Monday, March 18, 2019

DIABLOS TO OPEN NEW BALLPARK VS. PADRES

Mexico City's Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu
After a number of unexpected delays, the Mexico City Diablos Rojos are finally going to be able to inaugurate their brand new ballpark this coming weekend when they take on a team of San Diego Padres prospect at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in a two-game exhibition series.  Both contests have already been been sold out for several days.

The new facility, which was funded entirely by Diablos team owner Alfredo Harp Helu, cost in the neighborhood of three billion pesos (or about US$161 million) and will have a capacity of 20,233, making it the second-largest ballpark in Mexico behind only Estadio Monterrey, which now seats 22,061 following its 2018 renovation.  The original capacity of Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu was going to be closer to 13,000 permanent seats with a grass berm above the outfield providing room for a few thousand more spectators.  However, it was subsequently determined that permanent seating would occupy all available areas within the ballpark, with the only grass located in the bullpens beyond the left and right field fences.

The Diablos have spent the past four summers playing home games at 5,000-seat Estadio Fray Nano after leaving Foro Sol following the 2014 season.  Foro Sol had replaced Social Security Park, a 25,000-seater that opened in 1955, in 2000 and served the Diablos for 15 years.  While it was certainly large enough (25,000 capacity), Foro Sol was designed as a concert venue and never a good fit for watching baseball, although the playing surface was considered good.  The return of Grand Prix auto racing to Mexico City meant a remodeling of the facility that would not work for baseball. 

This meant a move to Estadio Fray Nano, which is more baseball-friendly but was the smallest ballpark in the Mexican League.  Fray Nano was expected to only be used for one or two seasons while the new ballpark (originally announced in 2010) was constructed but natural disasters and soil issues combined with the usual delays for such a project to require the Red Devils to remain at Fray Nano for four years.

The future is finally now for baseball in the nation's capital, however, and president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will be on hand for Saturday's opener.  Managed by former star outfielder Victor Bojorquez, the Diablos have moved to the LMB South for 2019 and are expected to contend with the Yucatan Leones for divisional supremacy with such veterans as Japhet Amador, Ivan Terrazas, Carlos Figueroa, Cyle Hankerd, Luis Mendoza and Octavio Acosta dotting the roster.  Hopes are that the Padres and manager Andy Green will bring some of their best Mexican minor leaguers, including infielders Luis Urias and Esteban Quiroz and outfielder Tirso Ornelas, to Mexico City.  Quiroz spent an injury-shortened 2018 in the Boston Red Sox system before being traded to San Diego for pitcher Colten Brewer in the offseason.


WBSC'S TOP UMP WORKS WITH LMB ARBITERS AT ACADEMY

WBSC chief umpire Gustavo Rodriguez
The World Baseball Softball Confederation has signed a working agreement with the Mexican League in which both organizations will exchange umpires in an attempt to bring more Mexican arbiters into the fold for future WBSC tournaments and other competitions.  As part of the arrangement, the WBSC's Director of Umpires, Gustavo Rodriguez, was recently a visitor at the LMB's High Performance Academy near Monterrey, where he observed Liga umpires in training while consulting with his LMB counterpart, Luis Alberto Ramirez.

"I'm here partly as an observer," Rodriguez said, "and talking to the umpires about some rules like obstruction and balks."  From what he'd seen, Rodriguez said he was satisfied with what he saw from the 52 umpires who'll be working in both the LMB and its Class AA Academy League this summer.  "Mexican umpires are among the best performers in Latin America," he observed.  "I've found some here that I already know but in general, they all do a good job." 

With joint work between the WBSC and LMB, Rodriguez said, he plans for more and more Mexican umpires to participate in international tournaments.  One of those umpires he watched at the Academy, veteran Jair Fernandez, was in Osaka earlier this month as one of the crew for the WBSC-sanctioned Samurai Series between national teams from Japan and Mexico.

Along with the training and rules analyses with Rodriguez, the Mexican umpires also worked with a multidisciplinary team including nutritionist Adriana Aguila, psychologist Gabriela Rodriguez, physical trainer Josue Galvan and sports doctor Angel Lugo.  No word on whether an opthamologist was also on hand, as some fans might suggest.


