PUEBLA, Mexico – A single picture of newly minted champions, trophy aloft, hangs in the Pericos de Puebla team store, on the second level of the 12,000-seat Estadio Hermanos Serdan. Last season, the team brought the city of Puebla, a two-hour drive from the capital of Mexico City, its first Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB) trophy in 30 years.
En route to the title, the Pericos (parakeets) employed no less than 12 former big leaguers, including Silver Slugger recipient Carlos Quentin. Others included Nyjer Morgan, Willy Taveras and former Yankee Ruben Rivera, who at 42 years old hit .286 and reached double digits in home runs. Two seasons ago, the team featured veteran hurler Kyle Farnsworth's first stop in Mexico.
Perhaps no team has been as aggressive in filling its roster with former major leaguers as Puebla.
"They really care about winning," said pitcher Josh Roenicke, who joined Puebla this season. "You can see that. So it was easy for me to make the leap. It makes every game that much more exciting."
It’s a strategy other clubs in the 16-team summer Mexican League have embraced as they look to emulate Puebla’s title run. For example, the Toros de Tijuana, runner-up last year to Puebla in Mexico’s championship series, the Serie del Rey, added Italian slugger Alex Liddi to a roster that features nine players with Major League Baseball experience.
That championship recipe, however, has had its detractors. At the recent league winter meetings in Mexico City, one of Mexico’s most traditional baseball clubs, the Tigres de Quintana Roo, threatened to exit the league if regulations to curb foreign player signings were not enacted. The issue wasn't addressed. Tigres stayed, albeit with new ownership, spearheaded by Dodgers legend Fernando Valenzuela.
“Where are Mexican ballplayers going to play if we have teams with 23 or 25 foreigners?” asked Cuauhtemoc Rodriguez, Tigres’ former president in a recent interview with ESPN Mexico. “In our baseball leagues, we must give the Mexican ballplayer his rightful place.”
Mexico’s fourth-largest city with over 3 million inhabitants, Puebla sports a strong artistic tradition that stems back almost 500 years. Elegant blue azulejo tile facades adorn buildings across the city, including the Estadio Hermanos Serdan and the neighboring Estadio Cuauhtemoc.
A rain delay coupled with cold, whipping winds has kept the crowd away from a recent early-season night game. Wearing Pericos green (a color akin to the Oakland A's), pitcher Deunte Heath is one of the few from the championship season who returned to the roster for the current Puebla campaign.
“That was a good group, this one could be better,” admitted Heath, a 31-year-old Atlanta native.
The big right-hander has been plying his trade abroad since 2014, when the former White Sox pitcher emigrated to Japan and then Venezuela before moving to the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. He and the other former big leaguers on the roster are well aware that the Mexican summer league, classified Triple A by Minor League Baseball, can result in a move back to the show.
Just this season, Puebla parted with right-hander Blake Beavan, who was signed by the New York Mets and assigned to a minor league club. Two-time All Star Quentin parlayed his stellar performance last year with Puebla into a spring training invite from the Boston Red Sox. He has since been released.
Heath, who has 6 saves in 10 appearances this season, could also be considered another candidate to move on should a big league team need bullpen help.
“My agent handles that business up there, I handle this business here,” Heath said, noting those decisions are out of his hands.
It's a sentiment echoed by others like Josh Roenicke, part of a baseball clan that includes former Orioles outfielder Gary, his father; and uncle Ron, who managed the Brewers for five seasons.
A reliever for most of his career, the former Cincinnati Reds draftee has been thrust into the front end of the rotation by manager Von Hayes, himself an All-Star in 1989 as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Now closing on his 35th birthday, Roenicke is aware a return to the highest level is likely not coming, though his career can be extended at Puebla.
“The fans here are really great,” said Roenicke. “I want to keep doing this, keep playing as long as I possibly can.”
Unable to latch on to a big league roster in three seasons, Roenicke made the trek to Mexico this season, a decision he's happy with.
“I got a lot of good references before I came down here,” he acknowledged. “This is a first-class organization, they told me they'd take care of me.”
Those references included the promise of camaraderie and comfort despite living in another country. The prevalence of American ballplayers on Puebla rosters has created bonding opportunities for them as they make their way through the long summer season.
The frequency of familiar faces around the dugout counteracts the language and culture barrier many of the American-born players might have in Mexico. Team staffers in Puebla regularly address the players in English and arrange for them to be picked up from their residence and dropped off at the stadium.
“We'll go out to eat, sometimes play cards or watch movies together,” said outfielder Cole Gillespie, another new addition for Puebla this year. “Roenicke's a total movie buff. That guy just talks in movie quotes,” he chuckled.
Gillespie was also swayed by the positive feedback about the team, noting that a strong presence of former Major League players meant a higher level of familiarity.
“I've played with and against a bunch of these guys over the years,” he said.
Given free room and board by the team in the city, most players have decided against uprooting their families from the United States into Mexico, instead opting to live out of hotels and relying on each other for company.
Despite Gillespie, Heath and Roenicke all having prior playing experience in Caribbean winter ball, a language barrier is a continued issue, a fact evidenced by a difficulty to grasp common phrases in Spanish.
“I can order food, but sometimes I'll mess that up too,” Heath remarked.
“I was starting to do well with Duolingo, but I had to stop,” said Gillespie. His time off the field has now been taken up by online classes with the intent of completing a college degree.
Amid the well-known passion of Latin American baseball crowds, games can get rowdy south of the border, with some of the quirks requiring some time to get used to.
“I'll be in the dugout watching an at-bat, and the music will blare through the wind-up, through the pitch,” Gillespie recalled. “It's wild.”
The experience in Mexico has also provided these expats, many of them former fringe big leaguers, with an opportunity rarely bestowed upon them until now: to be key components of a team expected to compete for a title.
“This is the [equivalent of] the big leagues here,” said Roenicke.
Even then, the thrill of the run to a title is unmatched.
It's a feeling clearly visible in the photo hanging on the team store wall, complete with fireworks, a trophy and many smiling faces, including Heath's first title since venturing abroad.
“There's nothing like a championship, man,” he said, smiling.