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The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame

An abandoned capitol of vice and its lost athletic history

What do you want from Tijuana, my friends? You want to meet a girl? I can take you to the Hong Kong Gentlemen’s Club. I can get you two-for-one drinks. (Actually, I know a guy: three-for-one drinks!) I’ll show you a white donkey painted with black zebra stripes. The “Dr. House” Pharmacy and other places just out of reach of your copyrights. You want Che Guevara T-shirts, my friends? “I Ate the Worm” T-shirts? Wet T-shirts? Did I mention the Hong Kong Gentlemen’s Club?

Me and my pal Eric, in lousy Spanish: “Do you know where we can find the museum of sports? The, um, place of the famous athletes?”

We do not want sex and drugs from Tijuana. We want to visit the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame.

I hate to use an itchy word, but Tijuana is dead. Once, Avenida Revolución — the “Revo,” in the gringo tongue — happily excreted pleasure. At age 20, I walked its grime-covered sidewalks, dodged honors students from San Diego, and nosed into a bar where a stranger unfurled his hand and said, “Amphetamine?” (Nah, I’d stick with tequila.) But as Eric and I cruise the Revo at a nocturnal hour, we see boarded-up storefronts and hear the Proclaimers playing in empty bars. Even the calls of the touts (“Check this out, amigo“) sound halfhearted, like the fight song when your team trails by three touchdowns. Tijuana, after its severed-head period, has entered a mind-bending phase. It’s a gringo viceland without gringos.

Except, of course, these two gringos.

Now, about the Hall of Fame: Eric and I aren’t sure it exists. A motel owner, a shopkeeper, and a cabbie haven’t heard of it. They’re not alone. I call Freddy Sandoval, a Tijuana native who played third base for the Angels. “I didn’t know we had a Hall of Fame,” he says. Freddy Sandoval’s picture is in the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame.

One morning, the cashier at Ricardo’s restaurant gives us a tip. We walk up Avenida Madero, past cheap-o fast-food joints and auto-repair shops. We come upon a triangle of parkland bordered by three noisy streets. A man and his two dogs are passed out in the grass. Another sits on a park bench displaying his tricked-out bike. We see two cops from a police force we have been eagerly trying to avoid. And in the middle of this dingy urban still life, a bell tower that looks like a giant, white chess piece rises toward the sky. A hand-painted sign reads, Salón de la Fama del Deporte. The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame.

Balancing on four legs, the Hall of Fame proper begins about three stories in the air. You can walk under the building and gaze up at it. We climb the outer staircase, and the metal bows under our feet. The final step feels like it could give way at any second.

Eric and I peek through the door. The Hall of Fame is as empty as the Revo. We don’t see any customers — or any employees. We walk inside and sign the guestbook.

The Hall’s first exhibit, on our right, is an odd photo collage devoted to lucha libre. There are old wrestlers who look like Fidel Castro, and new ones who look Tijuana’s answer to Doink the Clown. On the left-hand wall, we come across an exhibit marked “Golf.” Only there aren’t any photos of golfers. There are only photos of the exterior of the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame. “Maybe the exhibit is on tour or something,” Eric says.

Moving tentatively forward, I get interested in a team photo of Equipo Vikingos, the 2000-01 champions of Tijuana’s amateur baseball league. Los Vikingos, a swell-looking bunch of guys, are celebrating with a well-endowed brunette in a leopard-print dress. What’s confusing is that I can’t find photos of the team that won the amateur title in 1999-00 or 2001-02 or any other year. Los Vikingos and their valet, it seems, have been awarded a singular honor. The Hall of Fame is as idiosyncratic as your uncle’s mantle.

Another mystery photo: grim-faced Maria Hayde Gomez, described only as Tijuana’s 1983 Youth Athlete of the Year. ¿Quién eras, Maria? We see a glass case packed with strange memorabilia: a baseball glove with the name “Rudy Campos” written on it in marker; a leather jacket from Tijuana’s hunting and fishing club; wrestling trunks; a photo of Esteban Loaiza.

