Team Mexico taking on old prejudices

Classic roster unaffected by question of who should represent country

Adrian Gonzalez was the only Mexican-American to play for Team Mexico in the 2006 Classic. (Jeff Gross/Getty)

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Some rivalries are made. Some are born and some are made to be broken. The 2009 World Baseball Classic will have them all.

Proximity between countries makes for natural rivalries for teams such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the United States and Canada and of course, Mexico and the United States. There's the political rivalry between Cuba and the United States, the age-old rivalry between Japan and China and the competition for big league bragging rights in Latin America between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Then there's the rivalry that no one really talks about but everyone knows exists between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Unofficially, you can call it "Mexicanos vs. Pochos." Officially, you can call it silly and outdated. It's anything but friendly. The entire rivalry is based on heritage and pride. It's also about division and the notion of being a "true Mexican." It seems to be coming to an end, at least in baseball.

For Team Mexico, the World Baseball Classic is about winning and putting the best team together.

Finally.

Remember the 2006 World Baseball Classic? Team Mexico's lone Mexican-American was San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez. The team went 3-3 and did not make it out of the second round despite eliminating the United States.

This year's provisional 45-man roster boasts nine Mexican-Americans, including Gonzalez, Tampa's Matt Garza, Arizona's Augie Ojeda, Jerry and Scott Hairston along with Toronto catcher Rod Barajas.

Will they help? They sure can't hurt when Mexico opens the first round on March 8 against Australia at Estadio Foro Sol in Mexico City.

"If they want to play for us and feel they are Mexican because of parents or family, we welcome them," Mexico manager and former Major Leaguer Vinny Castilla said. "They are coming to open arms, and they are still Mexicans to me. They want to represent the country, and they can."

That's what you call progress. It's also smart. Castilla has been around long enough to know that the inclusion, not exclusion, of talent wins baseball games. Why not let Mexican-Americans play if they want to and are, more importantly, good players who will help you win?

It seems like a no-brainer. It isn't that simple.

"Mexican-Americans are good to increase the performance level of the team, but they don't have any identification with the other players or the country," said Oscar Sanchez, a sports writer for the Mexican newspaper El Norte in Monterrey. "In soccer, we have a similar discussion with the naturalized players or 'naturalizados,' because many people don't want them on the national team, but the law gives them the right to play as Mexicans."

When talking about Mexicans vs. Mexican-Americans, place of birth is always the issue.

"For too many years people in the sports world, especially in Mexico, have made the mistake of believing that a Mexican-American doesn't count as 'Mexicano' because we were born in the U.S., and honestly, many have been divided on this issue for years," said Adrian Garcia Marquez, a broadcaster for Fox en Español based in Los Angeles. "Others have said they don't consider what they call 'pochos' to be Mexicans because some [Mexican-Americans] can't speak Spanish or speak very little, and they don't respect the heritage. On the contrary, our parents teach us at an early age to be proud of where our family came from and understand that our parents or grandparents came to U.S. to give us a shot at a better life, and better opportunities. So it doesn't matter if two or three generations have lived in the U.S., our cultural heritage is something we hold on to, and cherish."

But tell that to the Mexican fans when Ojeda strikes out or Garza gives up a home run. What happens if a Hairston gets picked off first base? It could get ugly and the term "pocho" will be anything but a compliment. Let's hope for the tournament's sake that it doesn't. But maybe, just maybe, Mexican fans will see every player in the same light when they don those famous green jerseys with Mexico stitched across the chests.

Perhaps winning the World Baseball Classic with the help of Mexican-Americans puts an end to the self-destructive rivalry between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in every sport. Then again, maybe it never disappears.

"Unfortunately, some fans, even now, share that absurd point of view and may see the Mexican-Americans on Mexico's roster the same way and not fully accept them," Marquez said. "But it is good to know that the Mexican Baseball Federation sees it differently and is welcoming these ballplayers."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.