Friday, April 21, 2017

Final seasons: Alfredo Amezaga, Oscar Robles, Heber Gomez

Three longtime infielders whose careers have taken them on different paths are all playing their final seasons of professional baseball this season in the Mexican League, two of them on the same team.  Alfredo Amezaga and Oscar Robles are wrapping up with the Tijuana Toros while Heber Gomez is finishing his career with the Saltillo Saraperos.

Alfredo Amezaga Becerra, who turned 39 in January, was born in Obregon, Sonora but as a boy moved to Florida, where he graduated from high school and junior college before being taken by the Anaheim Angels with the 401st selection of the June 1999 draft, one pick ahead of Albert Pujols.  The switch-hitting shortstop made his Major League Baseball debut with the parent club on May 24, 2002 against the Minnesota Twins.  Amezaga eventually bounced from Anaheim to Denver and Pittsburgh before landing back in Miami as a free agent in 2006.  Establishing himself as a utilityman (primarily an outfielder) with the Marlins, he spent four years with the team until a knee injury put an early end to his 2009 season, after which Florida let him go.  Amezaga eventually returned to both Colorado and the Marlins for stints in 2011, his final MLB campaign, and spent time in the Cubs and Dodgers systems before coming to the Mexican League in 2013 to play for Quintana Roo.

Amezaga won LMB pennants with the Tigres in 2013 and 2015 before being shipped to Tijuana earlier this month.  Amezaga hit .247 with 12 homers over nine big league seasons between 2002 and 2011 and had a .276 average with 12 homers in four Mexican League seasons through 2016.  Amezaga has also spent nine winters in the Mexican Pacific League, eight in his birthplace Obregon playing on three title teams for the Yaquis.  He also represented Mexico in the 2009 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.

Oscar Robles Arenas was born in Tijuana in 1976 but, like Amezaga, crossed the border as a youth and graduated from high school in San Diego in 1994, by which time he'd set a career hits record for prep players in the San Diego area (which had earlier produced another pretty fair batsman named Ted Williams) and had his jersey number retired...as a pitcher.  Robles was drafted by the Astros in the third round that June and used part of his signing bonus to purchase a scoreboard for his high school's baseball field.  He spent five summers in the Astros system as a middle infielder and reached as high as Class AAA before his last season with the organization in 1998.

Robles eventually landed in Mexico City in 2000, playing one game for the Diablos Rojos before being shipped to Oaxaca.  After three strong seasons on loan with the Guerreros, Robles returned to the nation's capital and was hitting .390 for the Diablos in 2005 before the Dodgers purchased his contract.  He ended up playing 110 games in Los Angeles that summer, hitting .272.  However, Robles was back in the minors the next season and was let go by the Dodgers in 2007.  After spending time with San Diego that year and later in the Phillies system, he returned to the Mexican League for good in 2009, playing for the Diablos and Oaxaca (both teams are owned by Alfredo Harp Helu) before ending up in Tijuana in 2015.  Robles hit .260 and homered five times in three MLB seasons and his 17-year Liga career includes a .317 average and 114 homers.  Robles has also played 12 winterball seasons with Navojoa, Mexicali and Culiacan, batting .289.

Heber Gomez Contreras (b. 1977 in El Carnizal, Veracruz) has taken a less-travelled path than either Amezaga or Robles.  He is one of the earliest products of the Mexican League's baseball academy near Monterrey to make good, debuting with the Tabasco Olmecas in 1996.  Except for a ten-game stint with Chattanooga in 2001, Gomez has remained in Mexico throughout his pro career.  He played for the Olmecas through the 2002 season, after which he was traded to Monterrey.  That began a 14-year stint with the Sultanes during which he became one of the Liga's premier shortstops and earned the nickname "Super Heber" among fans and scribes.  Never a power hitter (Gomez' 13 homers with Tabasco in 2000 was the only time in his career that he's reached double figures in roundtrippers), the six-footer earned his reputation as a strong fielder, timely hitter and steady veteran who could be counted upon in the clubhouse as well as the playing field.

