'The Yankees are coming to play in Mexico': How Diablos Rojos got a 'dream' series with MLB's most iconic team

Once again, a major league team will play at Alfredo Harp Helú Stadium, the home ballpark of the Diablos Rojos del México, part of Major League Baseball’s efforts to create a more international game. Last April, the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants played at the ballpark in a game that counted. This time, the situation is different. To some, more special.

It’s the New York Yankees, first of all, playing in Mexico for the first time in 56 years, since Mickey Mantle’s final season in pinstripes.

And more importantly — at least to their Mexican opponent — they’re not there for an MLB game.

“We just don’t want to bring big league teams to play one another; the owners wanted to bring teams to play the Diablos Rojos,” said Jorge Del Valle, the club’s head of baseball operations.

The Yankees and Diablos Rojos will meet Sunday and Monday in Mexico City in a pair of exhibition games before the start of the 2024 major league season. It’s a rematch of a two-game series the teams split in March 1968.

How did it come about — and what does it mean? ESPN spoke to officials from both teams to tell the story.

The dream takes shape

Rodrigo Fernández, MLB Mexico director: The whole world wants to see the most popular team, the Yankees, with the most fans. … It’s on the wish list every year: “Hopefully, the Yankees come this year.” And the opportunity to bring them over presented itself.

Othón Díaz, Diablos Rojos president and CEO: Those games between San Francisco and San Diego [in Mexico City last year], which were spectacular, the way the players and fans experienced [it], with fireworks and all, delighted the world and the major leagues. It allowed us to raise our hand and be taken seriously … under the leadership of [Diablos Rojos owners] Alfredo and Santiago Harp. Without them, this wouldn’t be a reality. They were the architects behind all of this. And with some of the cultural aspects, the Harp family had a good friend in Omar Minaya. We made inroads with him acting on the Yankees’ behalf to make all this happen. It’s not just a dream come true, it’s something that will surprise older fans and newcomers.

Omar Minaya, Yankees senior advisor to baseball operations: This all started to sprout in the middle of last season, [Giancarlo] Stanton and [Jose] Treviño were in the middle of that action. Ben Tuliebitz, the Yankees traveling secretary, told me that a few players, specifically Stanton and Treviño, asked him why the Yankees didn’t play outside of the United States, and if it would be possible to play in Mexico. I heard this and thought it was a good idea, so I got to work on it. I called Alfredo Harp Helú and his son Santiago, who are good old friends of mine. I’ve known the Harp family for over 15 years, before we came together in San Diego. When I was with the Mets, we collaborated with them when they built their academy in Oaxaca.

Díaz: Look, I can tell you that the first part of it was Omar Minaya, who’s beloved by the family and the Diablos organization. He was with the New York Mets, at a high level. When he joined the Yankees, it’s one of those times when you need something from a certain place, and it so happens that your friend is there. At least you have that connection from the inside who can talk about what’s done well here and that it’s not a crazy idea to bring them. In that sense, with everything coming together like that, Omar Minaya joining the Yankees was what got this project off the ground.

Jorge Del Valle, Diablos Rojos head of baseball operations: They’ve asked us to beat the Yankees and not much else in the way of responsibility.

The logistics — and the ballpark

Díaz: People who are important to the operation are coming over, so we have to comply with a lot of protocols. One of the more complex issues is that the [Yankees] are an enormous organization. It’s broadcasting people coming over, safety people, protocol people, and meanwhile here it’s only three or four people. Sometimes you don’t even know who you’re speaking to, or who’s asking for what, because you don’t know if it’s protocol or safety. So you’re swamped. You get emails and you have a hard time remembering what you had said. That’s happened. On the staff, folks like [stadium director] Francisco Ramos have done a lot. … The Yankees are requesting the same expectations as if this were a major league game.

Francisco Ramos, Alfredo Harp Helú Stadium director: As far as needs go, the ballpark covers practically everything. There are a few special requests, such as when there’s a concert and a star wants something particularly done with the dressing area. What they’ve requested for the clubhouse is things that we already have, like towels, food. Those are tailored for each event. The ballpark has two clubhouses for 40 players and the coaching staff. Since last season, a space for female staffers on par with the men’s has been offered, which few other stadiums have.

Díaz: There are a lot of things that have made it happen, one of them being this magnificent setting. I think the ballpark is the cornerstone for it all. People come today and have a better experience — and it’s not me saying it but several publications — where they say it’s overtaken soccer. They don’t feel safe at soccer games anymore, and that’s a sport where if you miss one minute or 20 seconds, you miss the goal, and it’s over. Here, one of the great things about it is when we arrived on the scene a lot of people had it in their heads that baseball is boring because of all the down time, but one of the biggest tasks for this to work is to understand the weaknesses and turn them into strengths. There are times when you’re enjoying it better during those lulls because people are dancing or having a good time. The pitching could be interesting, but the dancing or the camera aimed at a fan doing something funny are what make people have an unforgettable experience.

Minaya: The stadium is first-class, possibly the best in all of Latin America, and you’ve had some regular-season games there already. We spoke to Murray Cook, who is the official field and stadium consultant for MLB, and he told us it’s one of the best out there.

