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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
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            In recent interviews, presidents of both the Mexican League and Mexican Pacific League said their respective circuits and teams WILL lose money in their coming seasons regardless of how their schedules work out. While there's nothing unusual about Mexican professional baseball teams finishing in the red financially at the end of a season, it's unheard of for leaders of the country's top two leagues to predict such an outcome before a game is played.


            However, due to the Wuhan virus, the "unheard of" is becoming commonplace throughout the world of baseball. It's no different in Mexico, where as of Sunday, over 113,000 people had contracted the virus and total deaths were approaching the 14,000 mark. All leagues south of the border have postponed their seasons indefinitely and while the Mexican League is hoping to play a shortened 48-game season plus playoffs beginning August 7, one call from a federal health authority could scuttle that plan.


            Facing that uncertainly, both Mexican League president Horacio de la Vega and his Mexican Pacific League counterpart, Omar Canizales, are already hoisting fiscal white flags and hoping to minimize the pending damage the Wuhan virus will cause their loops. "We are in a losing scenario," de la Vega told the El Jonronero website. "The teams are not going to gain or break even. We are trying to minimize costs to the maximum." The LMB's proposed schedule would partly address that by eliminating games outside a team's division in order to cut air travel costs while avoiding potential contagions.


            De la Vega says the majority of Mexican League teams can't afford to play games behind closed doors as leagues in Asia have done because they can't survive without gate receipts or concessions and merchandise sales, but he admits they may have no choice in some places: "The entire league can't play behind closed doors, but if in a particular state the local authorities mandate that the only possibility is to play behind closed doors, we are considering that some places may start behind closed doors." The governor of Coahuila, where three LMB teams play (including defending champion Monclova), has said that teams will have to limit the number of people admitted to ballparks in order to adhere to social distancing policies.


            Meanwhile, LMP president Canizales echoes de la Vega's assessment that his league is likely going to come up short on the profit/loss statements in the 2020-21 season. One possible result may be Mex Pac teams relying on domestic talent more than players from the United States and elsewhere, who generally cost more money: "We would have to wait and see what kind of players we have available when we start the season so as to make a decision if we are going to bring in foreigners or give priority, as we want to do, to Mexicans." Canizales notes that Major League Baseball has cut dozens of minor leaguers, including at least 14 Mexicans who may be home and available for Mex Pac training camps. "I think we would give priority to our native Mexicans who've played in minor leagues than foreigners," he said, "but the decision of how many foreigners we are going to play with in the season has not yet been made."


            Regardless of where players come from, Canizales repeats de la Vega's refrain that his league and its ten teams will look to cut expenses wherever they can, including salaries on the field and in the front office. "It is very likely that we all have to sacrifice something in order to make the season feasible, trying to make the players least affected, but I think it will be necessary to make some adjustments," he said by telephone to RG La Deportiva. "Everything will depend on the level at which we are allowed to play in terms of stadium occupancy," alluding to the possibility that the LMP may have to play in front of unoccupied stands.


            Canizales says that the MexPac is now penciling in November 15 as opening day, a month later than usual, should the Mexican League playoffs go into November for the first time ever. He adds that there are three more LMP league meetings between now and October. "We are not against the wall. There is time."





            After their somewhat convoluted firing of Vinny Castilla last month, the Hermosillo Naranjeros have named Juan Navarrete as their manager for the upcoming 2020-21 Mexican Pacific League season. A former MLB All-Star, Castilla was reportedly let go by the Orangemen sometime in April, but no announcement was made of his firing until last month after some mixed signals from the team as to whether or not the Oaxaca native was still at the helm.


            It will not be the first time Navarrete has entered a confusing situation as an LMP manager. His hiring as the first dugout boss of the expansion Guasave Algodoneros was announced at a press conference last June, although his duties as an instructor in the Oakland A's minor league system prevented him from attending. However, Navarette never came to formal terms with new owner Alfredo Aramburo, who bought the team after the reported hiring in mid-July, and ex-MLB pitcher Rigo Beltran ended up being the Cottoneers new skipper instead. Beltran lasted less than a month into last season before he was fired.


            Although he's been a manager, coach and instructor in the Oakland system for over two decades after playing minor league ball for seven seasons for the Montreal Expos in the 1970's (he was a teammate of Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson), the Gomez Palacio-born Navarrete spent most of his 21-year playing career as a second baseman in the Mexican League, where he hit .327 with 1,979 hits over 1,607 LMB games before retiring in 1990. He also spent 19 winters playing in the Mex Pac. He was elected to the Salon de la Fama in 1998, by which time his second baseball career was already well underway. Navarrete has tutored such future MLB All-Stars as Miguel Tejada and Max Muncy and is currently a defensive coordinator in the Oakland system.


            Navarrete had already been a Liga player-manager for both Saltillo and the old Monterrey Industriales before he returned to the Saraperos in 1991 for two years as skipper. He then moved in 1993 to Villahermosa, where he piloted the Tabasco Olmecas to their only Liga championship in their 45-year history. Navarrete spent one more year managing the Olmecas before spending the next 25 summers north of the border (although he did return to Tabasco in 2004 and took the team to a 48-48 record and a first-round playoff exit). He's also managed A's farm teams in the Arizona, California and Northwest leagues, winning the 1996 AZL flag.


