At their 2018 binational reconfiguration, the Tecos benefitted from a 2016 rule change that expanded the definition of “native Mexican” to include Mexican-American players who could provide the proof of ancestry necessary to secure a Mexican passport. It is estimated that in 2019, the season covered by Bad Hombres, at least 30 percent of la Liga Mexicana de Béisbol were Mexican Americans now considered to be domestic rather than foreign players. A look at the Tecos fifty-player roster indicates at least fifteen Latinos were part of the 2019 season. It is likely that the majority, if not all, were Mexican Americans. The importados included under the limit hailed from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the United States, and Venezuela.
The amended rule redefining Mexican eligibility made the entire league essentially binational. In his 2019 article “Home and Away: American Ballplayers Are Flooding the Mexican League,” journalist Joseph Bien-Kahn draws attention to another border team in the league, the Tijuana Toros. While los Toros do not have stadiums on both sides of la frontera, the team is composed of a majority of “northern imports; Mexicans by the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.” While Mexican by redefinition, in Mexico these Mexican-American ballplayers are Americans, regarded as unregulated usurpers threatening jobs of native-born peloteros. The timing of the change coincided with the Trump administration’s growing antagonism toward immigrants and increasingly aggressive actions at the southern U.S. border.
Bad Hombres did not need baseball as a hook to highlight border issues. Béisbol is a border and migration narrative on its own terms. Toward the end of the film, Glazer constructs comparative tension by cross-cutting scenes of a CBP nighttime operation against border-crossers with a Tecos night game in which the team is trying to keep slim playoff hopes alive. The parallel is elusive. Is it his point that both are games, or is Tecos baseball a metaphor for border crossings by desperate migrants? The end result is a disjointed storyline that is neither a sufficiently developed treatment of border realities nor a compelling example of sport documentary as social and political critique. From the perspective of Mexican baseball, it reflects an observation made by Klein that “the border has been able to prevent Americans from ever realizing the rich tapestry that has been woven in the country to the south.... Mexican League baseball has never really been thought of as anything but an elephant’s graveyard, where ballplayers who can’t quit on their own (with dignity) go to die.”
The story Glazer missed became even more relevant with the December 2020 decision of Major League Baseball to finally recognize, as many have long known, that the caliber of play in the Negro Leagues was major-league quality. The implications of this decision may well toss all the “sacred” records into asterisk territory. In his biting commentary “MLB Elevating the Status of Negro Leagues is the Problem, not the Solution,” columnist Clinton Yates cuts to the heart of one of the enduring problems in professional baseball in the United States, calling it “the most economically abusive sport in this country. Baseball is the sharecropping of American sports.” It was the prospect of economic enhancement, racial inclusion, and better treatment that encouraged Black players from the Negro Leagues to spend time in la Liga Mexicana de Béisbol prior to the reintegration of Major League Baseball. But it is worth noting that the numbers posted during those seasons, like those of Josh Gibson in 1940 and 1941, will not count toward the amended statistics. Low salaries also left room for Mexican League owner Jorge Pasquel to successfully lure a few MLB players away from their teams in the mid-1940s despite the threat of lifetime bans. In Mexico, financial benefit incentivized colorline blindness for white ballplayers. Even to this day, Mexican Americans and U.S. importados who aren’t on Major League rosters are drawn to play in the Mexican League by higher salaries and better lodgings and food on the road, as well as by the more affordable cost of living. In a 2018 interview with his hometown California newspaper, Juan Martinez, one of the Tecos ballplayers featured in Bad Hombres, explained: “The average player makes about $1,000 a month starting out in the minor leagues in the U.S. with the salary increasing about $100 per year.... In the Mexican League, most players make between $4,000 and $10,000 each month.”
In the story of béisbol, at least since the 1930s, U.S. Americans are the migrant workers. Mexico, with a comparable professional league, was and remains a land of opportunity. In U.S. baseball, asterisks inhabit the intersections of race and migration. As a close and careful look at the long and complicated relationship between béisbol and the border reveals, Bad Hombres itself should also be viewed with an asterisk.
For more, listen to the interview with the other on the Commonweal Podcast.