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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

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            In the wake of the surprising ouster of Juan Gabriel Castro as manager of Mexico's Olympic baseball team without public explanation less than two months before the start of the Tokyo Summer Games, Benji Gil has been appointed as the team's new skipper.


            The Tijuana-born Gil had a playing career that included eight seasons in the major leagues, including a berth on the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels. He spent seven summers in the Mexican League and was a member of Monterrey's 2007 champions, while also playing several seasons of winterball in the Mexican Pacific League (winning four pennants and two Caribbean Series with the Culiacan Tomateros).


            After retiring as an infielder, Gil went into managing and has led Culiacan to four Mexican Pacific League pennants since the 2014-15 season. He's come under some fire for not winning a Caribbean Series title, but teams still have to be champions to compete for one. Gil is in his first season of managing a Mexican League team and has piloted the expansion Guadalajara Mariachis to a 14-6 record over three weeks, good for a first-place tie with defending champion Monclova in the LMB North.


            The announcement was made by the Mexican Baseball Federation (FEMEBE) last week. FEMEBE is ostensibly charged with overseeing national teams but some baseball journalists in the country have in effect called it a figurehead organization, claiming that the ProBeis federal agency headed by former MLB and NPB player Edgar Gonzalez wields the real power in the Mexican game.


            Gil steps into a landmine-filled situation following the firing of both Castro and Olympic Team GM Kundy Gutierrez, who had steered Mexico to a berth in Tokyo by winning the Premier12 tournament's group stage at Guadalajara and then qualifying for the Olympics with a third-place showing at the medal round in Japan in November 2019. No reason was given for the move and nobody has stepped up and taken responsibility for the move.


            Castro and Gutierrez had both publicly criticized the National Commission on Physical Culture and Sports (CONADE) for withholding funds meant to cover the baseball team's travel expenses during the trip to Tokyo. CONADE is led by former Mexican Olympic runner Ana Guevara, who was appointed to her post by president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shortly after the latter had assumed office. Guevara and AMLO have both been members of the same political party, with Guevara serving as a senator under the banner of that party. Some speculation is that the ousters of Castro and Gutierrez were retribution for their criticism of CONADE and Guevara, who has been mired in allegations of job-related corruption for the past several months.


            Another school of thought is that the firings were directed from the ProBeis office after Castro was publicly cautious regarding the desire of Edgar Gonzalez' younger brother Adrian to go to Tokyo after not playing since 2018. While the hiring of Gil, who manages the same Guadalajara that Adrian Gonzalez plays for, raised a few eyebrows and led to speculation that the appointment virtually assures that El Titan will make the trip to Japan. It should be noted that Gutierrez has been a longstanding friend of the Gonzalez family and that his firing would be unlikely to have been instigated by Edgar Gonzalez. In short, only the principles know for sure and a promised public airing of the situation by Castro has yet to happen.


            While Gil might appeal to the 30+ players who took their name out of Olympic consideration in protest of the firings, he'll have a chance to look over some of the remaining candidates next weekend when Mexico hosts exhibition games against the Dominican Republic and Venezuela at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City. The game against the Dominicans is set to take place Saturday, June 19 while Mexico will host Venezuela the following afternoon.


            A poll taken by Puro Beisbol before Castro's ouster showed that 52.5 percent of respondents believe that Mexico will not win a medal in Tokyo. Another 26.7 percent are predicting a Gold medal, 14.4 percent foresee a Bronze and 6.4 percent see Silver in Mexico's future. Six nations will compete in Olympic baseball this year. The sport is being discontinued after Tokyo.



            The Aguascalientes Rieleros have struggled on and off the field for years. The Mexican League team has won just one pennant and two division titles since their 1975 debut, played before sparse home crowds at aging Parque Alberto Romo Chavez and lost money on an annual basis. Last August, Rieleros players forced to sit after the 2020 season was canceled on July 2 asked Liga president Horacio de la Vega for financial assistance that had been promised to players and umpires by the LMB office. In short, the Railroaders are perennial also-rans, one of many franchises with that status.


            Given that history, the 2021 season has begun in similar fashion for the team. Monclova's 48-year-old Bartolo Colon became the oldest player in Mexican League history to pitch a complete game Saturday night by tossing a 6-2 home win as the Rieleros lost their fourth in a row to drop to 7-11 and seventh place in the eight-team LMB North. Colon gave up two runs on five hits and struck out seven in going the distance to raise his own record to 3-1.


            Things are never pleasant when a team's season appears to be going bad early but as befits a club from a city named Aguascalientes (meaning “hot waters”), things reached a boiling point in the visitors locker room after the game, when Rieleros manager Luis Carlos Rivera punched former Cal State Fullerton infielder Richy Pedroza, who'd sat out the contest. Photos of a bruised Pedroza circulated on the internet later during the weekend.