Gomez has also been a constant MexPac presence with Mazatlan, spending the past twelve winters with the Venados, who retired his number 34 in 2015.  His career numbers in 22 Mexican League seasons include a .288 batting average on 1,857 hits (including 98 homers).  Gomez' winterball totals show a .271 average with 25 homers, but this is a guy whose value can't be quantified by digits.  That's why it was a shock to many observers when the Sultanes shipped him to rival Saltillo in the offseason, making the current season the first time since 2002 that there's been any letter but "M" on his cap.  He's batting .241 after 15 games with the Saraperos this year.  After the season, Gomez plans to return home to Veracruz, where he already has business interests with his father, and says he'll likely put baseball in his rearview mirror.

Composing this post has been somewhat bittersweet for me.  When I started writing a Viva Beisbol column about Mexican baseball for OurSports Central in 2005 (those stories are archived on the OSC site), all three of these players were entering their respective early baseball primes on both sides of the border.  Although I started doing this as a one-season creative outlet while I was "between" radio jobs in Wenatchee, Washington, something about baseball in Mexico put a hold on me and even though I've taken a couple breaks from VB and BBM, the grip remains.  Also in 2005, my mother was still skiing and traveling at age 78 and generally kept a schedule in retirement that someone 20 years her junior would've have had a hard time keeping up with.  I know I sure had a hard time keeping track of where she was at times.

As some of you who've been reading my posts and newsletters for a few years know, I went on a hiatus in 2012 from Baseball Mexico in part because Mom's health had taken a turn for the worse and it was more important to devote more attention to helping her.  After she was given 1-2 weeks to live by an assessment nurse later that year, I was preparing to say goodbye to the best mother and role model anyone could ask for.  Instead, she pulled off a miracle and (at 85) came back from her illness, in some ways becoming healthier than she'd been before.  I've had four years with Mom that I never expected, and I thank God for such a blessing.  Well, as I write this, Mom is now 90 and comatose after being admitted to the hospital last week with what has been diagnosed as brain seizures.  There will be no second miracle and I'm preparing to say goodbye once more knowing this is not a drill.

That's what makes this one so HARD to write because it's all about saying goodbye.  Mexican fans are going to have to say their goodbyes (in a baseball sense) to three players who've played a combined six decades of this beautiful game.  Goodbyes are never easy when they're given to people we've come to love, no matter the context, but they must be made. We can never replace those nearest to our hearts, but the memories we have of them, whether they're of making a chicken dinner or making a double play relay, are what will keep them alive in our hearts, minds and souls long after they're gone.  Just as Mom will always be a part of my life for the rest of my own days, the likes of Alfredo Amezaga, Oscar Robles and Heber Gomez (a personal favorite of mine) will always be a part of the fabric of baseball in Mexico.  The records will always remain to verify their past presence, but the numbers will never convey what they've meant.  That's life and that's baseball.

As a postscript, I am not going to stop writing about Mexican baseball.  At worse, there may only be one Monday column per week while this is all going on in my personal life, but when I came back to produce BBM in 2015, it was for good.  I ain't goin' nowhere.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tabasco: Che Reyes out as skipper, Marco Antonio Guzman in

As has been chronicled here numerous times, baseball managers are "hired to be fired" is an axiom that seems to be taken to another level in the Mexican League.  Less than three weeks into the 2017 season, there's already been a dismissal as veteran pilot Enrique "Che" Reyes was let go Monday by the Tabasco Olmecas after a slow start after the team stumbled out the gate with a 3-11 record.  A press release from the front office announcing the firing was accompanied by the almost obligatory thanks to Reyes for service, professionalism, etc.  Another veteran of Mexico's managerial recycling program, Marco Antonio Guzman, will take over the Villahermosa club.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Reyes (pictured), who was canned in Oaxaca last April 28 after the Guerreros got off to a 4-18 start.  He was picked up a little over a week later by Tabasco, who had fired another veteran of the revolving door, Francisco "Paquin" Estrada (currently managing the Leon Bravos this season and presumably safe for the time being by leading the new team to a 7-8 mark playing exclusively on the road).  Here is a list of Reyes' previous stops as helmsman in the LMB since 1998: Aguascalientes, Puebla, Dos Laredos, Cancun, Puebla (again), Angelopolis/Quintana Roo, Veracruz, Tabasco, Monterrey, Aguascalientes (again), Tabasco (again), Oaxaca and Tabasco for his third tour of duty with the Olmecas.  The 54-year-old has a career Liga managerial record of 982-984, copping one pennant with the Angelopolis Tigres in 2005.  One suspects he'll resurface elsewhere.  Again.  Perhaps in May.

