Mexico and US play ball - more ways than one

When "play ball!" opens the Major League Baseball season on April 4, it won't happen in New York, St. Louis, Oakland, or Toronto.

For the first time, the season opens outside the US or Canada - in Mexico. The San Diego Padres will play the Colorado Rockies in Monterrey, a northern Mexican city enjoying a NAFTA-fed boom.

It may seem a small thing - though don't say that to local fans of Rockies slugger Vinny Castilla, a Mexican among a handful of Latino players slated for the game.

But the event is one more sign of closer ties between Mexico and the United States.

This closeness is growing despite US headlines about drugs and migrants, and Mexican media citing Washington's "arrogant" and "intrusive" certification process of evaluating drug-trafficking countries, such as Mexico, which itself was once again certified this month.

Like a seemingly stationary but inexorably advancing glacier, relations between what have been called two "distant neighbors" are moving toward more contact, more integration, more understanding - and even more mutual approval.

Eighty percent of Mexicans have a good or excellent image of the US, while 81 percent of Americans view Mexico in those same terms, according to a recent binational poll by the Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) at the University of Guadalajara. Another recent poll, in Mexico City's daily Reforma, shows that two-thirds of Mexicans want more, not less, cooperation between the US and Mexico on fighting illegal drugs.

Americans have long been the biggest spenders of tourist dollars in Mexico. But now Mexicans are going north in ever greater numbers: to shop, visit family members, or meet Mickey in Disneyland.

Illegal immigrants may get more attention, but as US Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow notes, about a million people legally cross the 1,950-mile long US-Mexico border every day, making it "the busiest, most-crossed, and probably the most sensitive frontier in the world."

Last year travel by Mexicans to the US grew by 14 percent, despite their country's tough economic times, and officials at a recent Mexico City exposition promoting vacations in the US expect growth to top 10 percent again this year.

The Mexican government speaks in glowing terms of its close coordination and mutual understanding with other Latin American countries. But it is in fact with the US that Mexico has the closest and most complex ties - thanks to a long border, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the millions of Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans) who now make the US their home.

"The truth is that Mexicans look very little to the south, they have little awareness of what is happening south of [the southernmost Mexican state of] Chiapas," says Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican political analyst currently on a sabbatical year at Stanford University in California. "They look much more to the north."

The same holds true in the realm of business. Recently Mexico surpassed Japan to become the US's second-biggest trading partner, and Mexican officials expect their country to overtake Canada for the No. 1 spot within the next five years.

Since 1994, US exports to Mexico have grown by more than 90 percent, with Mexico accounting for one-third of all growth in US exports over the period. (In contrast, US sales to the Pacific Rim fell 19 percent last year.) And Mexico's exports to the US have grown by more than 135 percent during the NAFTA years.

Also, US and Mexican officials expect to resolve this year the differences that have held up the NAFTA-authorized opening of the US-Mexico border to transnational truck traffic.

ALL this doesn't mean that neighbors who have become more comfortable with each other are ready to form the "North American Union" some experts predict.

Half of all Mexicans oppose the idea, much discussed in Mexico recently, of Mexico scrapping the peso and adopting the US dollar. Still, according to the CEO poll, a surprising 40 percent of Mexicans think adopting one currency is a good idea - as do 37 percent of Americans.

That may be one more hint that the slow cross-border integration born of growing economic and human connections will continue.

As noted by Mike Dee, the San Diego Padres' vice president for business operations, growing numbers of the Padres' game-attending fans are Hispanic, and a "significant portion" of those are from Mexico. Of the team's nine starting players slated for Monterrey April 4, five are of either Mexican or other Latin American descent.

"We do not view Mexico as an extension of our market," said Mr. Dee in Monterrey when the opener was announced. "We view Mexico as our home."

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