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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

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Monday, July 12, 2021

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            Players for Mexico's first-ever Olympic baseball team have been selected, with 24 athletes slated to make the trip to Tokyo later this month along with manager Benji Gil and his coaching staff. Twelve are pitchers on the roster along with two catchers, six infielders and four outfielders.


            The two most internationally-experienced members of the team are first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and relief pitcher Oliver Perez. The former major leaguers are the only two players to have represented Mexico in the first four editions of the World Baseball Classic. Both are currently in their first seasons playing in the Mexican League, with Gonzalez playing for Gil in Guadalajara and Perez coming out of the bullpen for Omar Vizquel in Tijuana.


            In all, the Mexican roster includes eight players of dual nationality while eleven belong to the Mexican Pacific League's Culiacan Tomateros, who've won two consecutive winterball pennants under Gil's management. That latter point has raised a few eyebrows among the country's baseball cognoscenti, many of whom have said that there were better choice available. That skepticism has extended into the playing ranks, with one ballplayer in particular being very vocal over being passed over by selectors from the Mexican Baseball Federation (FEMEBE).


            Leon Bravos first baseman Matt Clark represented the United States in the 2011 Baseball World Cup but homered for Mexico against the USA in the 2019 Premier12 tournament's third-place game to help the Verdes Grande win the contest, punching their ticket to Tokyo in the process. Clark was expecting to be rewarded for his contributions during the Qualifier and was outraged after Gonzalez and Efren Navarro, who has played the past two winters for Gil in Culiacan, were selected to play first instead. Taking to Twitter, Clark said, “What a joke. Without my homerun Mexico is not even in the Olympics. I wish the players the best but what an absolute sham by the LMB and the people that make the team.”


            Clark hit .316 with 27 homers and 87 RBIs for Leon in 2019 but was traded to Monterrey in February as part of a five-player swap that netted the Bravos outfielders Felix Perex and Chris Roberson. Since returning to the Bravos from Monterrey on June 15 (when the Sultanes traded for outfielder Carlos Alvarez), the 34-year-old Clark has hit .337 for Leon with seven homers and 19 RBIs over 21 games. Gonzalez, 39, is sixth in the LMB with a .375 average to go with five homers and 38 RBIs (tied for third) in 35 games after not playing since 2018. Navarro, 35, was batting .339 with no homers and 16 ribbies for Tijuana after 37 games. Outfielders Joey Meneses and Sebastian Elizalde can also play first if needed.


            One of the players chosen to make the trip to Japan was unsurprisingly sanguine about the Olympics. Former Yankees infielder Ramiro Pena, who has also played in Japan and is currently toiling for Monterrey. Pena told Thomas Lopez of Septima Entrada that he thinks Mexico stands a good chance of earning a medal. “I think the team is going to be very good,” Pena said. “It is very well formed. I think that with the names that are there, we can do a very good job...I think there will be very good results.” Pena, who turns 36 on July 18 and has played in Culiacan the past 13 winters, also expressed confidence in manager Gil: “Obviously I know Benjamin and I know how he is. I think he's a very good manager and I think he'll help us focus on bringing in the gold."


            The Olympic baseball squad will begin gathering in Mexico City on Saturday, with a July 21 evening departure to Tokyo. The Mexican League office has announced that the nine LMB teams with a total of 16 players going to Japan will be allowed to bring in players of any nationality to replace them on their rosters while the Summer Games are going on. The other eight players representing Mexico have been playing in Japan, Taiwan and MLB-affiliated minor leagues. One of them, former Red Sox second-round draft pick Teddy Stankiewicz, earlier pitched in Taiwan for the Uni-President Lions this season (a 1.07 ERA over 50.1 innings) before being given his release July 1 so he could play in the Olympics. Stankiewicz signed with Tijuana one day later but has yet to pitch for the Toros.


            Mexico's first Olympic baseball game is scheduled for July 30, when they take on the Dominican Republic. Their second game will be one day later against host Japan, whose hoe-field advantage will not include a partisan crowd in the stands. It was announced last week that after a recent upsurge in Wuhan virus cases in the island nation, no spectators will be admitted to any Olympic event. Initially, limited audiences were to have been permitted, but with no cheering allowed from the seats.





            A week before he leads the Mexican Olympic baseball team to Tokyo for the Summer Games, manager Benji Gil and the Guadalajara Mariachis reeled off a seven-game winning streak to open a 3.5-game lead over Tijuana in the Mexican League's Northern Division standings. The first-year franchise posted a weekend road sweep in Mexico City and and won two games each against Puebla and the Toros to build their record up to an LMB-best 30-9 before dropping a 6-4 decision Sunday in the border city.


            The Guadalajara offense has been firing on all cylinders the entire season, leading the Liga with a .339 team batting average while scoring 7.77 runs per game. Infielder Niko Vasquez second behind Durango's Tito Polo with a .425 mark. The Mexican League isn't seeing the inflated averages this year that marked the 2019 campaign after switching back to a Rawlings baseball instead of the livelier Franklin ball used that season. Only three teams are averaging above .300 in 2021 compared with ten in 2019 (Yucatan averaged .299 while three more teams were .294 or better).


            Despite losing Sunday, Guadalajara's 30-10 mark leads Tijuana (29-16), defending champion Monclova (28-16) and Saltillo (26-18) in the LMB North standings while Union Laguna (19-22) and Aguascalientes (17-20) are in a virtual tie for fifth place. Despite being swept at home by the Mariachis early in the month, Mexico City (26-15) is ahead of Yucatan (23-19), Veracruz (23-21) and Puebla (21-21) in the LMB South, although the Pericos have stumbled to one win over their past ten games after starting July with a 20-12 record. Tabasco and Quintana Roo have identical 21-23 records to tie for fifth in the division.