The Hall bulges with sports history: Hundreds of Tijuana men and women stare back at us from neat 11×14-inch black frames. There are chess players, archers, matadors. A geriatric woman bowling in brow-line glasses. A high school football team holding aloft its coach, a Mexican John Madden, after a big win.

The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame has the soul of Canton, Ohio and the inventory of a wall at Chili’s. We have to know: What is this place?

Back downstairs in the park, I walk up to a man. I’d picked up a color brochure in the Hall of Fame and located a photo of the director.

How do I find this man? I ask.

The man in the park says, “He’s dead.”

Oh. I point at another man in another brochure. What about this man?

“He had a heart attack.”

We’ll try back tomorrow.

What do we turistas want from Tijuana?1 Well, first we want vice. Tijuana is our Larry Flynt. During Prohibition, vice was something as simple as getting a beer. Tijuana, Liberty magazine once proclaimed, was the city “Where There Aren’t No Ten Commandments and Where a Man Can Raise a Thirst.” Vice also meant sports.

In 1907, the mustachioed Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz decreed that gambling was legal here. Tijuana Racetrack was opened less than a decade later by “Sunny Jim” Coffroth, the on-the-make son of a California state senator. (Americans and Mexican politicians were teammates in the creation of Tijuana’s vice culture.) Americans crossed the border and walked a mere 150 yards to get to the track. Members of the clergy put up a sign at the border that read: “The Road to Hell.”

With sports, Tijuana was a clever demon. The horses ran in Tijuana on Sundays when Santa Anita called such a thing unholy. They ran during World War II when Santa Anita was a Japanese internment camp. The city’s Agua Caliente Racetrack popularized the “5-10″ bet — later renamed the Pick 6 — which drew thousands of suckers south in search of a payday.

The restaurants, hotels, and brothels that grew up around the racetracks and casinos became Tijuana’s main street, later renamed Avenida Revolución, which became — under a few coats of irony — the official vicelandia of the gringos.

There were stadiums in Tijuana that felt like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. In 1947, an enormous jai alai palace was built on the grounds near our motel. A version still stands with “JAI ALAI GAMES” in giant letters on the outer wall and a statue of a player holding a cesta out front. A guard lets us inside and we can see the betting windows have been perfectly preserved.

When American sports rejected you, Tijuana welcomed you. California’s ban on bare-knuckle boxing led promoters to move a highly publicized 1886 bout just south of the border. Wyatt Earp served as ref. Dennis Rodman, when America tired of him, spent an end-of-the-trail season grabbing rebounds for the Tijuana Dragons.

If bullfighting is your vice, you can still find a $24 ticket to see bullslayers like Humberto Flores and Lupita López. Ricardo “Cheto” Torres, who runs a boxing gym downtown, tells us he used to work the bullring in the 1970s. He sold seat cushions to turistas for five bucks. When the crowd threw roses to the matadors, sometimes drunk Americans stood up and threw their cushions.

In the bullring’s parking lot, we notice a sign: Management is not responsible if your car is stolen, damaged … or catches on fire.

At the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame the next day, Eric and I are surprised: There’s another visitor. “What in the world are you doing here?” the man exclaims. This is Roberto Montaño, 42, who will guide us into the sports-obsessed mind of Tijuana.

“In Tijuana, baseball is the big thing,” Roberto says. “I grew up as a Padres and Chargers fan.” If you lived in Tijuana, you grooved on America’s sporting vices just like America grooved on yours. Put up an aerial antenna and you could siphon off all the Padres and Chargers games.

“I grew up with Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and John Jefferson,” Roberto says, “and, on the Padres, Randy Jones and Dave Winfield. I remember when Ozzie Smith came up in 1978 as a rookie shortstop. I remember when the Clippers played in San Diego.

