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Padres Go for Title: 'Mexico's Team'

Baseball: San Diego attendance gets a big boost from south of the border.


TIJUANA — San Diego may be a long way from Monterrey, Mexico, but the Padres will still probably feel very much at home there this weekend. After all, they'll be occupying the home-team dugout and playing before thousands of Mexican fans, as they do every weekend in San Diego.

So while tonight's opener of a three-game series between the Padres and New York Mets is historic because it marks the first time major league baseball has taken regular-season games to Mexico, the Padres have been bringing Mexico to regular-season games all season.

In conjunction with a Mexican brewery, and with the cooperation of the INS and the U.S. Customs Service, the Padres have been busing nearly 2,000 fans from as many as five sites in Mexico to each of their Sunday home games, helping their attendance grow faster than that of any other team in baseball. It's one of many ways the Padres are reaching out to their long-ignored neighbors in Mexico.

"We want to become Mexico's team," Enrique Monrones, the club's director of Hispanic marketing says, using a phrase many Padre officials repeat like a mantra.

The club has opened a souvenir store in Tijuana's trendy Plaza Rio shopping mall, opened a dialogue with Baja's business community and opened the way to weekly telecasts of their games in northern Mexico. But by far the most substantial opening took place at the border, where long delays have traditionally left would-be Padre fans frustrated enough to stay home.

"It [was] ridiculous," Monrones said of the border crossing. "You don't know if it's going to take you 15 minutes or three hours. You just don't know."

In response, last September the Padres invited Reed, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, Mexican-born pitchers Fernando Valenzuela and Andres Berumen and several business leaders to the stadium to discuss the border problem.

"There were an awful lot of concerns up front," said Mark Reed, director of the San Diego district for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "But the whole flavor of the summit was that we needed to step up and work together and to build a community and that the border was recognized as being part of the community. So we worked on it together and we really wanted it to succeed because we wanted to be able to demonstrate that the community and the border agencies could work together in a common interest and get something done like this."

As a result, the border patrol has prepared its staff for a rush on Sundays when the Padres are home. They've also directed buses to less-congested points of entry; the Tijuana buses cross at Otay Mesa, for example, rather than taking the more direct route through San Ysidro. On a recent Sunday, 400 fans exited seven buses in Mexico, passed through a border patrol inspection station and boarded the buses again in the United States in about 10 minutes--about half the time it took three U.S. citizens to pass through a checkpoint by car a day earlier.

Mexican fans also get a bargain. For $10 to $14--in most cases, less than the price of a ticket--participants in the "Domingos Padres" program get round-trip transportation from Mexico to Jack Murphy Stadium and choice plaza level seats.

Once at the ballpark, they encounter a more much inviting atmosphere than in years past. Bilingual ushers wear name tags that read "Yo hablo espanol," and on Sundays the Mexican flag flies over the rim of the stadium and mariachis perform a pregame concert at Fiesta Plaza, a roped-off concession area where Mexican food is served and Tecate beer is available on tap.

Even the front office has been caught up in the spirit. When John Moores and Larry Lucchino bought the club 20 months ago, Lucchino remembers asking an assistant to have a press release translated into Spanish. "And I was told we had no one who spoke Spanish," Lucchino recalls.

Now a Spanish phrase is circulated daily by e-mail to every member of the front office and Spanish tutors are made available to those who want them.

"The ballpark has been made a warmer, friendly place for people who speak Spanish," Lucchino says. "That was a conscious effort."

Attendance at Jack Murphy Stadium is up 80% over last season, the biggest jump in the major leagues, and part of that increase can be traced to Mexico. Nearly 12,000 fans have been bused from Baja to Sunday home games already this season and, Lucchino estimates, as many as 40,000 more have made their own way across the border.

Monrones, who frequently passes through the stands during games trying to gauge the size of the Hispanic crowd, says the Padres have more than doubled the number of Latinos they've drawn from San Diego County this summer, partly as a result of their marketing efforts in Mexico.

Last season the Padres didn't draw a crowd of more than 40,000; this season they've reached that figure 14 times, topped by two league-high crowds of more than 55,000. The first time they topped that mark, for a late July game against the Colorado Rockies, it broke the club's single-game attendance record. So, as the turnstiles began counting down to the magic number, Padre officials showed up at the entrances to record the moment.

And the fan who put the team over the top? Reys Benitez, who traveled nearly 1,000 miles from Culiacan, Mexico.


Series at a Glance

* OPPONENTS: New York Mets vs. San Diego Padres

* SITE: Estadio Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico

* CAPACITY: 27,000

* DIMENSIONS: Left, right field lines 325 feet; center field 400 feet. Outfield walls 8 feet.

* FIELD: Natural grass.

* CITY POPULATION: 3.39 million

* TICKET PRICES: $30, $25, $9; $3.50 standing room.

* GAME TIMES: 5 p.m. today and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.


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