PUERTO PENASCO OUT, LIGA NORTE DOWN TO FIVE TEAMS IN 2019

Some Puerto Penasco players in dugout
The Class AA North Mexico League has already had a tough offseason, with the withdrawal from their formal league-wide affiliation agreement by the AAA Mexican League offsetting the addition of the new La Paz Delfines.  La Paz became the first Baja California Sur franchise in LNM history when the loop expanded to the city after the Tecate Indios requested and received a year off to regroup financially, creating a need for a new sixth team for scheduling purposes. After all that, the Liga Norte is back down to five clubs after the Puerto Penasco Tiburones bowed out for the 2019 season in late February, also due to financial reasons.  As with Tecate, Puerto Penasco owners have have stated a desire to return in 2020.

The Tiburones entered the Liga Norte in 2015 and had yet to win their first LMN pennant, but baseball is no stranger to Puerto Penasco, a resort city of 62,000 on the Gulf of California in northeastern Sonora 62 miles south of the Arizona border featuring the closest beaches to Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma.  Prior to joining the Liga Norte, the Tiburones won four titles in the old Northern Sonora League (1974, 1978, 1979 and 2013), but the sport dates to at least 1960 locally.  The Sharks turned in a winning record last year by going 50-45 over two halves but missed the fourth and final playoff berth by one point.  Even worse, turnout for home games was sparse at Estadio Francisco Leon Garcia, an 1,850-seat facility remodeled in 2017 for 35 million pesos and one of Mexico's relatively few ballparks sporting artificial turf.  The low turnout and uncertain LMB affiliation situation ultimately proved too much for Tiburones ownership to handle.

The result of the Puerto Penasco's pullout has been a scramble to create a schedule for a five-team league in which one team will always be taking a night off.  The Liga Norte has yet to release its full docket of regular season games for 2019 but it has announced where and when home openers for each of the remaining teams will take place.  The LNM season will open Tuesday, April 11 in Ensenada when the defending champion Marineros host Caborca.  One night later, La Paz will make its pro baseball debut when the Delfines welcome San Luis to Estadio Arturo C. Nahl and April 13 will see the Caborca Rojos at home in Estadio Heroes de Caborca against Ensenada.  After that, La Paz will be in San Luis Rio Colorado's Estadio Andres Mena Montijo to face the Algodoneros on April 16 while the final home opener is played April 19 in San Quintin, where the Freseros take on Caborca in Estadio Dr. Miguel Valdez.

Monday, March 11, 2019

MEXICO SPLITS WITH TOP-RANKED JAPAN IN OSAKA

The Mexican National Baseball Team currently sits sixth in the World Baseball Softball Confederation's latest rankings, but they entered the lion's den last weekend when they traveled to Osaka for a two-game series against the number one team in the world, Japan, in the Samurai Series.  The set served as a warmup of sorts for both teams months ahead of November's Premier12 tournament, which will be a qualifier for next year's Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

As host team, Japan will have a berth in the 2020 Games regardless of how they do next winter, but the series was a crucible for the Mexicans and new manager Dan Firova, who replaced Enrique "Che" Reyes at the helm after the Puebla Pericos would not allow their new skipper to make the trip to the Far East.  When the dust settled, Mexico had won one of the two tilts along with an added measure of respect from baseball observers around the globe.

Mexico won Saturday's opener, 4-2, in come-from-behind fashion.  Japan took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Masataka Yoshida singled in Seiji Uebayashi and added another run in the fourth when Takuya Kai pushed Yoshida across with a singleton.  The Verdes Grande put their first score on the board in the top of the sixth after Victor Mendoza crossed home plate on a Luis Juarez single to make it a 2-1 contest but the game really took a turn in the Mexicans' favor one inning later.

An Ali Solis double in the top of the seventh brought in Jose Juan Aguilar to knot the score at 2-2.  Solis then scored Mexico's go-ahead run on a single by Chris Roberson, a naturalized Mexican citizen who was not on manager Dan Firova's original roster.  The Mexicans plated an insurance run in the eighth on a Luis "Cochito" Cruz single that drove home Joey Meneses, who'll be playing his first season in Japan this year with the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka after winning MVP honors in the AAA International League last summer.  Reliever Javier Cota earned the win for Mexico while Jake Sanchez held the hosts scoreless to pick up the save.

Japan turned things around Sunday with a 6-0 shutout over Mexico to earn the series split.  The key blow for the home team came early when Yoshida belted a first-inning grand slam off Verdes Grande starter Manny Barreda as Japan staked opener Juri Hara a 5-0 lead heading into the second frame.  Hara, who got the win, combined with six relievers on the six-hit whitewash and Barreda absorbed the defeat.  Mexico got two-hit nights from Mendoza and Juarez while Roberto Lopez and Xorge Carrillo each contributed one hit apiece.

