The Mexican League is hardly the place for a baseball player to
make a name for himself. It's a Triple A-caliber league, with 16
teams based in the central, north and Gulf Coast regions of the
country, bus rides as long as 18 hours and heat that climbs to
120[degrees]. The season lasts 122 games, but few are televised,
and newspapers offer spotty coverage. The stadiums are old and
decrepit. The league's average crowd is a paltry 3,500.
For 25 years, longer than any other player in Mexican League
history, Nelson Barrera has endured the conditions and the
obscurity, usually without complaint. When younger,
less-accomplished players, such as pitchers Fernando Valenzuela
and Daniel Garibay, advanced to the majors, Barrera kept belting
homers in his homeland. When repeatedly accused of corking his
bat--a charge that has never been proved--he kept belting homers.
When his knees started to give out three years ago, he kept
belting homers. There have been better players than Barrera in
the Mexican League, but no better player for the Mexican League.
So on May 31, when Barrera, the 43-year-old designated
hitter-manager of the Oaxaca Warriors, hit his 454th career home
run, off Tabasco Olmecas righthander Gaudencio Aguirre, to break
the Mexican League record, his feat was testimony most of all to
perseverance. "The record had survived many, many years," says
the 5'9", 200-pound Barrera, who surpassed the career total that
Hector (Superman) Espino set in 1984. "That I got to be the one
to break it was really beautiful."
A native of the Yucatan city of Campeche, Barrera was a scrawny
15-year-old third baseman in 1974, when he began his professional
career by signing with a minor league affiliate of the Mexico
City Red Devils. During the '76 season he moved up to the Mexican
League, but after his first three full seasons there, he had only
12 home runs. As his body and his game matured, he developed into
a 14-time All-Star who would be named the league's MVP of the
1980s. In addition to the career home run record, achieved while
playing for four teams, Barrera holds Mexican League marks for
homers in a season (42 in 1987), career RBIs (1,926 through
Friday) and career grand slams (17). He was 72 hits shy of Jesus
Somers's career record of 3,004.
Numbers, however, don't fully define Barrera's life. In 1985
Barrera was invited to spring training with the White Sox, with
whom he hoped to prove that he could excel in the big leagues.
He was sent to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons to start the season,
and after 2 1/2 disappointing months, during which he hit .178
with only two homers in 25 games, he quit and returned home. "I
don't regret leaving for a second," says Barrera. "I had the
best years of my career right after that."
In the mid-1980s, Barrera says, he had a drinking problem and
nearly drove his wife, Beatriz, and their four children away. He
says he still drinks occasionally. "I'm not going to lie," he
says. "Sometimes I have a beer with my wife, but it's not every
day." Since becoming an evangelical Christian in 1988, he has
stabilized his life by attending church three days a week.
Barrera needed a little help from a higher power on the night he
hit homer number 454. He broke the record in the second inning,
but soon thereafter it started to rain. Barrera, who had gone 26
days and 20 games without a home run, became nervous. What if the
game--and the homer--were washed out? How many more games would it
take to hit another one? Finally, after the fifth inning was
completed, Warriors catcher Homar Rojas approached his friend.
"The record is yours," he said. "Live it. Enjoy it. A moment like
this doesn't come often."