There was some speculation that Mexico might pull out of the Premier 12 before it began.
But the team is playing in it. It survived the Taiwan rounds and made the trip to Tokyo for the final-four rounds.
And look who’s leading the team — Mike Brito, a legendary international scout who delivered numerous Latin players to the Los Angeles Dodgers, including eventual Cy Young Award winner Fernando Valenzuela and slugger Yasiel Puig.
Perhaps it’s a choice that’ll surprise many people.
However, the Cuban-born Brito moved to the United States when he was 17, and has lived in the City of Angels for the past four decades, but he used to manage a team in Mexico after his playing days. That’s how he developed ties with the country.
“I’ve had good connections with Mexico for years. And because I’ve managed (in the country) before, they considered me like a Mexican, too,” Brito said after his team’s practice at Tokyo Dome on Thursday. “So that’s why they offered me the chance to be the manager for Mexico.”
Mexico is the biggest surprise among the semifinalists, including Japan, South Korea and the United States. To reach this point, Brito’s club earned a 4-3 upset victory over Canada and a 4-3 triumph in the quarterfinals against Taiwan on Monday.
“I’m very proud of my boys,” said the 81-year-old Brito, who played in the Washington Senators minor league system as a catcher “The other teams that have been eliminated like Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, they’ve got more experience than my players. But I’m very proud that they’ve been playing very hard.
“And here, we’ve got a chance to beat USA. One game, anybody can win. You know, Japan beat us 6-5, by one run. And Korea beat us 4-3, by one run. So anything can happen.”
For major league fans who have watched Dodgers games, Brito is known as a man in a Panama hat wearing big sunglasses and holding a radar gun behind home plate at Dodger Stadium. And it was probably the case for many Japanese fans when they’d watch Nomo play.
“Yeah, a lot of people recognize me,” Brito said with a laugh. “They asked to take pictures with me at the hotels (during the tournament).”
Though he didn’t directly scout Nomo, Brito remembered the mania for the Japanese right-hander, dubbed “Tornado,” back in the mid-1990s.
Brito vividly recalled a no-hitter that Nomo tossed in September 1996 for the Dodgers against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. He said that he didn’t travel with the team for its away games all the time, but he did travel with the team for that game.
“I didn’t think that was going to happen, but he showed a hell of pitching (performance),” Brito said of the game at the high-altitude hitters-friendly ballpark. “It’s a place for the hitters. And Nomo thew the no-hitter and I was right behind the plate. I don’t think nobody else is going to throw a no-hitter over there.”
Brito added that after Nomo made the successful transition to the United States and observed Japanese players in the World Baseball Classics and other international events, he believed that other Japanese players would follow Nomo’s path.
“They have good ballplayers,” said Brito, who was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and was chosen the International Scout of the Year last year. “When I saw them, I told myself they can play in the big leagues. And there’s going to be more players in the future, too, like (Kenta) Maeda.”
The run by Mexico has paid off for Brito personally as well. He was able to enjoy strengthening an old friendship with Roberto “Chico” Barbon, who Brito played ball with while growing up in Cuba.
“I haven’t seen him for 50 years,” Brito said before he reunited with Barbon, who played for the Hankyu Braves and Kintetsu Buffaloes in the 1950s and ’60s and has lived in Japan as an Orix Buffaloes (successor of Hankyu) club official, after the Thursday practice.
“We signed in the same year, 1955. He came to Japan and I came to the United States. Yeah, 50 years, it’s a long time.”
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