The Samurai Series was well-attended, with good crowds both nights at the 36,000-seat domed stadium.  Saturday's contest brought in 28,933 spectators while another 28,622 fans clicked the turnstiles Sunday night, very respectable numbers for an exhibition series a month ahead of the regular season.  

According to Puro Beisbol writer Bambino Sedano, one of the off-field highlights for the visitors came when a Japanese fan, 24-year-old Ryu Ishibashi, traveled about 500 miles from Sendai to Osaka to meet Juarez, his Mexican baseball idol who had three hits in the series.  Juarez invited Ishibashi (who hopes his favorite someday plays for his Rakuten Golden Eagles) to have dinner with him and teammates Mendoza and Aguilar. In return, Juarez received a shirt featuring a drawing Ishibashi made of the Yucatan slugger.


EX-NCAA PITCHER OF YEAR HEIMLICH SIGNS WITH TECOS

The NCAA's 2018 Pitcher of the Year, Luke Heimlich, has signed a free agent contract with the Mexican League's Dos Laredos Tecolotes.  While the presence of a left-handed hurler with such bonafides represents a baseball coup of sorts for the Tecos, the Oregon State University product also brings no small amount of controversy to the border team.

On the field, there's little question that Heimlich has the chance to be a Mexican League standout.  After turning in an 11-0 record with a 0.66 ERA as a senior at Puyallup (WA) High School, he was named Washington's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year.  Playing collegiately for west coast powerhouse Oregon State, Heimlich was selected the Pac 12 Pitcher of the Year in 2017 as a Junior after leading the nation with an 0.81 ERA, and he followed that up with a standout Senior campaign last year in which he was named NCAA Pitcher of the Year on the heels of a 16-3 record with a 2.42 ERA (also winning his second consecutive Pac 12 POY award).

However, Heimlich is bringing considerable baggage to Nuevo Laredo with him.  During the 2017 season, it was discovered that he had pled guilty as a 15-year-old to sexually molesting his six-year-old niece.  The revelation created a firestorm that resulted in Heimlich being left behind in Corvallis when the Beavers travelled to the College World Series in Omaha, where Oregon State was eliminated by Louisiana State in the semifinals.  He did make the trip to the CWS last June, when the Beavers won their third NCAA title, but lost both his decisions to North Carolina and Arkansas, the latter in Game One of the title series (which would prove to be the final competitive game he's pitched to date).

After slipping through the MLB amateur draft in both 2017 and 2018, Heimlich began looking for work as a free agent.  The Kansas City Royals considered signing him last year, but backed off after protests were raised. He did eventually sign a contract with the Latigo Monkeys of Taiwan last August, but the Chinese Professional Baseball League voided the deal due to his criminal record and may be facing the same outcome with the Mexican League office.

LMB president Javier Salinas told the New York Times, "He's not registered in the league.  We have to analyze his case." Salinas added, "It's very difficult to see him registered in the Mexican League."  Tecos owner Jose Antonio Mansur says the Liga took the unusual step of requiring Heimlich to sign a letter vowing good behavior.  "I'm not a judge," Mansur told the Times. "I'm just a businessman and I'll give him an opportunity.  If he was guilty, he's already been judged. I'm just looking from here on forward."

For his part, Heimlich (who has since said he was innocent but pled guilty to spare his family from a drawn-out public legal process) had one of two charges dropped, was placed on two years' probation, took court-ordered classes, wrote a letter apologizing to his niece (now 14) and had to register for five years as a Level I sex offender, in which he is considered a low risk to the community and unlikely to become a repeat offender.


ROCKIES, D-BACKS PLAY TWO EXHIBITION GAMES IN MONTERREY

The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks were south of the border over the weekend for a pair of Major League Baseball exhibition games at Estadio Monterrey, home of the Mexican League Sultanes.

In Saturday's opener, Mike Tauchman went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a run and Roberto Ramos hit a run-scoring double and a solo homer to lead Colorado to an easy 5-1 win.  Four Rockies pitchers combined on a four-hitter as reliever Jeff Hoffman tossed four scoreless innings to earn the victory, allowing just two hits and striking out five Arizona batsmen.  Diamondbacks starter Taylor Clarke was tagged with the loss after giving up a pair of runs on five hits over 3.1 frames. The game was far from a sellout, as 9,372 fans were in the stands of the 22,061-seat ballpark.

