Leftist AMLO and Billionaire Hit It Off Over Love of Baseball

(Bloomberg) -- Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador often calls business elites a corrupt mafia, but when it comes to promoting his favorite sport, he’s willing to play ball.

AMLO, as the leftist is known, on Saturday plans to adopt the century-old American tradition of throwing out the first pitch for a baseball game, helping inaugurate a 3.9 billion-peso ($207 million) stadium for Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, or Red Devils. The Diablos, who will play an exhibition against San Diego Padres prospects, are owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu. The former owner of Citigroup Inc.’s Mexico unit also holds a stake in the Padres.

Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, has been a passionate fan since his small-town childhood. He fondly recalls playing center field, using a homemade ball and bat and listening to radio broadcasts of American games in Spanish. While he has rarely traveled outside Mexico, he made an exception for the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego, taking his youngest son and snapping a photo with David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox.

Fat Target

Lopez Obrador is pushing America’s national pastime south of the border to promote exercise and fight an epidemic of obesity, and has found an unlikely ally in Harp Helu: The president criticized the way the 75-year-old businessman and his partners, who acquired control of Banamex from the government for $3.2 billion in 1991, sold it to Citigroup Inc. for four times that amount a decade later using a strategy that avoided paying some taxes.

But Lopez Obrador and Harp Helu, a cousin of Carlos Slim, formed a mutual admiration society last month at an inauguration for the Mexican baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey, a $20 million center that Harp Helu built. The president even took a turn in the batting cage.

“Thank you, Alfredo, for your support,” he said. “You’re a model, because not only do you dedicate yourself to business activities, but also social and civic causes, and this pastime, this love of baseball."

The billionaire waxed poetic: “Today the winds blow in favor of our Mexican baseball, because President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s heart beats with a bat and a ball.”

Yanqui Pastime

In the U.S., the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch started in 1910 with William Howard Taft. The sport also has a long history in Mexico. Some accounts trace it to the Mexican-American War of 1848. Others tie it to the spread of U.S. investment and cultural influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the growth of railroads, including in Lopez Obrador’s home state of Tabasco.

The sport is most popular in the north near the Texas border and in the southeast. Baseball also got a boost in the 1980s from Mexican pitching phenomenon Fernando Valenzuela, who won the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards while helping lead the Dodgers to a World Series title. The nation’s 16-team league has Triple-A level recognition in the U.S., although the teams are not affiliates of Major League Baseball clubs.

There’s a long tradition of baseball-obsessed leftist leaders in Latin America. It started with Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary and long-time leader. Years later, he was joined by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. After Chavez took office in the late 1990s, the two men would assemble baseball teams to play against each other and take the field themselves. Fittingly, both were left-handed pitchers.

Lopez Obrador’s goals include opening baseball schools to prepare more Mexicans to play in the Majors and win international tournaments. Those looking to see the highest level of American baseball talent can travel to Monterrey for regular-season two-game series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Cardinals in April and the Dodgers and Houston Astros in May.

Who knows? Maybe the president will even turn up.

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