'Yankees of Mexico': Diablos Rojos have thrived in their own right

MEXICO CITY — When the New York Yankees take the field here Sunday against the hometown Diablos Rojos del México for the first of two exhibition games, the meeting will arguably qualify as the year’s biggest baseball event in the country.

Yes, the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies follow with a regular-season series that actually matters in the standings April 29-30 in Mexico’s sprawling capital, but such is the power of the Yankees brand.

The visit marks the second visit to Mexico and matchup against the Diablos Rojos for the Yankees, who haven’t been back since the days of Mickey Mantle. In the 56 years since, the Diablos Rojos have become the Yankees’ equivalent in Mexico, winning 14 of their 16 league Mexican League titles during that span en route to becoming the country’s most successful franchise.

Buoyed by their history, a new state-of-the-art stadium and a baseball-obsessed owner with ties to MLB, the Diablos Rojos’ rematch with the Yankees comes at an opportune time.

“The Diablos are the Yankees of Mexico,” said Veracruz native and former Yankees reliever Luis Cessa, a right-hander currently in the Kansas City Royals organization. “They’re the team everyone wants to beat down there. Either you love them or you hate them.”

Cessa is a product of the Diablos’ developmental Alfredo Harp Helú Baseball Academy, with whom he signed in 2008 at age 16 before moving on to the New York Mets as an international free agent that same year. Many of Mexico’s current major leaguers have been scouted out of the academy, including St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Giovanny Gallegos and Seattle Mariners infielder Luis Urias.

The academy’s namesake, 84-year-old Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helú, is one of Mexico’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. He also owns another Mexican League ballclub, the Guerreros de Oaxaca, and is part of the San Diego Padres ownership group.

Through Harp Helú, the Diablos Rojos have been MLB’s main conduit into Mexico over the past decade. In 2019, work was finished on the club’s new 20,000-seat stadium built on Mexico City’s east side and also named after Harp Helú. Just a few months after the ballpark’s inauguration, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the league would play regular-season games there. The Padres and the San Francisco Giants kicked off the MLB Mexico City Series last year, and the Astros-Rockies series follows suit in April.

“The new stadium looks incredible,” Cessa said. “To have the Yankees come down, even for a couple of exhibition games, I think that’s for posterity. It’s an opportunity for fans who maybe can’t travel to the United States to watch the team [in their country].”

A 2018 study conducted by MLB found that the Yankees are the most popular team in Mexico, followed by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox. Although the Dodgers have fielded some of Mexico’s favorite sons, including 1981 NL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year winner Fernando Valenzuela, New York’s popularity among fans in the country is a testament to their global appeal. Tickets for the the exhibition series, which went on sale in February, sold out in less than an hour.

“When I was called up and finally got to Yankee Stadium, it was like a dream,” said former pitcher Alfredo Aceves, a Mexico native who had two stints with the Yankees between 2008 and 2014. “Even now, I can’t put the experience into words.”

After the Padres-Giants series last season, several Yankees players lobbied team executives to make the trip to Mexico. The current club features Mexican-born pitcher Victor Gonzalez as well as catcher Jose Trevino and outfielder Alex Verdugo, both American players of Mexican heritage.

Verdugo and Cessa played for Mexico in the 2023 World Baseball Classic when the team made a surprise run to the semifinals. Both came away impressed at the level of support at the tournament — fans here are encouraged to be vocal, oftentimes leading to organized chants and cheers between pitches.

“The energy we felt as players [at the WBC] was unlike anything else,” Cessa said. “Fans were chanting, singing and making noise. You know, us Mexicans love to be in the thick of it and support our own. I think [the Yankees-Diablos games] are going to have that complete joy from fans throughout.”

Aceves, who played for Yucatan and Monterrey in the Mexican League, is hopeful the visit will inspire more young Mexican players to follow their steps to the big leagues.

“It’s a beautiful thing to think about those players inspiring young kids in the stands,” Aceves said. “It’s wonderful, to be able to witness this live for them with all of those great players will be indescribable.”

Back in March of 1968, sellout crowds marveled at an aging Mantle, playing in his last season before retiring. He responded by blasting a home run in the first of three exhibition clashes in Mexico City. New York won the three-game series, but the Diablos Rojos managed one win.

This time around, the Yankees could delight Mexican fans with even more star power if Aaron Judge and Juan Soto — two of the top three players in MLB according to ESPN experts — are made available. Soto, who was with the Padres last season, went 4-for-6 with a homer and two RBIs in the two-game series in Mexico last April.

Meanwhile, the appeal of the Diablos Rojos is such that it the club remains a destination spot for many Mexican major leaguers who hope to one day don the team’s red-and-white uniform.

“I hope to play in the United States for a very long time,” Cessa said. “But one day, my dream is to come back and feel that joy that comes with playing for Diablos.”

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