Arizona came back Sunday with a 5-2 triumph.  This time, it was the Snakes' pitchers who shone on the mound as the Rockies were limited to three hits.  D-backs starter Matt Koch allowed one run on one hit in four innings, striking out three with no walks. Nick Green came on for three more strong entradas, giving up one run on two hits while Braden Shipley pitched two perfect innings and struck out four for the save.  The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the third when Arizona's Eduardo Escobar lashed a double to right that brought in Tim Locastro with the go-ahead run.  The Diamondbacks picked up a pair of insurance runs in the eighth on Idelmaro Vargas' two-run homer off Rockies reliever Ben Bowden. Koch took the win for Arizona while Colorado starter Tyler Anderson was tagged for the loss.  Attendance was a little better Sunday as 10,746 watched the action.

A pair of Mexican-born former MLB performers served as "ambassadors" for the two teams. Oaxaca native Vinny Castilla, who is currently a special assistant to Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich after a successful playing career as a third baseman and will manage Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League next winter, was on hand as the Rockies ambassador.  Erubiel Durazo, born in Hermosillo and a one-time Sultanes first baseman who hit .364 in the 2001 World Series for Arizona's only championship team, represented the Diamondbacks. He was joined by another D-Backs '01 hero, Luis "Gonzo" Gonzalez, a Tampa product who hit .325 with 57 homers and 142 RBIs that year.

The visit of two Major League teams to Monterrey was not all sunshine and lollipops, however.  The Hitazo website (edited by respected Mexican baseball writer Hector Bencomo) says the occasion also served as a platform for about 50 fans who appear to have purchased lifetime passes to events in Estadio Monterrey when the facility was completed in 1990.  Through legal representative Oscar Martinez, the group claims that the contracts they signed 29 years ago gives them free entry to any event held at the ballpark for fifty years, including the Colorado-Arizona series. Instead, they say, the Sultanes, who hosted last weekend's two-game set, are charging them 9,900 pesos (about US$500) for two annual box tickets and another 5,000 pesos (US$250) for parking in 2019.  According to Hitazo, Sultanes co-owner Jose Maiz has refused to comment on the impasse.

Monday, March 4, 2019

MEXICAN NATIONALS IN OSAKA FOR SAMURAI SERIES

Mexican Nationals celebrate past win
The Mexican National Team will be in Japan this week to prepare for the upcoming two-game Samurai Series of exhibition games against the Japanese Nationals on March 9 and 10 in Osaka.  The set is a warm-up of sorts for November's Premier12 tournament in which twelve national teams vie for berths and seeding in next year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

As host team, the Japanese will receive an automatic slot but as the top-ranked team in the world (according to the governing World Baseball Softball Congress), they were likely qualifiers anyway.  Japan slipped past the United States for the top spot while Mexico held on to its sixth-place status in the latest world rankings. South Korea remained in third while Taiwan moved ahead of Cuba for fourth place.  The WBSC top ten is rounded out by Australia, The Netherlands, Venezuela and Canada.

Mexico manager Dan Firova holds team roster
The games will take place in the Kyocera Dome Osaka, a 22-year-old facility that seats 36,500 for baseball and serves as home for the Orix Buffaloes of NPB's Pacific League.  Dan Firova will manage the Verdes Grande while Japan is led by Atsunori Inaba, an eight-time All-Star outfielder with both the Yakult Swallows and Nippon Ham Fighters during a 20 year career.  Inaba was both the 2006 Japan Series MVP and a 2011 All-Star Game MVP for the Fighters.

Firova will have a 28-man roster of mostly Mexican League veterans, many with experience in either MLB or NPB.  One of his players, outfielder-first baseman Joey Meneses, will be playing in Osaka with the Buffaloes this year after winning International League MVP honors last summer while performing for the Phillies' Lehigh Valley affiliate.

