Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hitting, fielding... and dodging bullets

Playing winter baseball in Mexico is great -- until you're mistaken for a drug kingpin

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How did Chris Roberson spend his summer?

He was an all-star centre-fielder for the Winnipeg Goldeyes who won the 2012 American Association baseball championship.

But two years ago, Roberson was an American in Mexico mistaken for a cartel kingpin.

Each winter for the past eight years, Roberson has gone to Mexico to make decent money playing professional baseball. This year, he'll play for a second straight season with Los Águilas de Mexicali (Mexicali Eagles), based in Mexicali. The team plays in the minor professional Liga Mexicana del Pacifico (LMP or Mexican Pacific League), which operates from October to December.

He played seven seasons with Naranjeros de Hermosillo (Hermosillo Orange Growers), based in Hermosillo, Mexico, where he won two championships.

"It's great baseball, and I've got a good winning background there," said Roberson, who makes his home in Phoenix with his wife Yaneth and their daughter Aliah, who turns a year old on Oct. 25.

Major League Baseball scouts have been known to keep an eye out for a diamond-in-the-rough player who might be in the LMP or the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (LMB), an AAA league that operates from March to July after the Mexican Pacific League crowns a champion. Roberson has also played in that league.

However, many teams exist in states where Mexican drug cartels exist and wage deadly turf wars.

"Keep your nose in your own business," said Roberson, who speaks fluent Spanish.

"Stay out of all the extra stuff. There's always distractions in every city. If you just mind your business, you'll be all right."

Roberson said trouble seemed to have found him in the spring of 2010, when he was with the AAA Sultanes de Monterrey of the LMB.

"Day to day, the cartel war was going on. It was my first year there, and I had my 2007 grey Chevy Tahoe (sport utility vehicle) out there. That was one of the well-known mafia cars out there. All the mafia guys had either a grey, black or white Tahoe," Roberson said. He and his wife had just arrived in the city when he accidentally ran through a yellow traffic light. They were chased by a couple of military vehicles because he didn't realize at first it was him they wanted.

"I thought maybe they were going to get somebody because the military came shooting up behind me, telling me in Spanish to pull over the car," he said.

"We pulled over and they're talking to me in Spanish, and my Spanish has just disappeared. I was just in shock!"

Roberson said once he calmed down, the officers issued him a warning.

"They said, 'You've got to watch out because your car is one of the mafia cars. The next time, we won't stop you like that. We'll shoot at you. So take it easy driving in this town with this car.'"

Later that day, on the way to the baseball field, he saw more military vehicles across the street from where he'd been stopped.

"They've got their heavy-artillery guns right on the top of their trucks, and they're sitting looking at me. Luckily, they gave me the nod, like, 'We know who you are, so be easy,'" Roberson said. "I didn't drive it (the Tahoe) there the next year, let's put it like that."

Other Goldeyes players who will head to winter-league teams during the next couple of weeks include infielder Yurendell de Caster, catcher Luis Alen and infielder/outfielder Josh Mazzola, who are planning to play in Nicaragua.

The park where Roberson plays with Mexicali, called El Nido (The Nest), can seat 19,500 fans. Many of the parks are that large in the league and attract emotionally charged fans who love their baseball.

"It can be hellfire -- or a godsend," Roberson said. "When you're the rival team and on the road, (fans) jump on you pretty quick. But they know who the players are, and they respect the veteran players when you do your job.

"It's a great place to play baseball." Twitter: @WFPAshleyPrest

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J14

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