Yucatan Lions: Baseball, Mérida and a brand new stadium

In early September, the Yucatan Lions defeated the Mexico City Red Devils in the South Zone Finals. The series was a massive event for locals, who packed into Parque Kululcán Alamo to watch star players like Luis Juárez flip the script on the Devils to secure the Finals win with an eight-inning comeback.

It was a much-needed win on home turf following last season’s touch-and-go schedule. Even better, former MLB superstar Roberto Osuna was expected to be a key figure for the Devils who couldn’t pull through. With a large ex-pat population, there’s always much interest in former MLB stars like Osuna (most Lions fans remember the days of Fernando Valenzuela).

Typically, ex-pats who closely follow the Mexican League were once MLB fans, who followed players like Osuna, who played on the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros. At the moment, World Series betting odds like the Astros as favorites to take the American League. So with a win over a former MLB player from a strong team, the Lions’ win means even more.

Ultimately, the Lions lost in the King’s Series to the Tijuana Bulls by a margin of one game. Many fans already have their sights set on the 2022 season for another national title nab back in 2018. But how did the Lions, a team from a relatively small city compared to competing cities like Tijuana and Mexico City, end up becoming one of the strongest franchises in national baseball?

Half a Century of Growth
Though baseball is considered an American pastime, the sport has been part of the Mexican sporting identity for almost as long. The first formation of a baseball league came back in 1925. Initially, there were debates on which rating to give the league about global baseball standards; today, the LMB remains a AA Minor League.

Until the 1960s, only six teams competed each season. However, by 1970, the league had expanded to include ten teams, seeing the first North and South division. Though the Yucatan Lions had existed in multiple forms since the mid-1950s, the team didn’t officially join the Mexican League until 1979, when it became one of the founding eight-member teams.

A straightforward reason baseball is widely played and adored in Yucatan is that it’s been around in some form for a long time. Additionally, the Lions’ rivals, the Mexico City Red Devils and the Campeche Pirates, have also been around since the league’s start, formed in 1940 and 1980, respectively.

Having bitter rivals tends to stoke fandom for any sports team. For the Lions, in particular, having geographically near rivals has meant the team represents more than local baseball—they’re also batting for culture and identity unique to Mérida.

Photo: Jose Ortega Castro–unsplash

Baseball in Yucatan (North vs. South)
Yucatan now has other nearby rivals in the Quintana Roo Tigers and the Tabasco Olmecas… but, aside from the Red Devils and the Pirates, the team’s greatest rivals have been teams from the North. The Mexican League sees only one team from the South Division battle a North Division team in the King’s Series.

Mexican League records show an overwhelming majority of King’s Series wins for North Division teams—at least, historically. However, the Mexican League has been looking to level the playing field in talent and revenue between north and south division teams in recent years. As a result, two more expansion teams were added this year, with the Guadalajara Mariachis in the North and the Veracruz Águila in the south.

Before 2000, the Lions were underdogs in the league. Aside from championship titles in 1957 and 1984, the team languished. However, since 2000, they’ve nabbed two King’s Series wins and six division titles. Three division titles have come since 2018, highlighting the Lions’ recent improvement—for which they’ll soon reward them with a new stadium.

Aside from hopefully taking home another national title in 2022, fans are also waiting on a brand-new stadium to replace their current home field. Set to be complete in 2023, the future Yucatán Stadium will seat more than 30,000 spectators and be shared with the Venados FC team.