Home-run king of Mexico, Nelson Barrera is 43 years old and has played for more than 25 years. The power in his bat is dwindling, but he finally beat Hector Espino's record by hitting his 454th home run, on May 31, 2001, against pitcher Gaudenico Aguirre of the Tabasco Olmecas.

The Mexican League is, naturally, the highest level of baseball in Mexico. For comparison with American teams, it's considered Class AAA baseball, the highest step short of the majors. But baseball in Mexico exists in the shadow of soccer, and I don't think Barrera is considered much of an icon in his home country. Still, he seems to have had a fulfilling career, one that's still going on.

Barrera is designated hitter and manager for the Oaxaca Guerreros (Warriors) baseball team. He got into pro baseball at age 15, in 1974, as a third baseman for a minor-league affiliate of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (Red Devils). He was scrawny as a rookie, but then, he was still in his teens. As years went by and Barrera's body filled out -- he's 5' 9" (1.7 metres) and 200 pounds -- it became apparent that he could succeed as a power hitter.

Barrera was named to the Mexican League All Star game 14 times and was declared the league's MVP of the 1980s. His records include home runs in one season (42), career RBIs (more than 1,950 at this writing) and career grand slams (17), and he's within 100 hits of the Mexican League record of 3,004, held by Jesùs Somers. As a manager, Barrera led Oaxaca to the Mexican League championship in 1999.

He did get one shot at the American big leagues in 1985, when the Chicago White Sox assigned him to the Class AAA team in Buffalo, NY. But he hit only .178 with two homers, and after 25 games he packed it up and returned to Mexico. "I don't regret leaving for a second," he told Sports Illustrated. "I had the best years of my career right after that."

By SI's account, Barrera is a class act and a happy man, harboring no resentment against fellow Mexican Leaguers such as Fernando Valenzuela who made it big in the U.S. He's had his travails, including bad knees, a bout with alcoholism, and accusations that he corks his bat, but he keeps playing. SI says, "There have been better players than Barrera in the Mexican League, but no better player for the Mexican League."

Barrera is certainly in the twilight of his career -- he finished the 2001 season with a .268 batting average and nine home runs, playing roughly half the time. His power is dwindling; he had a frustrating 26-day wait between tying and breaking the record. But as far as I know, he's got no plans to retire just yet.

Sources:
-- Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001
-- News report at www.eluniversal.com/includeAvances/07052001_4308.html (translated for me by Google)
-- http://www.thenewsmexico.com

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