As well, Guzman has done this dance before.  According to Baseball-Reference, the former catcher whose nickname is El Buzo ("The Dude") has managed in Campeche, Cancun, Puebla, Tabasco, Laguna, Campeche (again) and now Tabasco (again).  Clearly, he has some catching up to do.  The Olmecas lost Guzman's debut at the helm, 6-4, Tuesday night in Aguascalientes.

As with the Union Laguna Vaqueros, who were profiled Monday on BBM, the Olmecas have traditionally been among the LMB's have-nots.  Since entering the Liga in 1975, Tabasco has won only one title (when Salon de la Fama member Juan Navarette led the Olmecas to the pennant in 1993) and they haven't appeared in the postseason since 2012.  Fan support in Villahermosa has been tepid as well, with only 22,629 attendees through eight home games thus far in 2017 at the 53-year-old Estadio Centenario 27 de Febrero, which has 10,500 seats but only fills an average of 2,829 of them per game.  The team is among those in the Mexican League that are dependent upon government largesse to meet their budgets, thus putting them squarely in the so-called Old Guard camp.

One recognizable name on the Tabasco roster for North American fans is relief pitcher Tony Pena Junior, whose father was an All-Star catcher in Major League Baseball.  Other prominent players include volatile first baseman Sandy Madera, infielder Abel Martinez (who turned 40 last Saturday) and outfielder Rogelio Noris.  Madera and catcher Sergio Burruel are tied for the team lead with .300 averages while Martinez is right behind at .298.  Although pitcher Salvador Valdez has lost both decisions on his current record, his 2.65 ERA is quite good for the bat-friendly Liga.  However, the Olmecas are last in the 16-team league with a .243 batting average and have scored just 37 runs over 15 games, not nearly enough for a club whose pitching staff has a collective ERA of 4.08 (fifth in the LMB).  While Tabasco has also added former MLB infielders Ronny Cedeno and Carlos Triunfel to the roster to try bolstering their anemic offense, Guzman has his work cut out for him.

While he's there.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Laguna gets seventh straight win, tied for LMB North lead

The last time a team from Mexico's Laguna region (centered in the cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacio) won the Mexican League pennant, Harry Truman was president of the USA, Hank Williams was just emerging as country music's most seminal singer and a 16-year-old named Henry Aaron was earning $3 a day playing for the semipro Mobile Black Bears.  You get the picture.

While it's far too early to seriously invoke thoughts of Union Laguna winning their first Liga pennant since 1950, the Vaqueros are making the most of the early portion of the 2017 schedule by winning seven straight games (including sweeps of road series in Tabasco and Campeche) to tie Monterrey for the LMB North lead with identical 10-5 records, tops in the circuit.  Union Laguna closed out their broom job in Campeche Sunday with a 6-4 win over the Piratas as Jerome Pena's three-run homer in the fifth inning put the Vaqueros ahead for good.  Starter Dustin Crenshaw battled through six rocky innings for his third win of the young season while closer Esmailin Caridad worked a 1-2-3 ninth with a pair of strikeouts for his fifth save.

If those names are unfamiliar to casual observers of Mexican baseball, it should come as little surprise.  Union Laguna has historically been one of those franchises that have operated on the margins with limited budgets.  While more glamorous teams in places like Mexico City and Monterrey have been able to afford more recognizable talent, Laguna has never had the financial means to compete at that level.  Even now, the Vaqueros have a relatively anonymous roster, with former MLB infielder Anderson Hernandez (who's batting .339) perhaps the most notable team member.