MEXICAN NATIONAL TEAM SAMURAI SERIES ROSTER
Pitchers (14):  Andres Avila (Yucatan), Manny Barreda (Tijuana), Esteban Haro (Durango), Carlos Hernandez (Tijuana), Luis Mendoza (Mexico City), Aldo Montes (Yucatan), Jose Oyervides (Dos Laredos),  Zach Phillips (Monclova), Jorge Reyes (Dos Laredos), Wilmer Rios (Monclova), Francisco Rodriguez (Tabasco), Jake Sanchez (Tijuana), Jose Samayoa (Yucatan), Cesar Vargas (Monterrey).
Kyocera Dome Osaka
Catchers (2): Xorge Carrillo (Tijuana, Ali Solis (Monterrey).
Infielders (7): Rodolfo Amador (Monclova), Luis Cruz (Tijuana), Brian Hernandez (Quintana Roo), Luis Juarez (Yucatan), Victor Mendoza (Monterrey), Ramiro Pena (Monterrey), Isaac Rodriguez (Tijuana).
Outfielders (5): Jose Juan Aguilar (Yucatan), Jesus Fabela (Mexico City), Roberto Lopez (Dos Laredos), Joey Meneses (Orix NPB), Fernando Perez (Tijuana).
Manager: Dan Firova.
Coaches (4): Martin Arzate (Monclova), Miguel Lopez (Mexico City), Isidro Marquez (Campeche), Javier Robles (Tijuana).


SARAPEROS HIRE ROBERTO VIZCARRA AS 10TH NEW LMB SKIPPER

New Saraperos manager Roberto Vizcarra
Roberto Vizcarra has been named manager of the Saltillo Saraperos, filling the final Mexican League vacancy.  He replaces Len Picota, who failed to lead Saltillo to the playoffs in either of last year's abbreviated seasons, finishing with a 48-63 overall record while placing fifth and sixth in the LMB North.  A Panama native, Picota pitched seven years in the Cardinals system before embarking on a baseball odyssey that took him to leagues on both sides of the Pacific Ocean prior to his 2007 retirement after a 23-year career.  Last year was his first managing in Mexico.

Vizcarra was a top Mexican League infielder between 1986 and 2008, starting as a middle infielder before converting to the corners as he got older.  Wherever he played, the San Luis Rio Colorado product could hit, turning in 2,644 career LMB hits (including 482 doubles and 229 homers) for a .304 average over 23 summers for five teams.  Vizcarra also played several winters in the Mexican Pacific League, where the Obregon Yaquis retired his number 4. He took over as manager of the Quintana Roo Tigres late in the 2013 season and led them to LMB pennants both that year and in 2015, but was fired in 2017 after the Cancun squad won 37 of 86 games.

Vizcarra led Yucatan to the Mexican League's Spring pennant in 2018 after coming first in the LMB South at 40-17 before a Fall campaign in which the Leones again were the South's top seed with a 32-24 (holding off Mexico City by a half-game) before losing a first-round upset to Oaxaca, who had to beat Leon in a wild card contest after finishing fifth in the standings. That was enough for Leones owners Erick and Jose Juan Arellano to not bring back the former infielder for 2019 and bring in Luis Carlos Rivera (former Leon pilot) to manage in Merida for the coming season.

Saltillo's Estadio Francisco I. Madero
Vizcarra then spent the winter leading the Jalisco Charros to their first MexPac title (he also won an LMP flag with Mexicali in 2016-17) and a berth in the Caribbean Series, where they fell one run shy of a title game against the eventual champion Herrera Toros from host Panama.  He'll have his work cut out for him in Saltillo, once one of the Liga's franchises before operating under state ownership the past few seasons but the Saraperos have just been sold to a group of local businessmen led by prominent financier Cesar Cantu and they've remained one of the LMB's attendance leaders despite the lean times so there is hope moving forward.

With his hiring in Saltillo, Vizcarra becomes the tenth new manager in the 16-team Mexican League for the coming season, a rather high number even for a league where owners change managers as often as Sparky Anderson used to change pitchers.  For the record, here is a list of the LMB's new managers (and the men they replaced):

AGUASCALIENTES RIELEROS - Joe Alvarez (replaces Homar Rojas)
CAMPECHE PIRATAS - Tim Johnson (replaces Romulo Martinez)
DURANGO GENERALES - Lorenzo Bundy (replaces Matias Carrillo)
LEON BRAVOS - Tony Aguilera (replaces Luis Carlos Rivera)
PUEBLA PERICOS - Enrique "Che" Reyes (replaces Lorenzo Bundy)
QUINTANA ROO TIGRES - Jesus Sommers (replaces Raul Sanchez)
SALTILLO SARAPEROS - Roberto Vizcarra (replaces Len Picota)
TABASCO OLMECAS - Ramon Orantes (replaces Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez)
UNION LAGUNA ALGODONEROS - Jonathan Aceves (replaces Ramon Orantes)
YUCATAN LEONES - Luis Carlos Rivera (replaces Roberto Vizcarra)


LIGA TO DIGITALLY TRACK PLAYER TRANSACTIONS IN 2019

In the wake of the Rookiegate dispute, during which up to seven Quintana Roo Tigres prospects were transferred to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos just prior to the February 2017 sale of the Tigres to former Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela and wife Linda (who were not informed of the switch), the Mexican League is implementing a so-called Player Transfer and Control Digital System for the upcoming season.  The software, which the LMB will operate with links to all 16 teams using per-user passwords and fingerprint recognition, will track all player transactions between teams to keep them transparent to all parties.

