No, we are not going there. The message is delivered in various forms from various people attempting to put the kibosh on an outing to the birthplace of Roberto Osuna, wunderkind closer of the Toronto Blue Jays, who is listed as hailing from the farming village of Juan Jose Rios in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a speck just off the highway surrounded by the tomato, bean and corn fields that keep our produce sections stocked through the long northern winter.
Osuna entered the world there, in a tiny, rundown medical clinic on a dusty street. His mother, Guadalupe, went into labour during one of the weekly visits to his father’s family (there are a whole lot of Osunas in Juan Jose Rios, including the former major-league pitcher Antonio Osuna, Roberto’s uncle, from whom he is currently estranged). There wasn’t time to travel the 21 km back to the family’s home in the city of Los Mochis. “We were visiting my mother-in-law, and I started having contractions,” Guadalupe says through an interpreter. “We’re from Los Mochis, but I think Roberto wanted to be born [in Juan Jose Rios].”
CLOSER TO HOME: Watch Stephen Brunt’s TV special Roberto Osuna: Sinaloa to the Show on Sportsnet, April 2 at 4 p.m., following Red Sox vs. Blue Jays in Montreal
We are not going to retrace their steps that day. The government tourism people who are our drivers, translators and escorts are clearly uncomfortable with the prospect, as are the Osuna family. The specific reasons for all of the unease are unstated, but, given where we are, self-evident. Drop the word “Sinaloa” into your favourite search engine and see what pops up.
It’s a big state in the northwest of Mexico, and some parts of it are much more dangerous than others. No one believes it would be wise to head down the road to Culiacan, for instance. But Los Mochis? It’s just fine. And on arrival, the city of about a quarter of a million seems familiar and benign—not at all like a front line in the war on drugs, instead almost Middle American with its Walmart and KFC and Starbucks and shopping mall.
“Los Mochis is like a small town,” Osuna explains as we drive into town from the airport. “Everyone knows each other. You’re going to feel safe. Nothing is going to happen there. If you don’t do anything bad, nothing is going to happen to you. People think about the cartel, Chapo Guzman. But that happens in Culiacan. Here, it’s a baseball city. There is no one expecting to rob another guy. Los Mochis is a little different than Culiacan and Mazatlan and the big cities.”
Ah yes, the diminutive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s reigning drug kingpin and its most famous fugitive from justice. He was born not far from here, and the last time Mexican authorities arrested him, it was down the road in Culiacan. That was before his second jailbreak last July, when he slipped out of his cell into a tunnel and rode to freedom on a miniature motorcycle. (The first time, he simply paid off the guards.) The Mexican government is extraordinarily embarrassed that he’s on the lam, American authorities would like to deal with him on their own turf, and a huge reward hangs over his head.
Not that any of that should concern us in peaceful, friendly, baseball-loving Los Mochis. Still, in the interests of making the visiting gringos feel safe, we have our own detachment of local police, with lights flashing, horns honking and M-16s being brandished (not all of them loaded, it turns out), who are with us every minute of the working day, who accompany us to the gas station and the coffee shop and eliminate the need to stop at red lights if we don’t feel like it. What starts out as reassuring almost immediately begins to feel like overkill.
To read the rest of Stephen Brunt’s Sportsnet magazine profile of Roberto Osuna, visit Sportsnet.ca on Friday, April 1.