‘Ambassador’ excited about Mexico’s 20th anniversary trip to Taylor

August 2, 2006

One day at the General Motors Willow Run plant, Sam Pizzo of Taylor approached co-worker Antonio “Tony” Garcia of Southgate about a 5-year-old event known as the Junior League World Series.

For the first time, Pizzo said, a team from Mexico would be making the journey to Taylor to play for the world championship of what was then the 13-year-old division of Little League baseball.

Pizzo asked Garcia – who was born and raised in the border town Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico – if he would like to get involved. Garcia agreed and, about a week and a half later, he had family and friends lined up to house visiting players from Hermosillo, Sonora. Two players stayed with Garcia and his wife, Josephine.

Garcia, who spoke fluent Spanish, learned most the English he knew from his wife. It wasn’t long before Garcia was meeting the Mexico contingent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, arranging meals for the visitors and serving as a translator between the Mexican managers and coaches and the umpires.

Soon, Garcia was asked by World Series founder and Director Greg Bzura if he would like to visit Mexico and attend the country’s national baseball championships. Bzura offered to help fund the trip, but Garcia made declined and paid for the adventure, staying with family members when he arrived and commuting to the baseball field.

Garcia brought with him important documents to be filled out by the team that would be playing in Taylor. He said he and his wife were treated like “royalty” because they represented the World Series.

Today, 20 years after his first involvement, Tony Garcia is as much of a fixture in the annual world championship as anyone and Bzura affectionately calls him the “World Series’ ambassador to Latin America.”

Garcia has made the trek to Mexico every year but one. Bzura and his wife, Judy, substituted for the Garcias in 1994 when Tony underwent open heart surgery. The operation didn’t keep him from the series, however. He participated that year from a wheelchair.

The 2006 World Series, which takes place August 13-19 at Heritage Park, marks the 20th anniversary of the first time the national champions of Mexico played in Taylor. The team will be recognized during opening ceremonies at 8:30 p.m. August 12. The ceremonies – which are open to the public at no cost – include a Parade of Champions, welcoming speeches, the ceremonial first pitch and fireworks. Vicente Sanchez, consul, of the Consulate of Mexico in Detroit, is scheduled to be present for the occasion.

This year’s World Series is the 26th annual in Taylor. The event started in Taylor and never left.

This will be the 17th year in which a team from Mexico plays in Taylor. From 1986 to 1999, Mexico received an automatic berth in the series. But when the Junior League expanded in 1999 to include 13- and 14-year-old players, it increased the talent pool and allowed the division to expand and grow in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, Africa and other Latin America nations. More countries began entering all-star teams in post-season play. Those that won regional tournaments wanted to be included in the World Series.

Mexico still had a chance to make it to Taylor, but had to win the Latin America region, which was formed in 2000. Puerto Rico, which received automatic berths from 1982 to 1999, faced the same obstacle. A team from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, won both the Mexico national championship and the Latin America regional title in 2000.

The series grew to nine teams, including five regions in the United States and four in international locations. Then, in 2004, organizers decided to expand the series to 10 teams with two equal five-team pools. Because of the popularity of baseball in Mexico and Puerto Rico, a decision was made to give Mexico an automatic berth in even-numbered years, while Puerto Rico’s national champion plays in Taylor in odd-numbered years. Hermosillo, the league that is coming this year, also played in 2004.

Over its 17 years in the World Series, Mexico has been one of the strongest teams in the tournament. Teams from Mexico have had only five losing records in the series, but have been world champions only once. The Lugo Montes Junior League team from Mexicali, Baja California, won the title in 1988. Teams from Mexico have been runner-up twice, in 1994 and 1999. The 1987 team from Hermosillo included future Major League ballplayer Erubiel Durazo, who would play 13 years as a professional.

Over the years, Garcia said interest in the Junior League has doubled in Mexico – from six teams competing for the national championship to 12. Garcia said Guaymas, Sonora – this year’s national champions of Mexico – should be a strong representative of his native country.

Garcia, 75, also will spend plenty of time with the players and coaching staff of the Latin America champions from Maracaibo, San Francisco, Venezuela. Next year, he’ll help eliminate the language barrier with the Puerto Rico team.

“Tony’s contributions over the years have been invaluable,” said series Director Bzura. “With the increase of teams in the Latin America region, Tony works a double-header pretty much every day of the World Series. He is a true ambassador in every sense of the word.”

Garcia and many other World Series observers are already looking forward to the 8 p.m. game on August 14. That’s when Mexico and Venezuela play. Typically, the games featuring the two Latin America teams also feature the rowdiest, most colorful crowds of the series.

Garcia said this year should be no exception. He has been spreading the word about the series, urging those with Latin American backgrounds to come to Taylor to support the team. Saturday night, he went to a wedding in Pontiac and distributed World Series posters while he was there. This weekend, he will travel to Toledo to talk about the series. Like everything else he does on behalf of the world tournament, he does it as a volunteer.

“I’m trying to help out the program,” Garcia said. “I would like to see it grow tremendously.”

And while players are now housed at the Taylor Ramada Inn, Garcia’s group still serves as “foster aunts and uncles,” providing meals, offering advice and serving as tour guides to the teams from Mexico.

Garcia, who coached his sons Antonio Jr. and George and other people’s children for 12 years in Southgate, said involvement in the World Series combines his love for his homeland with his love for baseball and the event.

“I really can’t find the proper way to say it,” Garcia said. “I’m very humble and very happy to be part of the program. I love it. As long as my wife doesn’t object to me doing it, I’ll keep doing it until I drop.”