U.S.-born softball players keep Olympic hopes alive playing for Mexico at Pan American Games

Dallas Escobedo, who pitched for Team USA until 2012, is one of a dozen U.S.-born players on Mexico's women's softball team at the Pan American Games in Lima. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

When Dallas Escobedo first accepted a call-up to the Mexico national women's softball team, she had a sudden realization. She had never stepped foot in the country.

"When I played for the USA, my family used to joke around that I could always [switch] if it didn't work out," said Escobedo, an Arizona-born pitcher who is competing for Mexico at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. She played for Team USA until 2012, but after being left off the American roster, the four-time All-Pac-12 player from Arizona State pitched for Mexico at the 2016 Women's Softball World Championship.

"[USA Softball] just stopped calling," Escobedo said. "I waited, but after a while I knew I wanted to keep competing at the international level."

As an American-born player on Mexico's softball team, the 27-year old Escobedo has plenty of company. Of the 15 players on the roster at the Pan American Games, a dozen were born in the United States. Mexico is 2-2 in group play and advanced to Friday's semifinals as a top-four team with Puerto Rico's 10-1 win Thursday over Venezuela.

Mexico's softball federation has scouted, identified and approached dozens of Mexican Americans in U.S. colleges since the beginning of this decade. Over the years, notable players of Mexican descent have suited up for the USA, including current ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza, who won Pan American gold in 2003 and 2007.

The arrival of players born in the U.S. has helped Team Mexico rise from 16th to fifth in the World Softball Baseball Confederation rankings since 2015. A second-place finish at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games is their high-water mark in that span.

"As a federation, we're looking for the best players to represent us, the best softball players abroad who can play for us because they have Mexican roots," Rolando Guerrero, president of the Mexican Softball Federation, said in a recent interview. "We've held tryouts in Los Angeles for players with Mexican parents or grandparents who want to represent us. You have no idea how many letters we get saying they want to play for the country of their forefathers."

Mexico's scouting network has picked up athletes in the U.S. across other sports. In Lima, 28 of Mexico's 543 athletes were born north of the border, competing in sports such as basketball, fencing, soccer, gymnastics, bowling and surfing.

In 2016, softball was reinstated into the Olympic program ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games. The decision has allowed Mexico's softball federation to dangle dreams of competing on one of the most prestigious sporting stages to players eligible to make the switch. The WSBC allows players to change international allegiances if they are eligible for citizenship with their chosen country.

Danielle O'Toole is one of the players enticed to switch teams for a chance to compete in Tokyo after fielding calls from Mexico's federation for seven years.

The 25-year old pitcher used to be a fixture on Team USA, taking silver and posting a 0.46 ERA at the World Cup of Softball in 2017, and pitching at the USA Softball International Cup in 2018. A Californian who was a first-team All-American at Arizona, O'Toole has Mexican heritage on both sides of her family. She was left off the U.S. squad early this year and anguished over switching to Mexico.

She had grown up idolizing Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman, both star pitchers and Olympic medalists with Team USA. "It meant so much to me for so long to be [on the USA team]," she said, "and then -- it was tough, you know?"

She finally announced her decision to switch on July 4, three weeks before the Pan American Games kicked off.

"Now I realize my goal is to go to the Olympics," O'Toole said. "I just didn't want to be 40 or 50 years old and regretting that I didn't try and go after my dreams."

The possibility of participating in big international tournaments was a big reason why Cheyanne Tarango accepted the call from Mexico. However, the first baseman/pitcher says the pride passed on by her father, Andy, prompted her to make the decision. Before representing Mexico, she played for Team USA until 2011. Born in Anaheim Hills, California, the 25-year-old had grown up going across the border into Tijuana, where her family has roots.

"Hearing the national anthem and knowing you're playing for a whole country, it's a special feeling," Tarango said.

For Escobedo, playing for Team Mexico also gave her an opportunity to reconnect with her family heritage.

Since joining the team, she has made a handful of personal pilgrimages to the country were her paternal great-grandparents were born, turning what once seemed a remote possibility into a positive experience.

"It's awesome to play for Mexico and represent girls on both sides of the border," she said. "Playing for Mexico is one of the best decisions I've made in my life."