“I used to watch the Saturday Game of the Week. Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, Vin” — he pronounces it Veen — “Scully. My dad, who would be 72 now, was a Yankees fan. There weren’t any Padres when he was growing up. Basketball wasn’t big in Tijuana unless you were a sports fan like me. I remember Kareem, Magic, Worthy. And the white guy with glasses. What was his name?”

Tijuana has boxers like Érik “El Terrible” Morales, who keeps a gym in Zona Norte. But interestingly, 20 years ago Tijuana was not a soccer town. Roberto and old-line tijuanenses will tell you soccer was brought by migrants from the Mexican interior that came to Tijuana hoping to get to the United States. Many got stopped short — it’s a lot harder to cross near Tijuana than it used to be. They began the soccerization process, and satellites beaming in the Champions League did the rest. Tijuana’s home club, the wonderfully named Xoloitzcuintles, just joined the first division of Mexican league.

We climb into Roberto’s car. He’s on his way to San Diego to go shopping, but he’ll drop us in the red-light district. (My friends! I see you’re back …) “Tijuana has grown so ugly,” Roberto says as we cruise down the Revo. “Even in the ’70s, it was beautiful. Then a lot of outsiders came here to go to the States.” While Americans fear an invasion of immigrants, Tijuana fears an invasion of soccer fans.

Roberto points down a side street and says, “Can you see the border fence?” We can just make it out, a string of silver tinsel glittering in distant hills. Even with an American passport, the lines to get back can take three hours.

At about that moment, a bile-raising smell wafts into the car. Roberto’s wife and son cover their faces. “That incomparable Tijuana odor,” Roberto says. “It smells like rotten dog.” It smells a lot worse than that.

We accelerate down the lonely Revo. Roberto points out a woman walking away from us. “That girl in brown? She’s a prostitute.” Her? “I can tell. Her walk, her face …

“We miss the gringos, man,” he says wistfully when he drops us off. “They all left, like the Mayas did.”

Pink flamingos swim in the fountain outside the Agua Caliente Racetrack on the night of the dog races. See, Tijuana indulges America’s upscale fantasies, too. It is our Larry Flynt and our Robin Leach. Eighty years ago, the Agua Caliente’s casino was a great gringo mecca — “a dazzling, dream-like city,” in the words of a pilgrim from Vogue. Its owners came to Old Mexico and built … Europe.

The casino was constructed in 1928, pre-Vegas. The chandeliers were imported from Italy. The columns were made of marble. Designer shops had a U.N. roll call of fashion. (You could take $100 worth of stuff back across the border legally. You smuggled the rest.) In his book Satan’s Playground, Paul J. Vanderwood notes that the owners boasted that the Agua Caliente was built in the shadow of an ancient Spanish fort. This was horseshit, but there was a certain glamour in the image of a Spanish don leaning on the craps table. The casino’s motto was: “Agua Caliente, where all nations meet and speak the tongue of happiness.”

A San Diego pensioner could feel like a rich man at Agua Caliente. Charlie Chaplin hung out there. Howard Hughes was photographed at the racetrack. Will Rogers played cards at the grandly named Monte Carlo across town, and Tijuana’s top-ranked bordello was called the Moulin Rouge.

Lured by a fat purse, Seabiscuit outran an overmatched field at Agua Caliente’s horse track. So did studs like Phar Lap and Round Table. By 1929, Tijuana’s promoters — imagine Mark Cuban with fewer legal controls — were staging an annual $100,000 handicap, dwarfing the purse at the Kentucky Derby.

The grand, old Agua Caliente was closed by Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas in 1935 and later turned into a school.2 The new Agua Caliente, owned by Mexican oligarch Jorge Hank Rhon,3 is your basic, utilitarian casino. The drug war cleared the place of Americans: Naim Lajud Libien, director of the dog track, tells us that five percent of the clientele are from the north. I’d heard of one absurdly upscale touch, however. I’d heard Hank kept a private zoo on the premises.