According to Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, the platform will require teams to record information on all players under their control, including birth certificates, passports, contracts and addendums, etc.  Sometime during the coming season, a Dispute Commission will be formed to address disagreements between franchises as well as players' claims to breach of salaries by their employers. "Agreements between executives will have to be in the system and endorsed with the respective documents," says Mexican League president Javier Salinas.  "What is not in the system will not be valid before the LMB." Salinas went on to add, "Same with the players. Everything they agree to with the teams, such as the rent of an apartment, plane tickets or whatever they promise must be stated in the contract because if it isn't in writing, it won't be valid."

Mexican League president Javier Salinas
Pereyra says the new system will also allow each club to review its digitized financial status before the LMB, including all debts.  The system will automatically refuse to allow any player movements until the information is updated. Teams will not be able to register more than 38 total players under contractual control, including the new Liga limit of seven foreign players per franchise.  A database will be compiled with a 17-point checklist per player to verify that no information therein is false. Any player who doesn't comply with the checklist (along with the required documentations) cannot be registered.

The aforementioned 2017 transfer of prospects from Cancun to Mexico City, which took place while Plinio Escalante was league president, was approved in part by the Tigres' then-deputy president Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez, who shortly left the team to become a Diablos Rojos VP.  Minjarez has since been suspended indefinitely by the LMB. Although a ruling ordered the Diablos to return both proceeds of the Rangers sale and the remaining five prospects to the Tigres, the Valenzuelas have said in the past that neither had happened.

Monday, February 25, 2019

NEW SALON DE LA FAMA OPENED IN MONTERREY

Mexico's new Baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey
A facility honoring the greats of Mexican baseball history opened amid great fanfare last week in Monterrey, with billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu deservedly receiving accolades from the more than 400 luminaries, press and fans on hand for the event.  The owner of both the Mexican League's Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros and partner for the Mexican Pacific League's revived Guasave Algodoneros spent 350 million pesos (or $18.3 million in US dollars) of his own money to build the Salon de la Fama, which opened its doors for the first time last Wednesday.

The previous Hall of Fame, located on the Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma brewery grounds in Monterrey, was shuttered by the host company in 2012 after nearly four decades at that location, leading to all items in the building spending the past seven years boxed up in a storage unit while a new venue was sought.  At that time, according to Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros, Sinaloa governor Mario Lopez Valdez, proposed that a new Salon be built in Culiacan but that building never came to fruition.

In the end, it was Harp who came to the rescue by funding the new state-of-the-art facility, which occupies over 185,000 square feet and took two-and-a-half years to build.  Besides five display rooms honoring the country's past greats of the game, the new Hall also features three floors including a library, 180-seat theater, batting cages with pitching machines, a mini-stadium suitable for wiffleball and space for weddings and baptisms (with a restaurant to open soon) and includes 280 parking spaces, many of them underground.  It is regarded as the most modern building of its kind in Latin America.

AMLO (left) and Alfredo Harp Helu
Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador helped inaugurate the new facility, which is situated in Monterrey's Parque Fundidora and built of marble, glass, bronze over 1.3 million bricks.  In addition, 33 of the Salon's 83 living current members (out of a total of 178 enshrinees) were on hand for the festivities.  By all accounts, it was an exceptional opening to an exceptional Salon de la Fama, although Ballesteros reports not all went off flawlessly.

One of those current members, Enrique Kerlegand (a writer who arguably took on the title "Dean of Mexican Baseball Cronistas" following last year's passing of Tommy Morales), had to wait for over an hour on the outside sidewalk because he was not listed as one of the registered guests.  In addition, none of the enthroned attendees was mentioned during the ceremony although many traveled a long distance to be there for the opening.  Four new members will become the first inductees since 2011 later this year: former players Fernando Valenzuela, Ricardo Saenz and Daniel Fernandez as well as longtime administrator Chito Rodriguez. Given the more recent history between Harp's Diablos Rojos and Valenzuela's Quintana Roo Tigres, an introduction of "El Toro" might have led to an uncomfortable moment for all involved.

