The distance from Monclova, the steel capital of Mexico, to the Estadio Charros de Jalisco, one of four first-round sites for the World Baseball Classic, is approximately 565 miles — or 909 kilometers, if you prefer the local system of measurement.
Monclova, which doubles as the hometown of Royals reliever Joakim Soria, is located in the northern state of Coahuila, just 170 miles from the Texas border. Estadio Charros de Jalisco sits on the northern outskirts of Guadalajara, a 10-hour drive to the southwest.
The cities are not close. But in Soria’s view, the distance means little. For the first time in eight years, he is about to play a true home game. That’s the important part.
On Thursday night at Estadio Charros de Jalisco, Soria and Team Mexico will open the World Baseball Classic in front of a partisan home crowd. Soria will be making his first appearance for his home country since 2009, when he last participated in the WBC, the international event that has found little momentum in the United States but can stir emotions elsewhere.
“It’s an honor to represent your country, represent your family, everybody that supports you back in Mexico,” Soria said this week, sitting at his locker at Royals spring training. “There’s great pride in getting to play with Mexico.”
Soria missed the last World Baseball Classic four years ago while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He is veteran reliever entering the second season of a $25 million contract, and although his performance lagged in 2016, he does not need to risk injury in an event with little at stake but national pride.
Yet, Soria said committing to play this time around was an easy decision.
For Soria, there is immense pride in the opportunity to represent both his country and his sport, to don the Mexican colors and play in front of family and friends, to stand unified on a team that offers its own measure of diversity. He will join a roster that includes both native Mexicans, such as Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias and Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia, and Mexican-Americans such as the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez and Sergio Romo.
“We’re going to fight and have fun,” Soria said. “We’re going to put on the shirt and fight and try to compete and win the tournament.”
Soria, 32, has deep ties to Mexican baseball. He has competed in both the Mexican Baseball League and the country’s winter league. His perfect game for Naranjeros de Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League in 2006 helped launch his major-league career in the United States. That winter, Soria, a member of the San Diego Padres organization, was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Royals.
Soria is also prideful of baseball’s place in his home country. In popularity, it pales in comparison to soccer. Yet, it remains a crucial part of the country’s culture is certain regions.
“There are good teams and they’re good leagues,” Soria said. “Baseball in Mexico is big. The media doesn’t cover it as much. But we have a lot of players in Mexico.”
The pool-play first round means that Soria will get the opportunity to play three games back in Mexico, including matchups with Salvador Perez and Venezuela and a rising Puerto Rico squad. The home-field advantage could be important, Soria said, but there is also incentive to advance to the second round.
“The next round is in San Diego,” Soria said. “And San Diego is like a second home to us.”
“The last time I didn’t play because I was coming back (from injury). So it’s a great honor for me to represent my country.”