At the edge of Zona Norte, the downtown Tijuana neighborhood that abuts the border, there is a small sports park, Unidad Deportiva Benito Juárez. Families play basketball, kids enjoy an above-ground pool, boxers train inside the gym, indoor soccer teams compete, and, every once in a while, baseball players knock balls over the walls that divides Mexico and the U.S.
The distance from home plate to left field is around 250 feet; after that, the ball has to fly over five lanes of highway (Vía Internacional) and the first and second border walls (around 400 feet total). If the baseball makes it to the United States, it lands in the Tijuana River behind Las Americas Premium Outlets.
“I haven't seen a ball go over the wall in around two years,” comments Carlos Chavez, a retired Little League umpire who runs the store inside the sports park. “The kids right now are too scrawny, I don't think they'll be able to hit it to el otro lado this year.
“I was an umpire for the Pony League — Liga Guaycura ages, 14–15 — for this park and the one in Independencia for 17 years. I retired last year, but I know all the kids. This team is too weak — like the one at bat right now, I think I've seen him hit the ball across, but the second border wall is too tall. Back in 2001–2002, there were more beefy kids that could hit homers over the wall at any moment. They were national champions that year.
“I used to play here,” continues Chavez. “I’m from Guadalajara, but I was brought here when I was six years old. This has always been a sports area — I'm talking about, like, 40 or 45 years ago, there were more baseball fields.”
Chavez’s memory of when the park was built is shaky.
“…then the government took the installations from here to move them to Otay and there was nothing here for a couple of years. Then they built this park, like, 31 or 32 years ago….
“You don't know who Esteban Loaiza is?” Chavez yells at me incredulously when I ask him about the smaller baseball field in the Unidad.
“He played for the Dodgers! He is the most famous baller to come out of Tijuana! He was married to Jenny Rivera!” the retired umpire scolded.
“The bigger field is named Little Padres Park and is one of the 42 parks sponsored by the Padres. They came in and refurbished the diamond in 2007 and put in the grass. It used to be all dirt.” Chavez says he is a die-hard Padres fan.
He struggles to remember names of other Little League baseball players that have come out of Zona Norte but fondly recalls the 2001 generation.
“There was this one time that Giovanni Baldovino hit it hard, way over the border wall. La migra got out of his car rapidly, grabbed the ball, and hurled it all the way back over to the field. We were all, like, Ay guey, tiene mejor brazo este cabrón que tu, ahí que firmarlo!”