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In sign of changing times, Astros players buy in to Mexico trip

In sign of changing times, Astros players buy in to Mexico trip

Posted by PanamericanWorld on March 29, 2016

Two hours before the start of the Mexico City Series, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred stopped Astros superstars Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa after they finished batting practice Saturday night at Fray Nano Stadium.

"Thank you for coming," Manfred told two of baseball's top young Latin American stars.

"You're welcome, Rob," replied Correa, the Astros' 21-year-old shortstop.

It has been 12 years since seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens and the Astros faced the Marlins in MLB's last spring training games in Mexico City. Much has changed throughout baseball since, especially considering the Astros' front office had to prod players to make that trip in 2004.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't have to twist any arms this time around because Altuve and Correa - the Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell of their time - eagerly embraced the opportunity to spread baseball's gospel to this soccer-mad nation.

Not only did Hinch not prod anybody to fill his travel roster to Mexico City, he claims to have had more volunteers to make the trip than available spots

"When they told me I was going to Mexico, I was like, 'Yes!' " Correa said. "I wanted to come here and exchange the scenario and be able to play in front of fans that can speak Spanish. When I'm signing balls and stuff like that, speaking Spanish to fans is nice as well.

"I enjoy it back home in Houston, but sometimes it's nice to come here to Mexico and speak to guys here that cannot travel to Houston to watch us play."

Correa and Altuve weren't the only Astros who embraced the Mexico City Series. Utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez was at his charismatic best Saturday afternoon interacting with fans at Mexico's famed Constitutional Plaza, El Zocalo, the largest main square in North America and the second largest in the world behind Russia's Red Square.

On Sunday, Gonzalez and Altuve noted they would have appreciated an extra day off between the two games to explore the Mexican capital. That attitude was a drastic shift from two decades ago.

It has been almost 20 years since MLB held its first regular-season series outside the U.S. and Canada in the summer of 1996 between the Mets and Padres in Monterrey. Mexican legend Fernando Valenzuela, then of the Padres, was the marquee name in that series.

That trip was soured by the constant whining of many of Valenzuela's Padres teammates, who, along with several Mets, proudly admitted they remained in their hotel rooms watching movies and playing video games because they were hesitant to go out.

Spirit of exploration

By the 2004 spring training series between the Astros and Marlins, most of the Astros who made the trip cheerfully explored the nightlife in Mexico City. That sense of adventure was evident again this weekend.

Gonzalez and some teammates explored Mexico City on Friday night soon after arriving from Florida. Most of the Astros explored the area around the team's hotel Saturday morning.

"Want to go walk around with some gringos?" catcher Tyler Heineman asked Altuve when Heineman and pitcher Brady Rodgers headed out Saturday morning.

Altuve, who walked around town with Correa a few hours later, smiled.

"I'm happy," said Luhnow, a native of Mexico City. "This is really fun. Any time you get a chance to go back to the town you were born and raised in and do it in an environment like this, where we're celebrating baseball and celebrating the internationalization of baseball, it's really a great moment and hopefully a good moment for the Astros and for Mexico and baseball."

Altuve appreciates the love he and the Astros received during the Mexico City Series. He was relaxing while talking to a reporter in the lobby of the team's hotel Saturday morning when he received a gentle tap on the shoulder. He turned, saw former Astros third baseman Vinny Castilla, and popped to his feet.

"Gracias por venir (Thanks for coming)," Castilla told Altuve.

Manfred, who during the weekend opened MLB's first business office in Mexico City, understands soccer will likely always be king in Mexico. Nonetheless, he wants a share of the market in this country of 110 million residents, including about 27 million in the greater Mexico City area.

In the same way New York is viewed as the capital of the world, Mexico City is seen as the capital of Latin America. Mexico's art, music and culture extend deep throughout the hemisphere, whether in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Panama or Cuba.

Although Altuve is from Venezuela and Correa from Puerto Rico, Mexican fans embrace them and celebrate their triumphs as fellow Latinos who share a language and culture.

"Never forget where you came from," Correa said. "We came from nothing, where there's not much clothes, not much to eat."

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