Still, the glitches were relatively minor compared to the overall effort, which was indeed a celebration of baseball in Mexico.  While Baseball Mexico has not always been easy on his Mexico City team, there is no problem acknowledging the contributions that Alfredo Harp Helu has made to the sport in his country, from operating an academy in Oaxaca and paying for a new shrine to the King of Sports to the gleaming new 13,000-seat ballpark in Mexico City that'll open in early April and host the LMB All-Star Game in July.  While Lopez Obrador may be taking on the title of Mexico's Biggest Baseball Fan, Harp has to be considered its greatest modern benefactor and he deserves credit for that.


AMLO ORDERS FORMATION OF TEN BASEBALL ACADEMIES

Edgar Gonzalez to oversee 10 Mexican academies
Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has already made his presence felt at the top levels of baseball in his country and is now embarking on a project aimed at developing young ballplayers.  The plan is to open ten separate government-financed academies at public universities from Baja California to Yucatan that would each house 40 prospects and seven coaches.  While no official monetary figure for the project has been announced, former MLB and NPB infielder Edgar Gonzalez tells Proceso's Beatriz Pererya that each academy would require five million pesos annually to operate.

Gonzalez, who managed Mexico in the 2016 World Baseball Classic, is now a coordinator for the President's Office for the Promotion and Development of Baseball.  Along with father David and brother Adrian, he has operated baseball academies in Southern California and Tijuana for the past decade.  There are several existing academies in Mexico, the most prominent being one operated by the Mexican League near Monterrey, but the ten proposed by AMLO would mark the first government-subsidized effort in that facet of player development.  The proposed locations are San Quintin, Baja California Norte; Guasave and Etchojoa, Sinaloa; Delicias, Chihuahua; Hidalgo, Tamaulipas; Minatitlan, Veracruz; Iztapalala in Mexico City; Palenque, Chiapas; Cardenas, Tabasco and Ticul, Yucatan.

The academies would be geared toward players signing contracts with Major League Baseball organizations along with pro circuits in Mexico.  During an interview with Pereyra, Gonzalez said "If each of the ten academies produces six players per year, in six years a number up to 60 to 80 is conservative."  When asked how realistic the numbers are, he replied, "Yes, we can generate them.  Last year we sold six players to MLB teams from the Academia de Nosotros (in Tijuana)."

The effort will face an uphill battle.  Since Melo Almada debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1933, 133 Mexican-born players have spent time in MLB, the most recent being San Diego shortstop Luis Urias, who debuted with the Padres last August. However, the number of Mexicans in MLB has dropped from 23 in 2003 to 13 last year.  Both Gonzalez and Lopez Obrador believe there is enough talent in Mexico to send to MLB at the same rate as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where Pereyra says a combined 1,500 private academies have sold 2,400 players.

As a nod to the fact that only two percent of signed prospects reach the majors and even fewer remain in the bigs long enough to consolidate a career at that level, Gonzalez says the academies will also place an emphasis on academics so young players who don't turn pro may earn scholarships in Mexican and U.S. universities instead.  He adds that unlike past scenarios in which MLB teams have had to pay Mexican League teams holding the rights to young players 35 percent of their signing bonus, the academies would allow parents to negotiate directly with big league organizations, although there would be an academy representative on hand to oversee talks.  "If you leave the father alone," Gonzalez notes, "a team will talk to a player worth 200 thousand dollars but offer five thousand, since he doesn't know what he is going to take.  If you have a representative, you can help him get what his son is worth."  The ex-Padres second sacker says the academy would take a commission of 5 to 10 percent to help offset the cost of training a young player.

Gonzalez added that while he will report directly to the president, he'll primarily coordinate his efforts with National Commission of Physical Culture and Sports Ana Gabriela Guevara.  In addition, he will not have an office because Lopez Obrador wants him to spend money on ballplayers, not bureaucracy.


VINNY CASTILLA NAMED MANAGER IN HERMOSILLO

With the Mexican Pacific League's offseason less than a month underway, a pair of former homegrown sluggers are returning the the LMP in new non-playing roles.

