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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
Monday, September 28, 2020

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            The number of Mexican Pacific League teams allowed to open their home ballparks to limited fans at home games is now up to five. Rafael Martinez Barraza of reports that Mexicali mayor Marina del Pilar Avila has authorized the Aguilas to admit up to 30 percent of El Nido's 17,000-seat capacity (or about 5,100 fans) during the 2020-21 season. The governor of Sinaloa gave the green light for four Mex Pac teams to open their stadiums for up to about 40 percent capacity this season. The league schedule will begin Thursday, October 15 while the Aguilas will host Monterrey in their home opener five nights later. Mexicali is the loop's lone team in Baja California.


            Martinez says league security protocols will be strictly adhered to during Aguilas home games this winter. In order to enter El Nido, fans will be required to have their temperature taken at the gate, use antibacterial gel and wear masks in the stands. Mayor del Pilar adds that if Mexicali experiences an outbreak of the Wuhan virus during the season, the stadium will be closed to the public and people who bought tickets in advance will “eventually” be given a refund.


            The partial opening in Mexicali leaves five LMP franchises still looking at playing behind closed doors this winter: Hermosillo, Navojoa and Obregon in Sonora, Monterrey in Nuevo Leon and Jalisco in that state. Martinez says the four Sinaloa teams allowed by Governor Quirino Ordaz Coppel have already begun to block off their ballpark seating to reflect social distancing requirements, including the Mazatlan Venados.


            At Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, where the 2021 Caribbean Series is scheduled to be held in late January and early February, Venados staff members are covering three seats in each row, with two seats being left open in alternating fashion for occupancy during games. The scheme is meant to provide a “cushion” of sorts in which pairs of fans will be surrounded by empty seats to the front, rear and sides in a zig-zag pattern.


            All ballparks allowing fans to attend games are expected to follow a similar format.





            Ballplayers from across Mexico and points elsewhere have been reporting to the Mexican Pacific League teams as all ten LMP training camps are now in full swing. Opening night is a little over two weeks away, with five games slated for Thursday, October 15.


            Three players in particular are considered vital for the upcoming season by their respective Mex Pac squads, including incoming Culiacan outfielder Johnny Davis.  The 30-year-old Davis had a very good year in the Mexican League in 2019, batting an even .300 and leading the LMB with 54 stolen bases for Dos Laredos and Oaxaca before his contract was sold to the Tampa Bay Rays in md-August. After spending a few days with the Rays' AA Montgomery affiliate, the Compton Comet was called up for his MLB debut September 11. He played eight games for the Rays and had a triple in four at-bats, scoring five runs while being used primarily as a pinch-runner.


            Davis, who did not play baseball in high school, signed a minor league deal with Tampa Bay for 2020 but has not played this season. He's being brought to the defending champion Tomateros to replace centerfielder Rico Noel, who refused to sign a contract with the team at a lower salary. Culiacan sport manager Mario Valdez says, “We're confident he can help us very well by covering center field and being the team's leadoff hitter. He has excellent speed and that fits very well with the type of game that we've been playing in recent years.” Davis is expected to report October 1. This will be the 5'10 switch-hitter's first season in the Mex Pac, although he has played winterball in Venezuela in the past.


            One player who needs no introduction to LMP fans is looking forward to his 13th season in the league. Hulking first baseman/designated hitter Japhet Amador has reported to the Jalisco Charros training camp in Guadalajara after missing all of last season to heal an Achilles tendon injury he'd suffered in late 2019 playing for Mexico City in the Mexican League. The 6'4” 310-pounder whose nickname is “The Mulege Giant” acknowledges that he has work to do after not playing baseball for over 13 months. “A year without playing is something difficult to come back from,” Amador says. “You have to be ready at the beginning of the season to do well all year long.”


            When healthy, Amador may be the most feared slugger in Mexican baseball. After his 2007 Mexican League debut with the Minatitlan Petroleros at age 20, Amador has hit .332 with 195 homers in 794 games over 10 LMB seasons while cracking another 96 roundtrippers to augment a .269 average in ten LMP winters. He also socked 56 homers over 242 games in three seasons in Japan with the Rakuten Eagles before being sent packing for PED use in 2018. Amador had a .336/28/115 season for Mexico City in 2019 and is expected to be one of the anchors of Jalisco's batting order this winter along with outfielder Dariel Alvarez and longtime third baseman Agustin Murillo. Alvarez and Murillo were expected to report to the team in Guadalajara last week and undergo testing for the Wuhan virus before integrating with their teammates.


            A  top pitcher joined the Navojoa Mayos on Friday after a sometimes-trying summer during which he was a member of three MLB organizations without entering a single game after having spent parts of the previous three years with Boston. Hector Velazquez, a 31-year-old righty from Obregon who went 11-7 in 879 appearances (including 19 starts) between 2017 and 2019, opened the year in the Red Sox training camp hoping for a berth with a team rebuilding just two years after winning the World Series.