Union Laguna plays in the 12,000-seat Estadio Revolucion, the Liga's oldest ballpark and with an impressive art deco entry facade that was inaugurated in 1932 and has apparently never undergone a major facelift over its 85-year history.  Brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano, who also own the Yucatan Leones, bought the club in the offseason.  There has been some speculation that the Arellanos may move the team to their hometown of Mazatlan, but the combination of stalled plans for a new ballpark in Mazatlan, decent fan support in Laguna (they're currently sixth in LMB attendance with an average of 5,272 turnstile clicks per opening) and the brothers' own financial concerns may be putting that off for the time being.

For now, the Vaqueros are led by rookie manager Ramon Orantes, a longtime LMB infielder, and they've responded with a team batting average of .297 (third in the Liga). Shortstop Kristian Delgado (.368), first baseman Ricky Alvarez (.356 with 4 homers and 17 RBIs), outfielder Welington Dotel (.345) and Hernandez have done the most damage at the plate.  Orantes' pitching staff has a middle-of-the-road ERA of 4.57.  Crenshaw and lefty Edgar Osuna both have three wins, with Osuna's 1.50 ERA leading the team.  It's hard to envision Union Laguna maintaining this pace over five months against such loaded LMB North teams as Monterrey, Tijuana and Monclova, but they're off to a great start and it's an opportunity here to go into some depth about a team that has received relatively scant attention over the years.

While the Vaqueros and Sultanes top the North, only three-and-a-half games separate the co-leaders from last-place Saltillo.  At 6-8, the Saraperos are the only team in the division under .500.  In the LMB South, Yucatan is atop the standings with a 9-5 mark, a game up on Oaxaca's all-Mexican squad and a game-and-a-half ahead of defending champs Puebla.  The South is a little more spread out, with last-place Tabasco six games out of the lead with an Liga-worst 3-11 mark.  The Olmecas snapped an eight-game losing skid Saturday by beating Durango, 6-2, as Dave Sappelt stroked a two-run single and starter Angel Araiza went 5.1 innings for his first win.

Speaking of the Generales, who've gone a surprising 8-7 playing all their games away from home, they'll have to wait just a bit longer for their home opener at Estadio Francisco Villa, where hurried renovations haven't caught up with Tuesday's scheduled game against Veracruz.  A fire broke out at the ballpark over the weekend, which certainly didn't help the beleaguered franchise.  Durango's home opener has been pushed back to Friday against Oaxaca.  As hard as I've been on the Generales (and the Mexican League in general) the past few weeks and months, I want this team and league to succeed.  The center of power does appear to be shifting from the Old Guard owners to the New Breed group and while I'm simpatico with the Old Guard's "Mexico First" desire to focus on giving domestic talent more opportunities to play, the New Breed is bringing badly-needed fresh thinking and approaches to a league that has badly needed both for years.

On the stats front, longtime Monterrey centerfielder Chris Roberson leads the Mexican League with a .468 average, 18 points ahead of Oaxaca gardener Alan Sanchez.  Durango outfielder Yadir Drake has been a big part of the Generales' early success by leading the circuit with 6 homers to go with his .351 batting average.  Monclova first sacker Matt Clark tops the loop with 24 RBIs, one ahead of Acereros second baseman Manny Rodriguez.  Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene appears recovered from a facial injury suffered playing winterball in the Mexican Pacific League and has 7 stolen bases, best in the LMB.

Seven pitchers have 3 wins apiece, with Union Laguna's Crenshaw the only one to suffer a loss.  The most effective starter has been Mitch Lively of Leon, whose 3-0 record is augmented by a 0.90 ERA.  The leader in that category is Monterrey's Angel Castro (1-0) at 0.46.  Josh Lowey's disastrous 2016 stint in Korea appears to have had no ill effect in his Liga pitching.  The Floridian righty is 2-1 for Monclova with a 3.00 ERA and his 23 strikeouts in 21 innings are the LMB's best.  He's issued just two walks thus far in three starts.   Durango closer Tiago Da Silva is a perfect 8-for-8 in saves opportunities, putting him three ahead of Laguna's Caridad in that column.

