For most baseball players that come through Bakersfield, playing in the Mexican League isn’t much of a thought — if they even know that the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol exists at all.
But for Juan Martinez (South High and Bakersfield College), Rolando Martinez (Ridgeview High and Bakersfield College), Art Charles (Ridgeview High and Bakersfield College) and Oscar Sanay (Cal State Bakersfield) it’s been the source of opportunity for better pay, living conditions and atmosphere than lower-level minor league baseball in the United States.
All four players are employed by teams in the Mexican League, a Triple-A level league based in Mexico that had been affiliated with Major League Baseball but not individual teams in the MLB. On June 21, however, Yahoo Sports reported that MLB banned its teams from signing players associated with the Mexican League because of “corruption” and “fraud” surrounding the transactions. Boston Red Sox pitcher Hector Velazquez was signed out of the Mexican League and dozens of former big leaguers are currently in the LMB.
“I love Mexico,” Charles said. “I love the team, the organization that I’m a part of and there’s other Bakersfield guys here as well, so it’s always nice running into familiar faces.”
The average player makes about $1,000 a month starting out in the minor leagues in the U.S. with the salary increasing about $100 per year, Juan Martinez estimated. In the Mexican League, most players make between $4,000 and $10,000 each month, Juan Martinez said, and the difference is made more obvious by the much lower cost of living.
Food and hotels are provided on the road and some teams have the same accommodations at home. Instead of the peanut butter and jelly or cold cuts sandwiches common in the minors in America, the Mexican League players usually get three hot and healthy meals, Charles said.
Mondays are off days and each team plays two, three-game series the rest of the week. One week is spent at home and the next is on the road. The home cities are as far apart as Tijuana and Cancún — about 2,000 miles — and the biggest stadium in the league has a capacity of about 22,000 people.
The biggest difference each player noted about American and Mexican baseball is the fans. In Mexico, the fans might give a player money if he makes a game-changing play, Rolando Martinez noted. But if a player makes a mistake, even the home crowd will get on him. Players can get away with yelling back at the fans in Mexico, Rolando Martinez said.
“They get crazy,” Charles said. “They’re really into it. They're playing drums during the game, they're yelling stuff all the time. You might hear some cuss words here and there. It’s so much more rowdy.”
Though disappointed, Sanay wasn’t surprised by MLB’s issues with the Mexican League because “you see a lot of shady stuff.” LMB general managers make promises that aren’t included in the contracts and players known to be using certain performance enhancing drugs pass their drug tests, Sanay said.
Juan Martinez, 31, South High School/Bakersfield College
Playing minor league and independent league baseball in the United States was “tough” and a “struggle” for Juan Martinez. After getting drafted out of Oral Roberts University in 2009 by the San Francisco Giants, Juan Martinez played two seasons in the minor leagues and spent about five years playing independent baseball before heading to Mexico.
Some teams in the minors set him up with host families to get by on his meager salary, but one year he had to share a cramped apartment with about eight other players. In independent ball it got even worse — Juan Martinez couldn’t afford a place to live one season so he slept on a table in the trainer’s room inside the clubhouse each night.
“You know that your chances (of making it to the MLB) are gonna go down a little bit coming down here — in my eyes — but you know you're gonna be better off living a little bit more comfortable,” Juan Martinez said, “and I'm okay with that right now.”
Rolando Martinez, 23, Ridgeview High School/Bakersfield College
When Rolando Martinez went undrafted out of Oral Roberts in 2016, he took the advice of his brother, Juan Martinez, to play in the Mexican League. Juan Martinez floated his brother’s name to teams and eventually Rolando Martinez signed on with Pericos de Puebla.
Rolando Martinez is currently at a lower level playing with Algodoneros de San Luis in Liga Norte de México, which feeds into the Mexican League. But he’s spent time up with Pericos de Puebla and even made his debut against his brother. Juan Martinez almost robbed Rolando of his first career hit and the two got to enjoy the experience together.
Art Charles, 27, Ridgeview High School/Bakersfield College
Charles never quite realized the experience of his native Spanish speaking teammates in the minors from Latin American countries until he came to play in Mexico for the first time. In 2016, Charles’ grasp of the Spanish language was “not very good at all” and he needed a translator to understand coaches and follow along with meetings.
Thanks to more exposure and practice with his girlfriend, Charles has gotten better.
“If people are having conversations with me I can understand what they’re saying,” Charles said. “... But sometimes if they speak too fast, then I’m translating all the words in my head and then it’s my turn to speak while I’m translating so I get tongue tied a little bit.”
Charles won the first league championship of the summer with Leones de Yucatán at the end of June and he’s hoping to translate his Mexican experience into opportunities to play in leagues in places like Japan or Korea.
Oscar Sanay, 26, Cal State Bakersfield
Turning down a scouting job with the Tampa Bay Rays and heading to Mexico to continue his playing career meant a homecoming for Sanay. He left Mexico at 4 years old with his mother and brother to come to the United States. Whether it was in high school in Chula Vista, in college at CSUB or in the minors with the Rays, the majority of his family had never seen him play.
That changed in 2016 when his Mexican League team, Pericos de Puebla, played in Sanay’s hometown of Tijuana in July. Sanay won the league championship later that year in Tijuana with his family in attendance again.
“It’s a dream come true,” Sanay said. “Most people dream of the big leagues — I dream of big leagues for sure — but the people that kind of were there for me from the beginning get to experience what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years.”