The search for the next Fernando (part 2)

(This is the second of a three-part series)

Before we go any further, I should declare my bias. I am a rabid, Mexican patriot. I love Mexico and while I grew up in rural Iowa, I have spent the past 17 years here. I have dual citizenship. My wife is Mexican, my 3 boys were born here, and my business is located here. I have played baseball in Mexico as well as managed Little League baseball for local children. Being a patriotic Mexican, I will go out of my way to support a Mexican star. I secretly hope for the next Fernando Valenzuela and I eagerly await his arrival. I am a true believer. I know I am not alone on either side of the border.

When Luis “Cochito” Cruz had his short-lived success with the Dodgers in late 2012, we celebrated. High fives all around for every hit followed by bouncing little children and chants of “MEH-HEE-KO! MEH-HEE-KO!” This journeyman, career minor leaguer became our instant hero. We travelled all the way from Mexico to St. Louis to see a series against the Cardinals in July of 2012. Cruz hit a 3-run homer in his first at bat and we celebrated in support of our “paisano.” I am sure the Cardinal fans thought we were crazy. Could he be “the one?” Against reason and perhaps the baseball gods we hoped it was true.

I was not alone in my support of Cochito. The chant of “CRUUUUUUUUUZ” echoed through Dodger stadium in late 2012 and early 2013. Even Adrian Gonzalez who played for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic and smartly chose “El Mariachi Loco” (a classic Mexican mariachi song) as his special walk-up music didn’t get that sort of reception. Although Cruz sputtered with the bat and was released in 2013, we still monitor his progress as we do for the other Mexicans who play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, it appears he was not “the one.”

You simply cannot help but immediately like Luis Cruz and his perpetual smile. (Photo credit - Jennifer Hilderbrand)

Luis Cruz became a huge fan-favorite late in the 2012 season. Unfortunately he struggled horribly in 2013 and was eventually released by the Dodgers.
(Photo credit – Jennifer Hilderbrand)

As a marketer in any business, you need to find ways to create the emotional connection to your product that pulls on the heartstrings of your consumer. In the end, the goal of the MLB executive is not only to put “fannies in the seats” but to create multi-generational faithful fans – the ones that stick with you through thick and thin. It is important to put the best players on the field, but you also need to facilitate an emotional connection between fans and individual players. Fernando Valenzuela did just that with his persona, his story and his success especially with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

Add in the overwhelming population shifts going on not only in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and San Diego but across the US, one would think that instead of maquiladoras across the border churning out consumer goods, there would be “Fernando Factories” churning out the next great Mexican superstar to rally the masses. But alas, that is not the case. There appear to be few MLB teams that recognize the need, have the desire, or have a plan to find a new Fernando other than occasionally signing a small amount of players out of the Mexican professional leagues.

The Houston Astros have been the only team recently to publically recognize the need for a new Fernando. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow was born in Mexico, speaks fluent Spanish, and spent his childhood in Mexico City. He has relayed his organizational desire to find the next great Mexican star, recognizing that their fan base is changing rapidly. According to Astros marketing development coordinator Nicky Patriarca, the team sees the urgent need for a Mexican star. In 2012, 27% of their fan base was Hispanic and 90% of that group having Mexican roots. What she calls “the big stat,” however, is that 49% of the fan base in the 18-34 category, where your immediate future as a franchise rests, is Hispanic. This follows a similar trend in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and San Diego, yet oddly there has been no structural investment by major league baseball or individual teams in developing the next Mexican star.

Most of the MLB’s focus over the past 30 years has been on developing talent in the Dominican Republic. All teams have a physical presence on the island with their player development academies – the latest investment coming from the Seattle Mariners who spent over 7 million dollars to establish a state of the art facility. While there are definite ethical and social problems with the way things are run in the Dominican Republic, the investment has produced big results starting with only one Dominican player (the venerable Ozzie Virgil) in 1956 to as many as 161 players in 2006. Although that number has plateaued in recent years at 137, some of the biggest names in the game now come from this tiny island with the support of a huge investment from the MLB and the baseball fanaticism of the Dominican people. With very little direct investment, Mexico consistently has 15 to 28 players per year in the major leagues.

The Dodgers famous Campo Las Palmas was the first baseball academy in the Dominica Republic. Unfortunately, there are no such academies in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)

The Dodgers famous Campo Las Palmas was the first baseball academy in the Dominica Republic. There are no such academies in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)

But there is something missing from this equation. Major league organizations continue to have a problem that will only become more pronounced as time progresses: there is still a great business “disconnect” between a huge population shift towards a Mexican-American fan base and the complete lack of investment by major league teams in developing a Mexican star. While I appreciate the skill of a great Dominican ballplayer, from a marketer’s point of view it is not necessarily what the current and future fan base wants. If current trends continue, a team could lose the great opportunity to pull in a new generation of fans and make that all important multi-generational fan connection as Valenzuela did for the Dodgers.

So what is the solution? Is there a solution? Next we will take a look at the state of Mexican baseball in general taking a look at current Dodger as well as other Mexican major league prospects and some the inherent barriers in finding the next Fernando.

(Part three continues tomorrow)

 

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8 Responses to “The search for the next Fernando (part 2)”

  1. Ron Cervenka says:

    Great follow-up piece, Robb. Looking forward to the finale tomorrow!

    Too much good stuff!

    • bigbluebird says:

      Thanks, Ron. Tomorrow will be an analysis of some of the issues holding back the development of Mexican prospects. This is an issue that is obviously near and dear to my heart.

      Wish us luck! Tomorrow our 9-10s, including Prospect Matias, will be playing in a one-day, round-robin Little League tournament in Zumpango, Estado de Mexico. Here the baseball season never ends! We took a break for Christmas and started right up again last week with a win over Tepeyaca, Puebla 13-2.

  2. HawkeyeDodger says:

    What part of Iowa?

    • bigbluebird says:

      I was born and raised in Keokuk.

      • HawkeyeDodger says:

        I’m sure you made a lot of trips down to Busch Stadium when the Dodgers were in town then. I live in North Liberty/Iowa City these days, but have lived in Davenport and Cedar Falls too. I walked up to Mark Walters at Wrigley last year and let him know that it was good to see an Iowa boy running our team.

  3. MFGRREP says:

    Nice article Robb, I look forward to your next post !!

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