New Hermosillo manager Vinny Castilla
Two-time National League All-Star third baseman Vinny Castilla, who spent parts of five winters playing in Hermosillo after his major league career concluded, is returning to the Naranjeros as manager next season.  He'll replace Bronswell Patrick, who piloted the Orangemen to a 37-31 overall record over two halves while finishing a half-point behind overall leader Culiacan before falling to Los Mochis in the first round of the playoffs, 4 games to 2, in Patrick's lone season at the helm.

The 51-year-old Castilla was born and raised in Oaxaca before signing with the Mexican League's Saltillo Saraperos as a shortstop in 1987.  After limited duties his first two seasons (including a short stint with Monclova), Castilla broke out in 1989 by batting .307 for the Saraperos, including 10 homers and 58 RBIs in 128 games.  That was enough to attract the attention of the Atlanta Braves, who bought his contract from Saltillo after the season.  He then spent three more years in the Braves system, including brief appearances with the big team in 1991 and 1992.  It wasn't until after Castilla had been picked by Colorado in the expansion draft that the right-handed batter's career really took an upturn.

After spending the 1993 as the Rockies' starting shortstop (batting .255 with seven homers) and splitting 1994 between Denver and AAA Colorado Springs as a utilityman, Castilla was installed as the regular third baseman by manager Don Baylor and responded with a five-year stretch during which he hit 191 homers, drove in 562 runs, topped the .300 mark four times and made two All-Star Game appearances while winning three Silver Slugger awards as the National League's top-hitting third baseman.  Following the 1999 season he was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and never really regained his form except for a one-year return to Coors Field in 2004 (.271 with 35 homers and an NL-best 131 RBIs).  He played his last game in 2007 with the Washington Nationals and remains the all-time leader among Mexican-born MLB players in homers (326), doubles (349), RBIs (1,105), hits (1,881) and runs (902).

Castilla went on to play 67 games with Hermosillo between 2006-07 and 2010-11 (managing the team briefly in 2008-09), batting .276 with 15 homers and 57 RBIs while appearing at the hot corner in every contest before retiring as a player at 42 in 2011.  Since then, he's worked in the Rockies front office and as a coach. Castilla has also managed Mexico's national team in the 2007 Pan-American Games (earning a Bronze medal) and in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, reaching the second round of that year's tournament. 

Luis Alfonso Garcia poses in his WBC jersey
While Castilla readies to manage the Naranjeros, Luis Alfonso Garcia will be getting used to his new job as sports manager with the Mexicali Aguilas after (somewhat ironically) serving as a coach in Hermosillo during the recently-concluded MexPac season.  The 40-year-old Guadalajara native signed with Boston in 1997 as an 18-year-old pitcher and went 1-2 with a 2.87 ERA in eight appearances for the Red Sox Gulf Coast League team, striking out 18 batters and walking 10 in 15.2 innings.  He sat out the next season before returning as an outfielder in 1999 and went on to spend seven seasons in the minors performing in the Bosox, Indians, Cardinals, Dodgers and Mets systems, belting 32 homers with 95 RBIs for AAA Las Vegas in 2004 as a 25-year-old.  Even so, the Dodgers let him go to the Mets following the season and after going .219/9/24 for AAA Norfolk over 41 games, Garcia was let go on May 31, 2005 and caught on with the Monterrey Sultanes.

From that point on, he became one of Mexico's most respected batters with both the Monterrey Sultanes of the Mexican League and Hermosillo in the LMP, routinely reaching double-figure totals for homers in both loops.  His best year was likely 2010, when Garcia hit .338 with 21 homers and 86 RBIs for Monterrey before going .301/21/60 with Hermosillo in the winter for a total of 42 roundtrippers and 146 ribbies over 159 games.  Garcia then spent two summers in Japan for the Rakuten Golden Eagles with middling results, batting .245 with 15 home runs in 165 games for 2012 and 2013 before returning to Mexico for good.  The 6'4" right-handed batter retired as a player last fall after batting a combined .280 with seven longballs in 50 games over two short seasons with Oaxaca and Durango.  Garcia led the MexPac in homers four times (his 148 career dingers are sixth all-time in the LMP) and played for Mexico in the 2006 and 2013 World Baseball Classics.

Garcia has never worked in a baseball front office and will assume his new position under owner Dio Alberto Murillo, a man whose desire to win is well-known and one who couldn't have enjoyed a winter in Mexicali during which his Aguilas missed the playoffs after posting an LMP-worst 26-40 record.