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Saturday, March 16, 2020
CORONAVIRUS PANIC DELAYS LMB SEASON FIVE WEEKS
When fears over the coronavirus grounded every other professional baseball league around the world to a halt, the Mexican League still expected to begin their 2020 schedule on April 6 as planned. That changed Saturday morning when the LMB office ordered all preseason camps among its 16 teams closed and delayed its season openers until Monday, May 11, five weeks after the original date. The Class A Northern Mexico League suspended its camps and season one day later.
Virtually every professional and collegiate sports league in the United States had suspended operations by the end last week after the number of COVID-19 cases in the USA rose to nearly 3,000 over the weekend, with 60 deaths reported. Worldwide, the numbers stand at a combined 157,000 active and closed cases and over 5,800 deaths, with coronavirus source nation China accounting for more than half of both figures. Mexico, on the other hand, has thus far remained relatively untouched by what the World Health Organization recently declared a "pandemic." As of Saturday, there were just 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (22 active) with one person listed in serious or critical condition, but no deaths thus far.
Mexico's total cases among its population of over 100,000,000 stands at 0.2 per million residents, one of the lowest rates in the world. Conversely, nine countries have over 100 cases per million (with Italy at 349.6), with South Korea leading nations with pro baseball leagues at 159.2 per million with 75 deaths. The United States is down the list at 9.0 per million total cases with 60 deaths, Japan is at 6.4 with 22 fatalities and Taiwan (whose Chinese Professional Baseball League is the most recent play-for-pay circuit to postpone their openers) shows 2.2 cases per million with two deaths. Besides Italy, Europe's other pro loop, Holland's Hoofdklasse, has suspended operations as The Netherlands shows 56 cases per million with 12 deaths.
With such relatively low numbers south of the border, the LMB was the last league standing, although some teams had adjusted their training camp venues and/or schedules as a precautionary measure. The Tijuana Toros, for instance abandoned their preseason work at South Mountain Community College in Tempe, Arizona last Friday in response to an alert from the state government ordering (among other things) the closure of all schools. The Toros arrived in Tempe on March 1 and planned to spend the entire month training in the Phoenix suburb. Instead, they broke camp after less than two weeks.
Even so, Mexican League teams were working their way toward their respective openers, with Monclova defeating Leon, 9-5, last Wednesday in the Liga's first exhibition game of the year at the LMB Academy near Monterrey as Jeremy Martinez homered for the defending champions. Ultimately, however, it appears that governmental pressure generated by coronavirus fears led the league office to issue a statement on Saturday morning that opened: The Mexican Baseball League (LMB) reports that the preseason of all the teams that make up our circuit is officially suspended and the start of the 2020 season is postponed to Monday, May 11, 2020; as long as there is no new notice, in accordance with the health authorities of the Federal Government.
The postponement comes at a difficult time for the Mexican League, which had already shortened its regular season schedule to 102 games and are facing the potential loss of 30 games during their five-week dark period. As outlined in last week's BBM post of Proceso's Beatriz Pereyra's interview with new LMB president Horacio de la Vega, the league office is already cash-strapped (as are many, if not most, of its teams), and the loss of up to 240 games' worth of revenue will not help matters. However, public safety concerns are taking precedence as Mexicans brace themselves for their country's first fatality from COVID-19.
LMB PLAYER UNREST BUBBLING DUE TO SALARY CAP, DQ LIST
Labor relations between the Mexican League and its players has historically been tenuous at best, with a 1980 midseason strike leading to the creation of a six-team splinter league that finished out the year with an abbreviated schedule among the more obvious examples of tensions bubbling over. While things have been quieter over recent seasons, a pair of issues irritating the players have surfaced and led to renewed calls for a players union.
One such issue is the imposition of an LMB team salary cap of five million pesos per month, equal to approximately US$250,000. On the surface, that doesn't appear to be an unreasonable limit in a league with teams carrying 35 men (30 of them active) on their rosters, which would work out to an average of US$7,143 per player. That's competitive with Class AAA salaries north of the border, where first-year players earn a minimum of US$2,140 per month, and enough to live quite well south of it. However, as is often the case with Mexican baseball, it's not that simple.
In the first place, even though there's a monthly salary cap of 5,000,000 pesos in place, not all teams can afford to pay that much. Wealthier franchises like Mexico City, Monterrey, Tijuana and Monclova have no problem coming up with that kind of money for payroll, but less prosperous teams like Tabasco, Aguascalientes and Union Laguna simply don't generate enough revenue to pay their players as well as their richer Liga counterparts. The Durango Generales, for example, generated stories during their first LMB season in 2017 when they sometimes went weeks without paying players, leading some to force trades by either sitting out games or making similar threats; it's how Daniel Mayora ended up in Monterrey (winning the batting title) and MVP candidate Yadier Drake landed in Japan.
Secondly, not every player is going to be paid the same. While some players, especially extraneros with major league experience, can command salaries higher than US$10,000 per month (does anyone think Monclova is paying Bartolo Colon less?), many others will earn half that amount or less, particularly Mexican-born players with less experience and no option of signing with an MLB organization because their rights are owned by their LMB team. The divide between the haves and have-nots is creating friction among the latter, many of whom may be earning about 50,000 pesos (US$2,500) per month.