Among the more important series coming up this week include Monclova's visit to Merida Tuesday through Thursday to take on the Yucatan Leones in a set between two teams picked by many (including me) to meet in September's championship series.  The Leon Bravos will play their first game at home Friday when they host Mexico City in the first of three.  As mentioned, Durango hopes to get their home schedule underway Friday against Oaxaca.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Report: Average LMB ticket price rises 27.4% in 2017

Your professional sports league is returning after a 2016 season marked by declining attendance, with two teams giving up the ghost altogether and moving to new cities last November.  Some of your teams are playing in decaying or undersized (or both) facilities.  Your offseason gains attention primarily for the acrimony among franchise owners that nearly leads to a total shutdown for the next season.  Your sport itself has been losing ground steadily to soccer as the preferred spectator sport in most of your nation.  So what do you do to apply a tourniquet and stop the bleeding?

According to Yesme Cortes of El Economista, if you're the Mexican League of Professional Baseball Clubs, you raise your single-game ticket prices and average of 27.4 percent.

The Mexico City-based financial newspaper has published its sixth annual report of ticket prices in the Mexican League, where nine of the loop's 16 teams saw their season attendance drop in 2016.  The average price of a single-game ducat among 13 teams across the league in 2017 is 108.3 pesos (US$5.83), an increase from 85 pesos (US$4.57) in 2016.

The highest average ticket in the LMB is  in Leon, where the Bravos will charge an average of 300 pesos (US$16.15) when they open the renovated Estadio Domingo Santana against the Mexico City Diablos Rojos on May 18 after playing their first five series away from home.  At the bottom end of the scale, it only costs an average of 45 pesos (US$2.42) per game to catch the Oaxaca Guerreros at Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos.  Three teams are collecting an average of 70 pesos (US$3.77) at the gate per opening in 2017: Campeche, Quintana Roo and Tijuana.  Figures for average ticket prices in Durango, Monclova and Saltillo were not used in the survey.

Here is a graphic from El Economista of the average ticket price for all Liga clubs in 2017 that was reprinted on the Puro Beisbol site:


To do your own conversion into US dollars, simply divide the listed price by the MX$18.58 per US$1 currency exchange rate at the close of business on Thursday, April 13.  The figures at the bottom of the page are the ones applied to the survey while those surrounding the depiction of a ballpark are for opening night or series tickets, which are often higher than average.

First, to those marvelling at the relatively low prices to attend a Class AAA baseball game in the Mexican League, note that (as shown above) the Mexican economy is struggling in comparison to the United States.  The GDP per capita in the States is US$45,965 while Mexico's GDP per capita is $9,747.  One result is that people south of the border typically don't have the kind of disposable income as their North American counterparts.

Some LMB teams actually lowered ticket prices to lure more fans to home games.  The Veracruz Rojo del Aguilas, for instance, lowered average ticket prices from 150 pesos to 100 pesos per game.  To their credit, the Tijuana Toros (who were second in the Liga in attendance last year) brought their average prices down from 150 pesos to 70 in 2017 even though they had no problem bringing people out to the ballpark.  However, the decision to raise ticket prices from 66.66 pesos to 180 pesos in Puebla after the champion Pericos were essentially dismantled after a season during which the team finished in the middle of the pack in the attendance derby.

National economic disparities aside, how many businesses responding to the loss of paying customers by hiking their prices come out ahead?  We'll all find out over the next five months.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

MexPac looking to go national?

