MONTERREY, Mexico - In the eyes of Jose Maiz Garcia and others, this clean, modern city always has been "big league."
The city's long love affair with baseball includes visiting Negro leagues' players in the 1940s, a Little League team invited to the White House and several home-grown youths now playing major league baseball.
All that's missing here, they say, is a real major league team such as the Montreal Expos.
"Monterrey always has been a great baseball city," said Maiz, owner of the local Sultans professional team and a star on a youth squad that was the first foreign team to win the Little League World Series in 1957. "Many people here think like people in the States."
To fulfill their dream, Maiz and a group of investors have been trying to persuade Major League Baseball owners to move the Expos to their proud city, promising the orphaned team more fans and more profits than it has in its current home in Montreal.
Only an hour from Texas, Monterrey is one of eight cities in contention for the franchise, which baseball officials have been trying to relocate since they bought it two years ago for $120 million. Last year, the team played 22 of its "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Up against places like San Juan, Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., Monterrey faces stiff competition. But the Mexican investors were heartened by baseball officials' remarks after an owners meeting in Arizona last month, in which a relocation committee briefed them on a tour of Monterrey and its baseball stadium.
In Arizona, commissioner Bud Selig said he has "a number of viable domestic and international candidates" and none had been eliminated. Selig previously had called Monterrey's bid "formidable," and baseball officials long have been interested in testing the Latin American market as a means of expanding interest in the game, both outside the United States and among Hispanics at home.
A highly placed major league executive told the Tribune the relocation committee was "really impressed" with Monterrey and that the city's promoters had been "aggressive."
"They're not such a long shot," the executive said. "Are there a lot of hurdles? Yes, but they have come a long way."
Moving a franchise south of the border presents a number of problems, not least of which are a language barrier, the volatile history of Mexico's currency and baseball's demand that the winning candidate pay $200 million for the team and have financing arranged for a new stadium.
The bidding comes as Monterrey's younger generations have been turning more to soccer, like the rest of the country. And the situation became more complicated when another group of investors expressed interest in bidding on behalf of Mexico City, although moving a team to that giant, crime-ridden metropolis could be even more of a long shot.
The Monterrey investors were lobbying to play host to the Expos' 22 out-of-town home games this year to demonstrate the verve of Mexican fans. They were disappointed when league officials announced the team again would play those games in San Juan in 2004 before moving permanently next year.
But the Monterrey group still is optimistic. The top investor is Carlos Bremer Gutierrez, a financial services executive and one of Mexico's richest men, who counts among his friends former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, not to mention Michael Jordan.
Maiz says he also knows Selig, who came to Monterrey with his daughter in 1991 when Selig's Milwaukee Brewers played an exhibition game against the Sultans.
"We beat them, 6-5," said Maiz, 59, who first approached the major leagues about moving a team to Monterrey in 1994. "You bring the Expos to Mexico and you are globalizing. If we had the team here, 104 million Mexicans could follow the team, plus the 25 million Mexicans working in the States."
The investors note the Monterrey area is home to 58 of Mexico's 160 Little League organizations. It is also home to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, adjacent to the Cuauhtemoc Brewery that produces Tecate and other Mexican beers. Its metropolitan area of about 3.8 million people is similar in population to the major league areas of Phoenix, Seattle, Montreal and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Monterrey Stadium, they say, is the best stadium in Latin America, with 27,600 seats, 40 luxury suites and a view of famous Saddle Mountain over the center-field fence. The owners have planned $3 million in renovations, including 3,000 more seats, and if they land the team, they are considering a new, 42,000-seat park near the city's convention center.
The promoters say the Expos would restore the glory days to Monterrey baseball, which began when a civil engineer named Col. Joseph Robertson organized a July 4 game in 1889 at an American railroad workers' camp in the nearby village of San Juan de Cadereyta.
The Chicago White Sox visited for a game in 1906. And in the 1940s, future Brooklyn Dodgers great Roy Campanella played for the Sultans, one of a number of black stars who played in the Mexican League before Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier in 1947.
In 1946, Monterrey was part of a scandal in which a baseball promoter named Jorge Pasquel lured a dozen U.S. players from the majors to play in Mexico. Those players, including stars Max Lanier, Sal Maglie and Mickey Owen, were banned from the majors until 1949.
Another event that sealed Monterrey's passion for baseball was the Little League victory in 1957, when Monterrey's pitcher threw a perfect game to beat a team from La Mesa, Calif., 4-0, in Williamsport, Pa. Maiz, then 12 and the team's slugger, was playing left field.
Afterward, the Little Leaguers met President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House. And Maiz remembers having a chat with Vice President Richard Nixon, who asked him if he knew about Washington's team, the Senators.
"I said, 'Yes, they are in last place,' " Maiz recalled. "[Nixon] said, 'Yes, they say Washington is first in peace, first in war, but last in the American League.'
"Monterrey threw an enormous welcome home party for the 'Little Giants.' "
"Everybody was there," said Magdalena Rosales Ortiz, the Hall of Fame director. "That was a big motivator that really strengthened baseball here in Monterrey."
In recent years, the big leagues have visited Monterrey several times. In 1996, the city played host to the first major league series outside the United States and Canada. It was three games between the New York Mets and San Diego Padres, who won the first game behind the pitching of aging Mexican hero Fernando Valenzuela.
Three years later, Monterrey was host to the season opener between the Padres and Colorado Rockies. The attendance was 27,104.
However, Ortiz and others said the city's youths may be playing more soccer than baseball these days. They say the shift began after Mexico was host to the soccer World Cup in 1986 and the youths now can watch soccer nearly all day long, all year long, on television.
A Hall of Fame visitor doesn't have to go far to find evidence of both fan ambivalence and excitement. In the brewery beer garden next door, waiter Roberto Lozano, 31, said his daughters are swimmers and gave no indication he would introduce his infant son to the game someday.
"Once a baseball hit me. Since then I don't like it," Lozano said, pointing at his chin.
"Since I was young, it's always been soccer. But if a team like [the Expos] comes, there would be a lot of enthusiasm. People would say, 'Let's go see! Let's go see!' "
Chicago Tribune baseball reporter Phil Rogers contributed to this report. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.