A final goodbye for Mexican baseball trailblazers as team exits Olympic tournament

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Mexico's relief pitcher Oliver Perez hurls the ball during the eighth inning.
Mexico pitcher Oliver Pérez delivers during a game against Japan at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday. Mexico's first-ever run in baseball at the Olympics ended in a loss to Israel on Sunday. (Kazuhiro Fujihara / AFP / Getty Images)

Oliver Pérez left the mound Sunday as he almost always did over the last two decades: He gave the ball to the manager, jogged toward his dugout, jumped over the baseline and slowed to a walk. On Sunday, he shook his head and pounded his glove in disappointment.

It wasn’t how the 19-year major league veteran envisioned reaching the end.

Pitching for Mexico in the Olympic baseball tournament, Pérez was charged with four runs in one-third of an inning in his team’s 12-5 elimination loss to Israel at Yokohama Stadium. He faced six hitters, surrendered four hits and walked a batter. He threw 21 pitches. They were the final 21 pitches of his competitive playing career.

Mexico had never qualified for the Olympics in baseball until the Tokyo Games. The breakthrough, perhaps surprising for its delay, exhibits the country’s steady ascendance in the sport, which lags far behind soccer in the Mexican consciousness. Slowly, more and more players are reaching the highest levels.

Pérez and Adrian González inhabited those heights for nearly 20 years, arguably fueling the sport’s popularity in Mexico more than any other since the turn of the century. The two 39-year-olds helped carry the torch from Fernando Valenzuela and Vinny Castillo to the next generation of Mexican major leaguers, and their time on the diamond ended Sunday with Mexico finishing the tournament 0-3.

Both players retired after the loss, capping two of the most accomplished playing careers in Mexican baseball history with one last appearance in green and red.

“We're talking about the last two significant representatives of Mexican baseball in the major leagues,” Team Mexico general manager Patricio Pérez said. “Period.”

González and Pérez aren’t the only ones bidding farewell to competitive baseball in Japan.

Several players in the six-team Olympic field are expected to retire — or return to retirement — after the tournament. The list includes the Dominican Republic’s José Bautista and Israel’s Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia, three major league veterans who dusted off their cleats for the Olympics.

U.S pitcher Edwin Jackson, who’s played for a record 14 big league clubs, hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2019. He doesn’t know what’s next. The former Dodger — he debuted with the club at 19 years old in 2003 — turns 38 in September.

But no imminent retirees in the field have had the impact on their respective countries more than González and Pérez.

Mexico's Adrian Gonzalez runs to first during a game against Japan on Saturday.
Mexico's Adrian Gonzalez runs to first during a game against Japan on Saturday. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

González, who last played in the majors in 2018, emerged from retirement to suit up in the Mexican league with the goal of participating in the Olympics. The former Dodgers first baseman was born in San Diego, split his childhood between the U.S. and Mexico, and went to high school in Chula Vista. However, he played for Mexico at the youth level, the Caribbean World Series and the World Baseball Classic. It's the only country he's represented. He sought one last taste.

“I'm very proud to be here,” González said in Spanish. “It's amazing to represent Mexico.”

He batted .340 with six home runs and a .943 OPS in 43 games for the expansion Mariachis de Guadalajara and was given a spot on the Mexican roster. The decision to put the five-time All-Star on the team was met with criticism from people who believed he didn’t deserve the chance after not playing professionally for two full seasons. On Saturday, González defended his inclusion.

“The people who criticize are the same people who criticize Canelo, I’m sure, so I don’t listen to those people,” González said, referring to Mexican boxer Canelo Álvarez, the consensus top pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

González accumulated 317 home runs and 2,050 hits in 15 major league seasons, went two for four with a double and an RBI on Sunday. He finished the tournament three for 11 with a walk as the designated hitter in the clean-up spot in Mexico’s three games.

“I get reflective, but it's not necessarily thinking of certain situations or certain things,” González said. “I just take it, like, this is the end, so enjoy it.”

Players Oliver Pérez, Manuel Banuelos and Manuel Barrera hold up a Mexico flag.
Players, from left, Oliver Pérez, Manuel Banuelos and Manuel Barrera hold up a Mexican flag before a game against the Dominican Republic on Friday. (Koji Watanabe / Getty Images)

Unlike González, Pérez broke into the majors as a hyped prospect but never became an established star, playing for eight teams in 19 seasons. He wasn’t considered an elite starting pitcher for too long before transitioning to the obscurity of middle relief, where he bounced from bullpen to bullpen as his velocity diminished and his arm slot lowered.

The left-hander’s career instead embodied remarkable consistency and historic longevity. No Mexican-born player has ever logged more major league seasons. He broke into the majors at 21 and endured until April at age 39.

“A player thinks that it could be the last day because you never know what can happen,” Pérez said in Spanish on Saturday. “For that reason, at my age, I have to enjoy it to the maximum.”

Pérez retired the two batters he faced in Saturday’s loss to Japan. Sunday was a struggle and, two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, he left the mound one last time.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.