There's little doubt that the Mexican Pacific League has become a huge success.  Based in Mexico's western states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California Norte, the MexPac has grown into the Western Hemisphere's most highly-attended baseball league outside the Majors, with crowds averaging nearly 10,000 per game last winter.  In comparison, according to Ballpark Digest, the Class AAA International and Pacific Coast leagues drew between 6,000 and 7,000 fans per opening leaguewide in 2016.  In fact, not one minor league team north of the border came close to matching the LMP's record-setting regular season average of 9,688 per night.  Three MexPac franchises pulled in more than 12,000 per game last winter, with Culiacan leading the loop with a 16,316 average over 34 home dates.

By any measure, those are great numbers for an unaffiliated winter circuit.  One question facing LMP league president Omar Canizales and team owners may be what to do for an encore?  "Puro Beisbol" editor Francisco Ballasteros believes he may have an answer:  Turning the MexPac into a national circuit.

The 2014 move of the former Guasave Algodoneros to Guadalajara, which sits nearly 1,000 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, has been an unqualified success.  The summer Mexican League has had teams in Jalisco in the past, but none were nearly as popular as the newest edition of the Charros have been in Mexico's second-largest city, with an average of 8,914 for the 2016-17 regular season.  Credit for the LMP's success in Jalisco must go to Charros team owner Armando Navarro, a man of equal parts ambition, vision and impatience whose efforts in landing last month's World Baseball Classic Pool D and pulling in very good crowds until the final day showed that he's making inroads for baseball in the same city where the beloved Chivas soccer team plays their home games.

By any measure, the Guadalajara gamble has paid dividends for Canizales and company.  But what of Mexico City and Monterrey?  Canizales has mentioned his desire to place a MexPac team in the nation's capital in the past, a notion that might have been laughed at by some at the time but looks much more realistic in 2017.  There's no question that placing an LMP franchise in Mexico City, with its enormous population and longstanding baseball history, would be a coup for the league.  However, unless the MexPac (or Mexican Premier League, a less-regional name that's been floated in some circles) is willing to occupy Estadio Fray Nano after the Mexican League's Diablos Rojos move into their new stadium in 2018, they will need to deal directly with Diablos owner Alfredo Harp Helu and team president Roberto Mansur.  The Diablos own the new 13,000-seat ballpark, thus making any other team playing there a tenant.  While Harp and Mansur may not be opposed to collecting revenues from a winter league team playing 34 regular season games plus playoffs while the Liga is in its offseason, the Diablos have strugged at the gate over the past few seasons and the two proud men may not be enthused to house a team that could perhaps outdraw their own.  Even though the two leagues play non-overlapping schedules, they ARE competitors, a fact that should not be overlooked.

Monterrey may be the easier city to set up shop for winterball.  The 27,000-seat Estadio Monterrey is owned by the government and not the LMB Sultanes, thus lessening possible interleague jealousies regarding negotiations for playing dates and rental rates.  The purchase of 50 percent of the Sultanes by Grupo Multimedios is a potential game-changer as well.  Ballasteros says the media conglomerate is, in fact, interested in placing a MexPac franchise in Monterrey, noting a recent article to that effect in the group's Milenio newspaper.  Longtime Sultanes owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz may or may not object to another baseball team coming into a city he's had sole territorial reign for decades, but Maiz appears to be losing his grip both on the so-called Old Guard ownership group within the Mexican League and the Sultanes in general.  According to Ballasteros, businessman Carlos Bremer has been mentioned as the preferred owner of a Monterrey LMP team.

So how would this all come about?  Ballasteros speculates that current LMP teams in the smaller cities of Los Mochis and Navojoa (both operating in aging ballparks) would be prime candidates to move rather than a simple expansion.  He notes that there have already been discussions between the MexPac and Televisa TV network regarding future ties between the two bodies.  The LMP plays its schedule between the Apertura and Clausa schedule for Mexico's popular Premier soccer league, and Ballasteros says it was Televisa who floated the idea of renaming the loop the Mexican Premier League to give it a national scope.