            Blanca Cisneros of ABC Noticias reported that the manager lost control and that “players affirm that Richy did nothing to provoke this situation and that he did not respond to the attack.” One Aguascalientes player, third baseman Michael Wing, posted a Tweet stating “Punching players now...what a joke.” 


            On the other hand, the Mexican League office handed down one-game suspensions and fines of approximately 14,170 pesos (or about USD$714) to both Rivera and Pedroza. The LMB said Rivera was being punished for hitting Pedroza while the latter was sanctioned for “violating the regulations in team facilities, including insulting the manager.”


            The 5'6” Pedroza was batting .241 after playing shortstop and going 1-for-3 with a walk and scoring a run from the leadoff slot in Friday's 15-3 drubbing at the hands of the Acereros. A 29-year-old switch-hitter from Covina, California, Pedroza was a 17th-round pick by St. Louis in the 2013 draft and played all or part of three seasons in the Cardinals system before being released early in the 2015. He landed in Aguascalientes the following season and has been with the Rieleros since, batting .283 with 260 runs scored over 412 total games. Pedroza's best season in the LMB was in 2019, when he hit .310 with 28 doubles and 104 runs scored in 111 games under then-manager Felix Fermin.


            The 42-year-old Rivera is a Chihuahua native who spent part of the 2000 season pitching six games for Atlanta and Baltimore, going a combined 1-0 with a 1.23 ERA after five years in the Braves' organization. Although he was ranked the fifth-best prospect in the Orioles system in 2001, the 6'3” righty didn't pitch that year or the next before his release in 2003. He later surfaced in the Mexican League, where he pitched until 2010 and spent his last four seasons with his hometown Chihuahua Dorados. Before his hiring in Aguascalientes prior to the canceled 2020 campaign, Rivera managed Leon for both Spring and Fall seasons in 2018 and registered 27-29 and 26-28 records.


            The Rieleros front office had yet to issue an official statement on the incident or suspensions as of Sunday.





            The Mexican League's 2021 season is coming on the heels of their canceled 2020 schedule due to the pandemic and for many (if not most) of the LMB's 18 franchises, year after year of red ink dominating their profit/loss statements before that.


            Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso penned a report detailing how teams have been cutting expenses in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Here is a Google translated portion of her report:


            The pandemic caused by Covid-19 has left a trail of millions in economic losses among the owners of the clubs of the Mexican Baseball League but, at the same time, it has opened the the door to an unprecedented increase in the number of former major league players and the expansion from 16 to 18 teams that will play a schedule shortened from 120 to 66 games, plus the playoffs.


            Depending on the club and the percentage of fans with which they will be allowed to play at home, the economic blow can amount to 70 million pesos. In addition, they must invest in the application of anti-covid protocols which can increase operating expenses in up to 3 million pesos.

            To resist negative impacts, teams took drastic measures such as cutting player salaries by 20 to 50 percent, cutting back office staff, hiring interns and bartering with sponsors via publicity in exchange for service delivery.


            The payroll of players of the Yucatan Leones, owned by the Arellano brothers, which was 79 million pesos in 2018 (the year in which they were champions), was reduced to 43 million in 2019. Now the pandemic forced them to adjust it to 16 million for 2021.


            The team created a financial analysis that included the players, sponsors and even Yucatan's state governor, Mauricio Vila. The document indicates that they still lack 29.8 million pesos to operate the season, a figure that is reduced to 21.8 million if the team is allowed to play with 40% of the capacity at Estadio Kukulcán.


            “We believe that with this reduction in the cost of payroll we will move forward,” says Leones president Juan Jose Arellano. “If conditions improve, we can adjust and raise them. We explained that to the players and they understood it perfectly. They know that not playing all of last season made it difficult for us. Although we did not play, we helped them with their maintenance because if a player does not play, he does not generate income.”


            The days of the “fat cows” are over, when operating for a season cost the team more than 100 million pesos. In 2021, spending on jobs exceeds 53 million. Another of the items sacrificed will be that of player development, which fell from 14 million in 2019 to 8 million during 2020 and 2021.


            “We are also going to reduce travel costs and in whatever way we can because last year's losses were stratospheric,” added Arellano.


            So it is that even one of the LMB's more solid second-tier franchises behind the top tier of Monclova, Tijuana, Monterrey, Mexico City and Oaxaca (the latter two owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu, one of Mexico's richest men) has had to drastically cut expenses in an attempt to likewise cut their losses as a result. If the Yucatan Leones have had to tighten their belt in such a fashion, how are the franchises already operating on the margins like Tabasco, Leon, Laguna and Aguascalientes going to tighten belts that have already run out of notches?


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