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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

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            A widely-respected Salon de la Fama member with over four decades of Mexican League front office experience is calling on the LMB to cancel the 2020 season due to ongoing uncertainty regarding the Wuhan virus outbreak in Mexico.

            Cuauhtémoc “Chito” Rodríguez was inducted last year in Monterrey after an executive career during which his Dos Laredos Tecolotes reached the playoffs 15 times (winning two pennants) before taking over as president of the flagship Tigres franchise in 1994 and overseeing six title-winning teams in Mexico City, Puebla and Quintana Roo before his 2018 retirement after Fernando Valenzuela purchased the team from Carlos Peralta. He was recognized as "King of Baseball" at the Baseball Winter Meetings in 2011.

            When asked by writer Angel Villegas last week about the upcoming Mexican League season, Rodriguez was quoted as saying, "cancel it," in Puro Beisbol. "I don't think baseball being played in the LMB is possible this year. The country is immersed in the virus and we don't know when it will be solved."


            Rodriguez elaborated that the Liga's plan to play games with people in the stands is impractical: “The situation in the country and in the world is very complex regarding the virus. I would not recommend playing with the public in the stands in the Mexican League. It will not be controllable until you have a vaccine to counteract this evil. Therefore, it is not practical for anyone to be in a sport that people go to the stadiums and I do not only mean baseball but also others such as soccer, basketball and American football."


            He echoed LMB president Horacio de la Vegas by saying that teams can't afford to play behind closed doors either. “Doing it without an audience in the stadiums as the United States plans, if it takes shape, is very different," Rodriguez explains. "MLB has very strong television income. In this case, they'll try to get their season off for television rights and sponsors are not interested in whether or not there are people. It's a situation very different from that in Mexico."


            Rodriguez suggests that calling off the season gives the Mexican League an opportunity to create peace with the winter Mexican Pacific League, who would not have to shorten their season to accomodate a Mexican League schedule stretching into November. "It is time for the two leagues to make amends," he says. "I would go with the LMB Board of Directors and would do the same with the Winter Council and tell them, 'Look, we must make peace. We did not do it for many years because there are difficulties between us so there was no approach. We've criticized each other, but now it's time to lean on each other.'


            “It's a complicated situation so it would be best if the Mexican League told the winter league that they can start as usual in October, finish it and play their Caribbean Series. Everyone in peace."





            Although the 2020 Mexican League season is tentatively scheduled to open August 7, it's with the full knowledge that the Wuhan virus pandemic makes everything a fluid situation and that the season may not be played at all. One thing that isn't going to change, according to LMB president Horacio de la Vega, is that the Liga will NOT play games in front of occupied stands in 2020.


            "We are not going to play behind closed doors. That is our determination. The only possibility is to do it with the capacity allowed," de la Vega said.


            According to the Hitazo website, de la Vega explained that he expects to start the season on August 7 to end on November 10 with a 48-game campaign for each team in the regular season, but that will depend on how the pandemic plays out over the next few weeks.


            Unlike leagues elsewhere, the Mexican League is not in the financial position to play without people in the stands because the LMB does not have deals with sponsors similar to those found in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan while the majority of its 16 teams are dependent on revenue from ticket, merchandise and concession sales to meet payroll and cover their other expenses. Games behind closed doors would almost certainly lead to franchises folding, perhaps even during the season.


            As a case in point, the Korea Baseball Organization (where Hermosillo-born Roberto Ramos has become a star in his first season in Asia) has played in front of empty stands since opening their season on May 5. Although the KBO is in better financial shape than the LMB and has had their games beamed to a North American TV audience on ESPN, reports that some teams are reportedly beginning to struggle without ballpark revenues and corporate team owners may be forced to take out bank loans to meet front office and team payrolls. One KBO club official said, "We've been paying our players and employees in full but if we keep playing without fans in July, a lot of teams will run into extremely serious trouble.


            The leader of Mexico's summer baseball circuit accepted that after the Wuhan virus, it will be necessary to change uses and customs of the game, such as spitting on the ground (something usual between pitches) or eating sunflower seeds.

            "It will radically change the behavior of the players," de la Vega stated. "There is a protocol that will imply changes, not only for the players, but also for the fans."





            If nothing else, Manny Banuelos' passport has been getting a good workout this year.


            The 29-year-old lefty will be playing in his fourth country since January after the 5'10" Laguna native signed a one-year contract with the Fubon Guardians of Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League last week. Banuelos will report this week to the team in New Taipei City, where the Guardians roster includes fellow moundsmen Henry Sosa, Mike Loree, Bryan Woodall and Ryan Bollinger.


            Banuelos was once a highly-regarded prospect after signing a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees in 2008 at age 17. He rose as high as AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in seven years as a farmhand in pinstripes, but never appeared in the majors until after he was traded to Atlanta following the 2014 season. He made an impressive MLB debut for the Braves on July 2 against Washington at home, shutting out the Nats over 5.2 innings and striking out seven batters in a no-decision 2-1 win. Banuelos followed that outing with another good start five nights later in Milwaukee by holding the Brewers to one run in 5.1 frames and was credited with a 4-3 victory. Although he mostly pitched creditably the rest of the season, he lost his final four decisions, including an 8-4 shelling at Washington on September 6 in which he allowed six runs over two innings in his final outing. That was enough to raise his overall ERA from 3.33 to 5.13 to augment a 1-4 record.


            After that, Banuelos was returned to the minors and bounced from the Braves to the Dodgers and White Sox organizations before returning to MLB in 2019 with Chicago, going 3-4 with a 6.93 ERA in 16 appearances, including eight starts. He had a great April for the Chisox, finishing the month with a 2-0 record and 2.70 ERA in six appearances (including four shutout innings on April 22 at Baltimore in a 12-2 laugher), but he allowed 27 earned runs in 20.1 entradas in May to lose four of five decisions and pitched sparingly for manager Rick Renteria after that. A Mexican-American, Renteria led the Mexican League in batting with a .442 average for Jalisco in 1991.


            Banuelos spent last winter pitching in the Mexican Pacific League for Culiacan, going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in four starts. He began the year helping the Tomateros win the LMP title in the January playoffs, traveled with the team to Puerto Rico in February for the Caribbean Series (where Culiacan reached the semifinals, then went to Arizona for MLB spring training after signing a free-agent contract with the Seattle Mariners.


            Banuelos made one Cactus League appearance with the M's, allowing two runs in as many innings on two hits, two wild pitches and a hit bastman. He appeared ticketed to AAA Tacoma when the Wuhan virus halted camps across MLB, but was among about 50 minor leaguers purged from the Seattle organization on June 2 in order to save the organization $400 a week per player.


            Now, Banuelos will resume his career on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. He'll join a Fubon team that has made nine playoff appearances and won three pennants since their 1993 debut as the Jungo Bears, but currently sits third in the four-team CPBL with a 17-23 record after absorbing a 13-4 loss Sunday to the Uni-President Lions, whose roster features former MLB pitchers Ryan Feieraband and Josh Roenicke.


            While Taiwan is not where he expected to be when the year began, Manny Banuelos will have one decided advantage over the 750 major leaguers and thousands of remaining minor leaguers he left behind when he departed from North America last week: He'll be playing baseball.


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