Small California town churns out baseball prospects, with help from across the border
In Southern California, a stone's throw from the Mexican border, there's a little town called Brawley -- a hotbed, believe it or not, of major league pitching talent. But the secret to the town's success lies some 22 miles to the south, in a Mexican city called Mexicali.
In their Brawley, Calif., living room, Frank and Leticia Romo watch the San Francisco Giants play the St Louis Cardinals for the National League championship.
The whole family is here.
Their son, Sergio Romo, is a relief pitcher for the Giants, and one of baseball’s rising stars. He is far away in the major leagues, but in his hometown, they’re watching his every move.
Brawley may seem like an unlikely source for baseball heroes. It’s home to about 25,000 people, a farm town out in the desert scrubland of California’s Imperial Valley. Main Street is a dusty arcade of shuttered stores. Unemployment is over 30 percent, among the highest in the state.
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There is no big college, no stadium. The only nearby city is Mexicali, Mexico, 22 miles to the south.
“Brawley would be probably like a slightly bigger version of Mayberry. Although not quite as nice,” said Rudy Seanez who retired from the major leagues in 2010.
Rudy grew up in Brawley too. So did Alan Fowlkes, a pitcher in the 1970s. So did Sid Monge.
“Tim Howard, Steve Whitehead. Andrew Romo,” Seanez said, rattling off baseball players with connections to Brawley.
Brawley, and the Imperial Valley around it, have sent at least 21 baseball players to the major and minor leagues.
“I think baseball, that’s our way to get out of here, so it’s like, 'how do we get out of here? Working hard,'” said Pedro Carranza, who played for the Colorado Rockies.
Carranza is now training Brawley’s next generation of players, at Brawley Union high school.
Even in mid-October, the desert climate here isn’t ideal for baseball practice.
“This is pretty cool. I think (it is) 95,” Carranza said.
But in the winter, when Americans have packed away their bats and gloves, baseball in Mexico is still going strong. And that may be the secret to Brawley’s success. Mexicali’s winter leagues, half an hour down the road, are open to amateurs and pros. That means Brawley high school athletes can train across the border, alongside professionals looking for a game.
“For instance, I was 16 and playing against men 30 years old, 35-years-old,” Carranza said. “You’re playing against some good ballplayers. Enrique Lechuga, who played with the White Sox, is in the Mexican leagues right now, Julian Arballo also played with the Yankees, same thing, they’re playing in Mexicali this week, and any one of my high school kids if he plays down there, he’s facing one of those guys.”
Seanez said it forces young players to step it up.
“Being able to go into Mexico is like that kid being able to practice on a major league field,” Seanez said. “You’d better get your A-game on real quick or you’re not going to be around very long.”
The tradition of Mexican Americans playing baseball across the border here goes back generations, long before today’s stars.
“There was a time when that was a family event, where on Sundays, the field workers here and their families would go down to Mexicali and watch the adult males play baseball,” Carranza said. “Sergio’s grandfather played in Mexicali. Sergio’s dad played in Mexicali. Sergio played in Mexicali.”
And that history plays out on the field, too.
“You hear about some of the teammates saying I played with your grandfather, I played with your uncle, or this or that or the other. This is like, wow, its roots are spreading out all over the place,” Seanez said.
Those roots mean everything to Frank Romo, Sergio’s dad. He came to Brawley from Mexico as a child. He cut his own baseball career short to work the fields. His father before him did the same.
“The Diablos Rojos, the professional team from Mexico City, they wanted to sign my dad. But he couldn’t go either, because he had a lot of work on the farm,” Frank Romo said. “I’ve been living dreams through my kids.”
In this small town, his son made that dream happen: playing baseball across the border and back again.
“And Sergio, he’s a major league baseball player, this is his fifth season, can you believe that? It’s awesome,” Romo said.
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