            Besides playing nearly two decades in winterball for Obregon, Navojoa, Mexicali and Guaymas, Navarrete has managed five teams in the LMP: Guasave, Jalisco, Obregon, Mexicali and Los Mochis. He was named Manager of the Year in 2014-15 after leading the Jalisco Charros to a 46-26 record their first year in Guadalajara after moving from Guasave.


            Now he'll put on a Naranjeros uniform for the first time as a player or manager, replacing another Mexican baseball legend in Castilla, who took Hermosillo to a 38-27 record in his first year at the helm before falling to Mazatlan in six games in their first-round playoff series. In announcing the 66-year-old Navarrete's hiring, Orangemen general director Pablo de la Pena said about Castilla's ouster, "It was considered that some things failed and the sporting goal was not reached." De la Pena then explained why Navarrete was chosen: "We sought experience and knowledge of the league. We believe that his knowledge and his way of communicating with the players will help us to achieve good results." That same experience and knowledge informs Navarrete what will happen if he doesn't.


            The hiring leaves Monterrey and Mexicali as the last two LMP franchises with unsettled managerial situations. The Sultanes have not confirmed that Homar Rojas will be back with the team while the Aguilas have been mum about Pedro Mere's status. Otherwise, besides Navarrete in Hermosillo, the other seven Mex Pac skippers going into the season will be Roberto Vizcarra in Jalisco, Juan José Pacho in Mazatlan, Benji Gil in Culiacán, Oscar Robles in Guasave, Victor Bojorquez in Los Mochis, Lorenzo Bundy in Navojoa, and Sergio Gastelum in Obregón.




            If the baseball season ever gets started, 2020 will be a good year for international competition in Mexico. On the heels of both Obregon and Los Mochis being named co-hosts of the World Baseball Softball Confederation's U-23 Baseball World Cup between September 30 and October 9, the organization has awarded two more similar tournaments to Tijuana in November (contingent on the Wuhan virus being abated or eliminated altogether in Mexico's sixth-largest city by then).


            The fifth U-15 Baseball World Cup is slated for the so-called "Heart Between Two Seas" between October 30 and November 8, with the ninth Women's Baseball World Cup to be played from November 12 to the 21st. Games for both tournaments will be played at La Nida, the 17,000-seat home of the Mexican League's Tijuana Toros, although another venue such as the smaller Estadio Angel Camarena may be pressed into duty if the need for another field arises, especially if the Toros make a playoff run into November. Estadio Camarena, which is being remodeled, was to be the home of the expansion Otay Inustriales of the Northern Mexico League, but the LNM is struggling for survival with an uncertain future. Another ballpark, the 5,000-seat Estadio Manuel Cecena, sits 30 miles to the east in Tecate as a last resort.


            WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari said, "Having Tijuana confirmed to host two major WBSC World Cup events in a row represents how much baseball means to the city. This is the first time we've had a city host two World Cups in our history, providing a wonderful opportunity to celebrate baseball and sport as we await the restart of the international calendar."


            The U-15 Baseball World Cup had originally been scheduled for August before the pandemic shut baseball down in most of the countries taking part. Of the twelve teams expected to take part, eight currently hold Top 12 status in the WBSC's latest rankings for that category: Japan (1), United States (2), Taiwan (4), Mexico (5), Cuba (7), Venezuela (8), Dominican Republic (10) and Panama (12). Rounding out the field will be Italy (17), Germany (19), So. Africa (24) and Guam (36).


            This will mark the first time that Guam has sent a contingent to any World Cup competition since being admitted to the International Baseball Federation (the WBSC's predecessor) in the 1980's after winning the Oceania championship last year. Japan, the United States and Germany won their continental tournaments while South Africa was chosen as Africa's representative after no qualifier was held there. The USA defeated host Panama in the title game of the 2018 U-15 Baseball World Cup while Taiwan finished third.


            The Women's Baseball World Cup will likewise feature twelve nations, eight of them ranked in the WBSC's Top 12: Japan (1), Canada (2), Taiwan (3), Venezuela (4), United States (5), Australia (6), Cuba (8) and the Dominican Republic (9). Also represented will be The Netherlands (11), host Mexico (14), the Philippines (15) and France (18). The latter three are making their first-ever appearance at the Women's Baseball World Cup. Like the U-15 tournament, this competition was postponed after originally being scheduled for September.


            Japan defeated Taiwan in the 2018 championship game in Florida for their sixth straight World Cup title and will come to Tijuana riding a 30-game win streak. The USA won the first two World Cups in 2004 and 2006. Not only will this be Mexico's first time playing in a Baseball World Cup, last year marked their initial entry in women's baseball competition. Last August 19, in their opening game at the first Pan Am Women's Baseball Championship held in Aguascalientes, pitchers Rosy del Castillo and Veronica Romo combined on a no-hitter in a 16-0 win over fellow debutante Nicaragua. Mexico went on to finish fourth in the eight-team event, overseen by the Pan American Baseball Confederation (or COPABE).


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