Naim smiles. “Mammals, birds, what do you want?”

He boasts that Hank’s menagerie rivals Noah’s. “We have tigers. Lions. An ostrich. A giraffe.”

“… kangaroos, macaws …”

“… peacocks, panthers …”

“… jaguars …”

“… camels, buffaloes …”

“… bears — black, grizzly …”

“… focas. How do you say that? Seals …”

“Come with me,” Naim says. He leads us behind the first turn of the dog track, not 100 feet from where greyhounds will run. We see lions and white tigers — five, six, maybe seven of them — prowling listlessly in a chain-link cage. My notes end here. Naim hurries us away — this is just a “preview.” You’ve got to be a high roller with a reservation to see camels, buffaloes, kangaroos, macaws …

Tijuana, you might have heard, is frightening. Americans cross the border for this, too. They don’t want to be robbed or murdered, but they get a kick out of walking mean streets where such a thing happened to someone else. If you’re scoring at home, Tijuana is our Larry Flynt and our Robin Leach and it’s also our Freddy Krueger.

The Tijuana Racetrack opened in 1916, five years after the city was captured by rebels in the Mexican Revolution. Indeed, the Revolution led to a loud scream of panic in the United States, what historian Ricardo Romo called the “Brown Scare.” For decades after, tales of murderers and pick-pockets rippled through the Revo — some real, some the product of the hyper gringo imagination. You cross the border into Mexico and your sense of security melts away.

“There’s a kind of mysteriousness about Mexico,” says the historian Paul Vanderwood. “But even more than that, a kind of unpredictability. You never know quite where you’re at, quite what’s going to happen, you don’t quite speak the language …

“Entrepreneurs didn’t really want to clean up Tijuana,” he adds. “They may announce once in a while, ‘We’re doing to do this and that.’ But they want to leave that ‘what’s going to happen next?’ kind of atmosphere.”

The drug war sent Tijuana’s danger from a semiromantic, Touch of Evil variety to a full-on, Faces of Death freak out. The bodies piled up in 2008, when two lieutenants in the Tijuana Cartel vied for control of the city.4 They were El Teo (Teodoro García Simental) and The Engineer (Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano). The Freddy-versus-Jason battle was a typical narco debate — the mutilated body as message. (A typical note, left atop eight headless, tongue-less corpses: “Here you go Engineer.”) This created a grimly ironic situation at Camp Pendleton: U.S. Marines, who were deploying to the most dangerous cities in Iraq, were discouraged by their commander from going to Tijuana.

The murder rate plummeted after El Teo’s capture in 2010, and Tijuana is now a relatively safe city. But as with the Revolution, a forensic residue remains. “I don’t feel comfortable going sometimes,” Freddy Sandoval tells me. “I’ll just go and stay in my house.” For this fear, we can thank the American cable news networks, which have taken a complicated, regionalized problem and used it to make all of Mexico look like a bloody slaughterhouse. One night, Eric and I see a lonely hot dog salesman on the Revo. We can’t help but think the man’s fortunes have been crippled, in an absurd way, by both El Teo and Bill O’Reilly.

But bloodstains are part of the reason Eric and I are here. We silently congratulate ourselves: We’ve made it to Tijuana. Narco Tijuana. Pull up a stool and hear a horror story. My friend, thank goodness you were not here two years ago, because a horrible thing happened at this very place. Have a drink and I’ll tell you …

We return to the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame and gaze up at the bell tower. As befits the city of the “Dr. House” pharmacy, it turns out to be a copy. A bell tower like this one guarded the old Agua Caliente Casino. The city thought it might be nice to rekindle the memories (glamour! vice!) and then turn the building over to sports.

Inside the Hall, we meet a man. He’s 60-ish, tall and strongly built, with dyed black hair. “I’m in charge,” he says.

