Viva Baseball!

It makes sense. With the North American Free Trade Agreement binding the United States, Canada, and Mexico together as never before, why shouldn't the latter be first in line for the next expansion of Major League Baseball?

That question reached loud-speaker volume last weekend, as the San Diego Padres and New York Mets played the first-ever regular season Major League ballgames outside Canada and the US.

The site was Monterrey, Mexico, a blue-collar city of 3.2 million. A capacity crowd of 23,699 cheered the Friday night opener of a three-game series - particularly when the Padres took the field, led by starting pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, Mexico's most famous baseball export.

Even apart from the Monterrey date, the Padres have been diligently cultivating Mexican fans. A large part of the club's greatly improved 1996 attendance record can be attributed to a program of busing in baseball lovers from Tijuana and Baja California. The Houston Astros and expansion Arizona Diamondbacks (which begin play in 1998) also have a sharp eye on Mexican fans.

True, there are ironies here. The premier big-league game in Mexico comes just after a Republican convention that made a big point of declaring it's time to stop the traffic in people across the southern border. And some American big leaguers may harbor doubts about playing conditions, and living conditions, south of the border.

Even commercial conditions raise questions. With Mexico still reeling from its financial crisis, and family incomes depressed, could the country really support big-league baseball?

But the promoters, and apparently the fans, are not lacking in enthusiasm. This, like NAFTA itself, may be an idea about to hit the fast track.

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