Del Valle: There are requirements as far as the turf, which is why renovations were made. It has to do with safety issues and accommodations. They’ve been working with a group since December, checking things off a list. A lot of the work has been done by Francisco Ramos on the stadium front, and Othón Diaz on the Diablos Rojos front. The table is set and ready for them.

Díaz: They will be the first on that new turf, it’s been announced. They’ve had chances to test it out. Nobody can say that the turf at Alfredo Harp doesn’t measure up with any ballpark in the majors.

Ramos: The most difficult issue is what happens off the field with things like transportation, safety, air travel.

Díaz: Like I told you, the Yankees have staff charged with watching over all of this. We accompany them in everything, join them in dealing with authorities. One example is [our] visit to Felipe Ángeles International Airport [about 20 miles north of Mexico City] with people from the Yankees, going over logistics, transportation, everything needed for their visit. We spoke with authorities, who provided all of the facilities for this to work. We accompany them and there have been previous visits, but in reality it’s the team that sets conditions. MLB people come, too. It’s so organized, so well structured.

As you all know they have a sponsor and their own plane they use for travel. They don’t fly steerage class like the rest of us. They have it pretty good. Everything is geared to treat them like the stars they are, they are extraordinary guests. They will be taken care of from the moment they arrive at the airport. They will be received when they get here and given every consideration reserved for celebrities or world leaders, that kind of level. That’s why the support of the federal government is essential, as well as the support of authorities and the Secretariat of National Defense. The great thing about it is when these events take place, Mexicans are extraordinary, with constant teamwork at play. It’s nothing like the myth of the crabs in a bucket pulling each other down. When we’re focused on a goal, it’s really motivating and important for all Mexicans: a team effort, united and with ease.

Why the Yankees, Diablos Rojos and Mexico are a match

Díaz: It comes from the history made 56 years ago, that’s where it all started. If you visit the Diablos Rojos’ museum, there’s an iconic photo in one of the rooms of Diablos players, [Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Famer] Ramón “Diablo” Montoya among them, with Mickey Mantle. The video there talks about that legendary moment when the Diablos beat the Yankees [in the first of two exhibition games], and from there we get this opportunity, boosted with the reality that the Yankees are the baseball team, and they don’t just belong to baseball.

Victor Gonzalez, Yankees relief pitcher: To have the opportunity to go there, to Mexico, and pitch there, I have a lot of family members there who will have the opportunity to see me pitch. So to wear the Yankee pinstripes and be at home and pitch in front of my family, I think it’s going to be incredible for me.

My understanding is there aren’t any tickets available for the games so I think the people are very excited to receive this great team in Mexico City.

Aaron Boone, Yankees manager: I love when we went to London. I love when we went to the Field of Dreams in Iowa. Excited for the Little League series this year. Mexico’s another wrinkle right before the season. Something unique and different, and hopefully something that will be a cool life and baseball experience.

Alex Verdugo, Yankees outfielder: I like that they’re bringing games to different countries. … It’s going to be just get out there, eat some good food. You already know the fans are going to be awesome. So I’m looking forward to that environment and everything that comes with it.

Obviously, you see it on social media here and there, but I think it’s more of like even In person at the game, when they’re there cheering you on. They root for all their players, though. Everybody that’s going for Mexico and that’s trying to help and do something, they’re behind them like 100%.

Díaz: I’ll tell you a story. I had over a thousand WhatsApp messages, on the day of the announcement, and two days later I had more than 2,000. Apologies to my friends, because to this day I haven’t gotten back to all the people who were seeking me out. It’s impossible. One of the many things with the Yankees is that it’s not just baseball people, because people who worked with me at Mexico’s national sports commission would ask about it, people at the university from when I was there as the athletics director, from Club Alemán [an athletic club], some friends from grade school who I didn’t even know were my classmates. The funny thing about all of it is that I didn’t know how they got my number.

This is the cherry on top of the cake. More so than the big league games, which we had last year, and Monterrey had one back in the day [Monterrey has hosted five regular-season series since 1996]. But for a Mexican team to play against one from the majors, and its most iconic to boot, that’s the cherry without a doubt. “Cherry” is what you’re accustomed to saying, but because of the magnitude it’s really more like the apple. It’s incredible, this dream we’re living.

Ramos: We see it from the point of view of, the Diablos are the iconic team from a fan and history standpoint and with the ballpark, so the opponent won’t just be on the field but will also be represented in the stands, since we’ll have a group of people from different parts of the world here to see the most famous team in the world.

Del Valle: Since I came aboard, the owners have been talking about bringing the Yankees to play against the Diablos. … MLB and the Yankees found out how serious the Diablos Rojos were. At the end of the day, this showed the world what Mexican baseball is about.

Díaz: If you go back and check around Dec. 28 [a date comparable in Latin America to April Fools’ Day] back in 2020, on Diablos social media we wrote something like, “The Yankees are coming to play in Mexico,” thinking it was something impossible, so we posted it. Just a few years later, it’s a reality.

Interviews by Jorge Castillo, Omar Flores and Enrique Rojas

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