This is Felipe Domínguez Cobo, the acting president of Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame. There are two cool things about Felipe. One is that he’s also in the Hall. We see pictures of him in tight basketball shorts. Point or shooting guard? I ask. “Shooting,” Felipe says, looking slightly wounded I have to ask. The second cool thing is his nickname: El Caballo — The Horse. Felipe graciously pretends he doesn’t remember why his teammates started calling him El Caballo. “It was so long ago …”

We’re high rollers here (actually, the only ones here), so El Caballo is going to take us to the secret parts of the Hall of Fame. He lifts a metal chain and we ascend a flight of stairs. Here, on the second floor, he points to an architectural model. “This is the future,” he says — a ground-level Hall straight out of Cooperstown. The reason, Felipe says, is that the old men and women enshrined in the tower can hardly make the climb.

Next, Felipe takes us up another flight of stairs. This is the really important room. The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame. The stuff below is just memorabilia gathered after an announcement in the newspaper. (That would explain Equipo Vikingos — they answered the ad.) This room contains the finest sportsmen and sportswomen Tijuana has ever produced.

Look, it’s Macario Rayle Preciado, the lefty slugger who, his Hall bio notes, is one of the most disciplined players in Baja California baseball. And isn’t that grand old Jesús “Chucho” Peralta, the “father of bullfighting in Tijuana?” Miguel Ángel López, the professional wrestler known as Rey Misterio Sr., is here. His nephew Rey Jr. will be his tag-team partner someday — but you’ve got to be retired for five years to be considered for the Hall.

Eric and I find the jai alai legend Dr. Juan Valdés Martínez, who stopped his career to pursue a life of the mind just as Robert Smith left the Vikings. The bodybuilder Beatriz de Regíl González, who in her bio is compared to a beautiful flower in Tijuana’s garden. There are expansive men like Benjamín Rendón Castrejón, a boxing judge, who says, “The sport of boxing is, to me, the philosophy of my life.” There are haunted men like Carlos Pérez Acosta, a golfer, who says, “My life has been tragic, I lost my wife and my son.”

The only thing more touching than the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame’s membership is its waiting list. Each candidate is asked to send a sports résumé to El Caballo and the executive committee. The local martial artist Roberto Proo Mendoza sent in a whole book crammed with photos, news clips, and certificates of achievement from the World Hapkido Federation. He tacked on 64 addendums. The Hall had no choice but to admit Master Roberto in 2008.

Now, El Caballo takes us up a final flight of stairs. This is the fourth floor of the Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame, the top level of the bell tower. Only we see no bell here, just an old stereo system. The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame plays a recording that sounds across Zona Centro.

To recap: Eighty years ago, Old Tijuana had a bell tower. It was built to convince Americans they were experiencing Europe luxury. Now, we’re standing in a copy of that tower — a Xerox of a dream of Europe. This tower is used to celebrate sports history. Sports attracted vice-hungry Americans to Tijuana, until they stopped coming because of violence. However, that violence may now be at a point where, like the vision of Europe, it’s mostly a creation of the American mind. Finally, this bell tower plays a fake bell.

The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame may be the most perfect encapsulation of Tijuana ever built.

After three days in Tijuana, Eric and I hail a cab on the Revo. We pop the trunk and see a well-worn, wooden baseball bat lying inside.

You play ball? I ask the cabbie.

“That’s for the bad guys!” he says.

We’re not sure if he’s kidding, but the three of us laugh together as we drive to the border.

My friends, why are you leaving? No girls? Just a bunch of athletes? Sure, it’s OK. To each his own. You have seen a part of Tijuana. You have seen an even larger part, perhaps, of your gringo souls. Whatever else, my friends, you must promise me one thing. OK? Promise me you’ll come back.

Bryan Curtis is the national correspondent at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter here.


Previously from Bryan Curtis:
S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
The Fiberglass Backboard

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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