Column Tijuana baseball a wild, winning adventure for Toros

Estadio Gasmart is a handsome baseball gem tucked along the sprawling city’s winding climb up Cerro Colorado. It sprouts up between Concertina wire and taco de pescado stands hugging crumbling curbs.

At the last regular-season game, against Monterrey, fans of the Toros de Tijuana drained more than 36,000 bottles of beer ... in a place with less than 17,000 seats.

At a Toros game, the mascots sometimes get ejected. Concession stands sell cig sueltos, or loose cigarettes. On the concourse, a version of the pin-the-tail game unfolds, though the targets are the backsides of actual players with Velcro versions of their, well, tails.

The person who plays the nonstop, eardrum-rattling music surely suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. Fans might consider a class-action suit against the video board operator.

Carlos Hernandez, the former Padres catcher and one-time Toros manager, shrugged.

“It’s a party,” he said.

Baseball south of the border is a librarian’s ultimate nightmare, a ceaseless assault on the senses. And in the case of the Toros, this season is an assault on the standings.

The team slashed through the noise to become the most successful in the Mexican League, 7 ½ games better than all comers. While facing Triple-A rosters during spring training games in Arizona, the Toros finished 9-2.

All that wild, wrapped in winning.

Corey Brown, a Toros outfielder who lives in Imperial Beach, spent parts of three seasons with the Washington Nationals and sipped some coffee with the Red Sox. He’s a league MVP candidate who entered Sunday’s playoff opener against the Rieleros de Aguascalientes second in home runs (24) and extra-base hits (51).

“Baseball-wise, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” Brown said.

The Mexican summer league lacks the riches of Major League Baseball, but can prove more lucrative than much of America’s minor leagues. Players can earn as much as $10,000 per month.

On Sunday, the ghosts of MLB’s past hovered above the din.

Chula Vista’s Sergio Mitre, a pitcher from Montgomery High and San Diego City College who collected a World Series ring with the Yankees, recently picked up a baseball after five seasons away. The team began 2017 with 10 former big-leaguers, including infielder Jorge Cantú - a Padre in 2011.

José Valverde, the closer for the Rieleros, picked up the nickname “Papa Grande” while leading Major League Baseball in saves with three teams. Toros hitting coach Mike Easler recorded a cycle in 1980 while playing for the Pirates.

The Toros’ psychologist - a possible byproduct of the league’s clamor and commotion - is Freddy Sandoval. The former USD star parlayed 18 MLB plate appearances with the Angels into a mental skills coaching gig with the World Series-winning Royals in 2015.

“Baseball being baseball, you’ve still got three outs, you’ve still got a four-ball walk, everything’s the same,” said Mitre, 36. “But as far as atmosphere, there’s more life down here.

“It’s a show.”

The Toros offer a happy hour (or two) before each game, selling beers for $1. A team employee quipped: “You can imagine what that’s like.” In the U.S., alcohol sales routinely end after the seventh inning. Ask about the cut-off at a Toros game and you’re met with a puzzled look.

The team parks bands on the concourse, leaving that part of the stadium open as late as fans want. Sometimes, they dance and drink until 3 a.m.

This is what playoff baseball looks and sounds like - so near, yet so far from San Diego as the city waits for the Padres’ rebuild to grow whiskers. The stadium sits just 25 miles from Petco Park, but the contrasts remain stark and undeniably audible.

A bit of uncertainty always lingers at Mexican games, too.

One road team refused to turn on the outfield light towers earlier this season as the dark settled in because they wanted to save money on electricity. A few weeks ago, the Toros’ infamous mascot Chango was given the ol’ heave-ho for interfering with a ball in play.

It wasn’t the first time the monkey had been shown the door.

“I think it’s hilarious when the mascots get thrown out,” Sandoval said. “You don’t see that in the U.S.”

During Sunday’s game, Chango playfully coaxed a young female fan to strip, ogled a mother during a family picture and pretended to remove Cheetos from an orifice before feeding them to cheerleaders.

These are the things you can mention. There are other things you can’t.

Mitre, who grew up in Tijuana, explained.

“It’s just a different culture,” he said.

Easler, the former big-leaguer, agreed.

“Fans are 100 percent into every game,” he said. “The mascots are funny as hell. There’s so much going on. And it’s very loud. They play music right up to when the guy releases the pitch. That would never happen in the States.

“If you can’t deal with noise and a lot of music, you can’t play and do well here.”

Pass the cerveza. Cue the monkey.


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