Another point of contention has been the existence of a list of Restricted Players who are disqualified for the 2020 season because they did not sign a contract with their LMB by a specified date. Here is the list of eight Restricted players (each of whom has at least three years of experience), released by the Mexican League last week:
Hector Ambriz, P, Saltillo Saraperos
Leo German, OF, Dos Laredos Tecolotes
Demetrio Gutierrez, P, Campeche Piratas
Carlos Mendivil, C, Saltillo Saraperos
Jorge Quinones, P, Aguascalientes Rieleros
Alex Sanabia, P, Aguascalientes Rieleros
Zack Segovia, P, Leon Bravos
Kenneth Sigman, P, Dos Laredos Tecolotes
None of the above are considered stars, although Ambriz, Sanabia and Segovia have pitched in the majors while German emerged with a .322 average and 10 homers for the Tecos in 2019 after several years as a substitute with Monterrey. However, baseball IS how they earn a living, they're now in effect blacklisted by the Mexican League for missing a signing deadline and some aren't taking it silently.
On Twitter, German called the Restricted List a "disgrace," adding that "Mexicans are the ones who get the worst treatment." Mendivil, a reserve catcher for the past seven years, decried the lack of a players union in Mexico, saying "there is no organization of players who fight for what is fair for each one as a professional baseball player."
Outrage was not limited to the affected players. Pitcher Hector Velazquez, an Obregon native recently picked up on waivers by Baltimore after going 11-7 over parts of three years with Boston, sent out three tweets blasting the listings, saying it was "outrageous and that it can't be possible that they (LMB) have left the Mexican players out of work."
Leon first baseman Jesse Castillo, a two-time Liga MVP, added his voice to Mendivil's in advocating for a players union and calling upon Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the nation's highest-ranking baseball fan, to step in. "If you want to set a precedent, Senor Presidente, the moment has arrived," said Castillo. "The players need to be protected by a union so this does not happen in our baseball."
FELIX PIE, EX-ROY ROMARIO GIL SIGN WITH CAMPECHE
Although the Mexican League season will be delayed until at least mid-May, the Campeche Piratas have made a couple of roster moves that figure to make the Walled City nine more competitive. The Buccaneers recently signed former Major League outfielder Felix Pie and 2018 Rookie of the Year Romario Gil as free agents under new manager Francisco Campos.
The 35-year-old Pie figures to make an immediate impact in the Campeche lineup once play begins. Once ranked by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Cubs' minor league system, Pie made his MLB debut with Chicago as a 22-year-old in 2007. Although the Dominican-born son of Haitian immigrants went on to play all or part of six MLB seasons with the Cubs, Orioles and Pirates, Pie never fulfilled his early promise although there were occasional flashes of brilliance along the way. After his final big league appearance in 2013, he spent the next year in South Korea and hit .326 with 17 homers and 92 RBIs for the Hanwha Eagles. He also spent time in Taiwan before coming to Mexico in 2018 with Leon.
Over the past two years as the Bravos' leftfielder, Pie hit a combined .356 with 38 homers and 141 RBIs over 192 games. He's expected to jumpstart a Piratas lineup that finished 15th in the LMB in scoring (5.38 runs per game), 14th in batting (.295) and 11th in homers (130). He'll round out an outfield that includes speedy CF Jay Austin (.329 with 15 homers and 31 steals) and well-traveled veteran RF Olmo Rosario (.321 with 12 homers), whose 18-year career has taken him to five countries, including a couple of .300+ seasons in Italy.
Expectations aren't quite as high for the 25-year-old Gil, a 6'1" lefty from Culiacan who made his Mexican League debut with five appearances for Monclova in 2017. One year later, he was selected as the Liga's top rookie after being loaned to Puebla and going a combined 6-2 in 17 starts over two short seasons, including a 4-0 ledger with a 2.47 ERA in the Fall campaign for the Pericos. Sensing that Gil might be ready to help his Acereros, Monclova owner Gerardo Benavides brought him back to "The Furnace." Although the 221-pounder did go 5-1 for the eventual league champions, his 5.86 ERA was less than impressive and after spending July on the disabled list, Gil was demoted to the bullpen for the rest of the season. Things went no better last winter with Gil's hometown Tomateros even though he pitched for the Mexican Pacific League champs, as he recorded a 1-5 record and a 5.92 ERA in six starts for Benji Gil's team.
The bar will be set far lower in Gil's new surroundings as he goes from pitching for two pennant-winning teams to one that last flew a title flag in 2004. He's presently on the Piratas reserve list and was starting out in the bullpen under pitching coach Isidro Marquez (the LMB's all-time saves leader) when training camp was suspended last weekend, and may be given a shot at a spot in the starting rotation when play resumes. He may be an improvement for a team with a collective 6.26 earned-run average last year, although Campeche pitchers miraculously combined for eight shutouts in 2019.