijuana.

The Padres and New York Mets played a three-game series at Estadio Monterrey in August 1996, the first regular-season games outside the United States or Canada.

With his countrymen cheering his every move, Valenzuela started and won the opener of that series, which was moved in part because of a potential scheduling conflict with the GOP convention, and because the Padres were expanding their marketing into Mexico.

Ken Caminiti, weakened by food poisoning and dehydrated by the brutal heat, became a folk hero when he took two bags of intravenous fluid just before the final game, then hit two home runs as the Padres won two of three.

Making the 1,000-mile trip for a ``home″ series was necessary because Estadio Monterrey is considered the best ballpark in Latin America.

The Padres might try to get Valenzuela, who’s playing in the Mexican leagues, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

When baseball’s international committee suggested the Monterrey opener, these two teams were the natural choice.

The Padres are one of the trend setters in international marketing, and definitely the leader in exotic road trips _ they also moved a series to Honolulu in 1997. The Rockies have Castilla, one of the most popular ballplayers to come from Mexico.

``When the invitation came to us, we grabbed at it,″ Lucchino said.

``This game will be good for baseball and very good for both Colorado and Mexico,″ Rockies chairman Jerry McMorris said in a statement. ``We are proud to have Vinny Castilla, one of the most popular and successful players in Mexico’s history, on our team and look forward to a great game versus the Padres.″

Castilla hit 46 homers last year, and should like the bandbox Estadio Monterrey. During the 1996 series, the Padres hit eight homers and the Mets one.

Castilla was playing in Mexico and wasn’t available for comment, a Rockies spokesman said.

To heighten the impact, only one game will be played in Monterrey. The teams will return to San Diego for the Padres’ home opener on Tuesday, April 6, then finish the series the following day.

Lucchino said it’s possible that future international openers will be played in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

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