Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez keeps his eye on the pitching machine… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
LA JOLLA — The San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, which separates San Diego County from neighboring Tijuana, is the world's most congested border checkpoint, with armed federal officers from two countries and drug-sniffing dogs moving between long lines of cars.
For some, it's a symbol of division. For Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, it's a bridge linking the places that shaped him as a ballplayer and person.
Born in the United States to Mexican parents, Gonzalez is fluent and literate in English and Spanish, having been raised on both sides of the border in a blend of the cultures.
"I'm Mexican and I'm American," he says.
That's evident in his tastes. While he admired how former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela broke down cultural barriers, his childhood hero was San Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Gonzalez watches both football and futbol, supporting the San Diego Chargers and Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. He sings to his 13-month-old daughter in Spanish during the day and watches reruns of "The King of Queens" at night.
If Fernandomania made baseball appealing in the 1980s to Mexican immigrants who previously had little or no interest in the sport, Gonzalez is positioned to connect with their more culturally assimilated offspring.
The Dodgers estimate that 40% of their fans are Latino. Of that group, 60% are bilingual, according to a study recently commissioned by the team.
"He looks like our community, he reflects our community," says Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' chief marketing officer.
The Dodgers used Gonzalez's crossover appeal to their advantage this winter. No player made more public appearances than Gonzalez, who volunteered to make frequent trips to Los Angeles from his offseason home in La Jolla.
He was part of a roundtable discussion that aired on ESPN Deportes and co-hosted a Sunday sports highlights show on Channel 9. He spoke in two languages to potential advertisers of the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcasts. As the captain of Team Mexico for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, he held a news conference in Mexico City to unveil the roster. He also participated in the Dodgers' community caravan around the Southland and attended a charity event hosted by Manager Don Mattingly.
"Being bilingual and bicultural, he's been able to spread the Dodgers brand everywhere," Rosen says.
Gonzalez's ability to effortlessly cross boundaries, both real and imagined, was something his parents wanted for him.
Almost 40 years ago, when David and Alba Gonzalez thought of starting a family, they knew that where their children were born would affect what opportunities they had.
"We wanted our children to be born in the United States," David says. "We wanted them to learn English and study in the United States." So even though David owned a successful air-conditioning business in Tijuana, he and his wife settled in the San Diego area. David used to commute daily to Mexico for work until shortly after the birth of Adrian, his third son.
Wanting his boys to learn Mexican family values, David moved the family to Tijuana.
"In Mexico, families are very close," David says. "Our children don't leave the house when they're 18. They stay with us until they're married."
Adrian and his older brothers, David Jr. and Edgar, learned baseball in Tijuana, where baseball has historically been more popular than soccer. And the competition, especially among young boys, is fierce.
"At the younger age groups, the level is higher in Tijuana than it is in the United States," Edgar says.
But while Tijuana provided a solid foundation for the Gonzalez boys, the family returned to the San Diego area when Adrian was in the fourth grade. The primary purpose for relocating was for the children to attend high school and college in the United States. There were baseball reasons too.
For older boys, the better competition and opportunities came north of the border, with high-level club and scholastic teams, access to more fields and an emphasis on weight lifting and training.
Adrian started working with a personal physical trainer between his sophomore and junior years at Eastlake High in Chula Vista. And he continued to benefit from his ties to Mexico, with his father driving him to games in Tijuana against older and more experienced players.
As a senior, Adrian was selected by the Florida Marlins with the first overall pick of the 2000 draft.
Edgar, in particular, wonders how his and Adrian's lives would have unfolded had they not moved to the United States.
Four years older than Adrian, Edgar was undrafted out of high school but was able to continue playing in college. He was taken in the 30th round of the 2000 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays and reached the major leagues in 2008 with the San Diego Padres as a utilityman. He played in Japan last season.