            Colombian centerfielder Polo of Durango took over the lead in the Mexican League batting race after going 3-for-5 with a double and his fifth homer of the season during Friday's 7-3 Generales win at Dos Laredos and finished the weekend at .426, one ahead of Vasquez. Henry Urrutia of Saltillo is third with a .414 average. Leon's Xavier Batista continues to lead the circuit with 14 homers, one more than the 13 of Rainel Rosario, a former teammate of Batista's on Japan's Hiroshima Carp. Three players have 12 dingers each and Urrutia is one of four players tied for sixth with 11 roundtrippers and is closing the gap on the LMB's RBI leader Leandro Castro of Tijuana, whose 50 ribbies are just three ahead of Urrutia's 47. Toros second sacker Isaac Rodriguez, who'll be playing in the Olympics later this month, now has 17 stolen bases. Alonzo Harris of Oaxaca trails Rodriguez with 15 swipes.


            Ageless wonder Bartolo Colon of Monclova and longtime NPB hurler Masaru Nakamura of Guadalajara both won games last week, while Aguascalientes reliever Anthony Vizcaya somehow won two despite a 6.64 ERA to tie for the lead among Mexican League pitchers with six win apiece. Nakamura's ERA is a solid (for this league) 3.10 while Colon is right behind at 3.14 as both rank among the top ten in that category behind Veracruz' Dylan Unsworth's 2.57. Unsworth has walked just four batters in 42 innings and tops the loop with an 0.98 WHIP. Puebla's Jose Valdez has overtaken Mexico City's Hector Hernandez for the Liga leadership in strikeouts, 52 to 50. Tijuana's former MLB All-Star Fernando Rodney heads the list with 13 saves, one more than closers Carlos Bustamante of Monclova and Union Laguna's Jenrry Mejia.


            Looking ahead, Mexico City will host defending champion Monclova from Tuesday through Thursday in an important matchup of two divisional contenders. Tijuana will play in Guadalajara for trio of games next weekend with the Toros minus infielders Efren Navarro and Isaac Rodriguez along with reliever Oliver Perez, who'll be heading to Tokyo for the Olympics along with first baseman Gonzalez and skipper Gil from the Mariachis.





            The ongoing battle between Jalisco Charros co-owners Armando Navarro and Salvador Quirarte has been well-chronicled in Baseball Mexico. The conflict between the two men, which led Quirarte being stripped of his duties as the Guadalajara team's president last winter, has gotten personal and nasty while seemingly destined to end up in a courtroom. And now there's another apparent twist in the saga: The Mexican Pacific League team may be up for sale to an outside owner.


            Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros has been one of Mexican baseball's best-connected columnists since starting the social media outlet in 2004. The Culiacan-based scribe reported in his Zona de Contaco column last week that Navarro and Quirarte may both be willing to sell their respective shares in the Charros.


            Jalisco has become one of the MexPac's flagship clubs since the two men bought the Guasave Algodoneros following the 2013-14 season and moved the team to Guadalajara's retrofitted Estadio Panamerica, which had housed both baseball and track & field events during the 2011 Pan American Games. The 16,000-seat ballpark, now named Estadio Charros, is located in the Guadalajara suburb of Zapopan and has hosted games in the 2017 World Baseball Classic as well as the 2018 Caribbean Series.


            While the Charros have become one of the LMP's bright lights on the field and at the gate, the front office has degenerated into a proverbial dog's breakfast. Relations between Navarro and Quirarte have deteriorated over the past seven years, culminating in Quirarte being forced out of the team's day-to-day operations last year after allegations of financial irregularities surfaced. The two have held competing press conferences hurling accusations at each other since then, and the split appears as permanent as it does severe.


            Complicating matters is that there are two companies involved and potentially working at cross purposes. According to a Google translation of a January story in Milenio, “Quirarte explained that the Holding Deportiva de Jalisco, SA de CV company is the one that has shares in a series of operating companies, among which is Juegos y Espectáculos Beisbol Charros, SA de CV which operates the cash flow and has the concession of the stadium; Holding Deportiva is where the share percentages of the different team members are derived.


            “According to Quirarte, Juegos y Espectáculos is 99 percent owned by Holding Deportiva (in which Quirarte has 41.5 percent shares) while the other 1 percent belongs to Armando Navarro, who is the sole general administrator of Juegos y Espactaculos.” Quirarte was quoted later in the story that “All I want is to reach a fair agreement for the good of the team, the fans and the league.”


            The “fair agreement” may be the sale of the Charros, something Quirarte says he's willing to do. Ballesteros writes that two sources from within the State of Jalisco government are saying that businessman Jose “Pepe” Miguel (aka The King of Beans) was interested in possibly purchasing the Charros, something that the owner of the Mexican League's Puebla Pericos denied in a letter to Puro Beisbol.


            Miguel bought the Pericos franchise in 2019 after it was one of four LMB franchises brought back from contraction on orders from newly-elected Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. While the other three revived franchises (Aguascalientes, Laguna and Leon) have all resumed bleeding red ink, Miguel's Pericos drew well at the gate in 2019 and their resuscitation has been a success thus far, with Miguel's proactive approach in reaching out to fans in the colonial city deserving much of the credit.


            The open conflict between the two men whose success in Guadalajara has been recognized by the international baseball community appears to be thankfully coming to an end. No matter how things play out, however, both Armando Navarro and Salvador Quirarte deserve much credit for bringing a tailender winterball franchise to a city that had never previously embraced baseball and making sure the team not only survives, but thrives.


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