            Instead, Velazquez was waived to Baltimore in early March shortly before the pandemic shut down baseball across the Western Hemisphere and then traded to Houston on July 29 for a player to be named later. A two-time LMP Pitcher of the Year with Navojoa, Velazquez went 1-1 with a 1.80 in ten innings over as many appearances last season for the Mayos. In nine Mex Pac seasons, the last ten with Navojoa, Velazquez has a 29-23 record with a 3.87 ERA. Over seven summers in the Mexican League, six of them for Campeche, he was 43-29 over 120 starts with a 3.76 ERA. His best year was in 2016-17, when he went a combined 15-4 for the Piratas and Mayos, turned in a 2.33 ERA and struck out 218 batters while walking only 35 overall in 227 innings.





            When I wrote my first column on Mexican baseball for the OurSports Central website in March 2005, it was a temporary creative outlet between radio jobs. I'd cover the Mexican League until September, when I'd hopefully be back in radio, and that would be it. I eventually did land a radio job that summer but a funny thing happened by the time manager Che Reyes had piloted the Angelopolis Tigres to the LMB pennant: I'd come to care about the Mexican League and baseball south of the border in general, so I kept on writing and fifteen years later, I'm still here. Radio? Haven't earned a living in it since 2012. Who knew?


            In all this time, although I've thrown an occasional personal observation into a story, I've tried to maintain the role of objective reporter rather than biased commentator about baseball in Mexico. It hasn't always been easy but I think I've largely succeeded and can count the number of editorials I've written on this topic on one hand. This will be one of them because, journalistic detachment aside, I truly want the Mexican League to not only survive but flourish and the things we've all seen the past few years suggest the opposite is happening. Things HAVE to change or the LMB may collapse under its own weight.


            The biggest threat to the survival of the Mexican League is that there are simply too many teams. While there are certainly a number of success stories among the LMB's 16 clubs (Tijuana, Monterrey, Monclova, Yucatan, etc.), there are far too many are underperforming franchises that are dragging the rest of the Liga down with them. For every team like the Tijuana Toros, who led all of Minor League Baseball by averaging 11,291 per night in attendance, there are two teams like the Leon Bravos (who averaged fewer than 3,500 a game) and the Campeche Piratas, whose 1,743 per opening ranked an embarrassing 146th among all Minor League Baseball teams, including every team in the short-season Class A Northwest League. What are the likes of Leon and Campeche doing in a AAA league in 2020?


            The Mexican League was going to contract to 12 teams in 2019 by giving Aguascalientes, Laguna, Leon and Puebla the year off (ostensibly to reorganize their finances), but then-new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador overruled the move and ordered all four team reinstated. While Puebla was somewhat resuscitated under wealthy new owner Jose “The King of Beans” Miguel, with the Pericos averaging 4,693 per game (seventh in the LMB), the other three continued continued to languish on and off the field.


            So what to do? As a longtime believer than any league, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest league, the Mexican League needs to say adios to its weakest links by contracting. There were still too many poor franchises even after the first contraction attempt so rather than dropping four teams, the LMB would be best served by cutting itself in half to eight teams. My observation (admittedly from a distance) is that those eight remaining teams should be the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, Monclova Acereros, Monterrey Sultanes, Puebla Pericos, Saltillo Saraperos, Tijuana Toros, Yucatan Leones and Mexico City Tigres.


            Yes, the Tigres should return to the city of their birth to revive their 65-year rivalry with the Diablos, even though that guarantees that Fernando Valenzuela will sell the team rather than co-exist with a rival that has been the bane of his existence since buying the legacy franchise in early 2018. The smaller Mexican League would maintain balance, with four teams in the LMB North (Monclova, Monterrey, Saltillo, Tijuana) and four in the LMB South (Diablos, Tigres, Puebla and Yucatan). Assuming the Tigres are sold to qualified buyers who could co-exist with Alfredo Harp Helu and the Red Devils (perhaps even as tenants in Harp's namesake ballpark), all eight franchises would have financially solid ownerships in cities that have all proven past support for baseball.


            This is not to say that the eight contracted franchises shouldn't have the chance to be part of future LMB expansions after the Liga stabilizes. They could even continue to serve as AA affiliates of remaining LMB teams for player development and call-ups, much as the Liga Norte has done in the past. A four-team Liga Centro could be formed with Aguascalientes, Dos Laredos, Durango and Laguna while a similar Liga Sur could be cobbled from Campeche, Leon, Oaxaca and Tabasco. Although salaries would be lower, such a move would save 200 playing jobs while teams operating on lower budgets would have a better chance of sustainability at the AA level.


            How likely is any of this? Frankly, Don Quixote's dream was more realistic. Even owners in a league in dire need of change to survive in the future would find it too difficult to do, even if it meant strengthening their product in the process, and let's not forget how AMLO killed a contraction half the size of this one. Just as Major League Baseball and Rob Manfred are using the bizarre 2020 season to reshape all of baseball north of the border (with rumblings that MLB even has an eye on a takeover of Little League Baseball), the Mexican League has a similar opportunity to take a hard and honest look at how it might best continue operating without drowning in a sea of red ink. Right now, the LMB has eight underfinanced and inadequately supported franchises dragging down the other eight that appear to be succeeding. They need to go, at least for now.


            What appears to be a most radical change also seems to be the most obvious one. Even the strongest trees need pruning to remain healthy.


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