The overall question has to be where all this discussion will lead in reality.  Ballasteros ends his column on the cautionary note that it should be "taken into account that the LMP is perhaps the professional sports league most reluctant to change in Mexico."  Perhaps it is, but since taking the helm of the MexPac in 2009, Omar Canizales has shown a willingness to change things within the 63-year-old circuit.  The numbers imply that those changes have usually been the right ones.  Keep an eye on this.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Leones off to fast start; Leon, Durango early surprises

There was nothing shocking about Yucatan winning seven of their first eight games to take an early lead in the Mexican League's Southern Division standings.  The Leones were considered an early favorite after defending champion Puebla's roster was gutted in the off-season load up the Monclova Acereros (both teams are owned by Gerardo Benavides), and they opened the season by sweeping Quintana Roo in a three-game opening series, splitting a pair of games at Tabasco and taking all three home games against Campeche last weekend to start the campaign with a 7-1 mark.

Yucatan's pitching, a traditional strength for the Merida team, has been exceptional thus far, turning in a team ERA of just 1.39 as last year's LMB Pitcher of the Year Yoanner Negrin and veteran Jonathan Castellanos (pictured) won their first two starts.  Negrin has picked up where he left off, blanking the Tigres over six innings in the March 31 season opener at Parque Kukulcan and holding Campeche to one run on two hits and no walks with seven strikeouts in seven frames last Friday.  Negrin's 0.69 ERA leads the Mexican League, just ahead of Monterrey's Angel Castro's 0.79.

Castellanos has quietly been one of the Liga's top pitchers, going 48-33 over the past five seasons and missing only one start since the start of the 2012 season after battling injury problems earlier in his career.  The 35-year-old righty pitched five shutout innings against Campeche Saturday after beating the Tigres on April 1.  With proven offensive performers like outfielder Jesus Valdez, Leo Heras and Jose Aguilar plus newcomer infielders Esteban Quiroz and Yuniesky Betancourt (who has yet to play a game for the Leones this season), Yucatan will be tough to beat.

Puebla's rebuilt Pericos lead the league with a .356 team batting average to start 6-3 out the gate, good for second in the LMB South standings, but the surprise team of the division has to be Leon.  The Bravos, who suffered through a miserable 24-88 season in 2016 as the Reynosa Broncos, are tied for third at 5-4 under veteran skipper Francisco "Paquin" Estrada.  While the team will have to play on the road until Estadio Domingo Santana in Leon is ready for occupancy later this month, the Bravos pulled into a tie for third with Oaxaca and Quintana Roo after sweeping the Veracruz Rojo del Aguilas over the weekend.  Former Southern League All-Star outfielder Alfredo Marte leads Leon with a .424 average and 9 RBIs while ten-year minor league pitcher Mitch Lively is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA after two starts.

In the LMB North, Monclova has surprised nobody by winning six of their first nine games to take a one-game lead in the standings.  Puebla's losses have been the Acereros' gain as owner Benavides transferred several key members of his 2016 pennant winners to Monclova's already-strong team in hopes of bringing a championship to his home state.  Free agent signee Matt Clark, a former NCAA home run leader at LSU who hit 25 dingers in 2013 for Japan's Chunichi Dragons and spent time in Milwaukee in 2014, is batting .343 with 3 homers and 14 RBIs in 9 games for the Steelers.  Josh Lowey, the LMB's Pitcher of the Year in 2015, won his first two starts for Monclova with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings for a 2.77 ERA under new manager Wally Backman.  The Acereros lost in Laguna, 5-2, Sunday night to snap a three-game win streak.

The surprise team of the North, and perhaps the entire league, is Durango.  The very existence of the Generales for the 2017 was in doubt until days before the season began, given the uncertainty over the team's financial situation and whether their ballpark, Estadio Francisco Villa, would be ready over the first three months of the schedule.  Even so, the LMB Assembly of Presidents approved the former Carmen Delfines moving forward on a rare unanimous vote while, like Leon, playing on the road until their home field is ready.  The Generales didn't even name a manager until two weeks before the season opener, but Joe Alvarez has quickly galvanized his squad to produce a 5-4 start to trail Monclova by one game in a three-way tie for second with Tijuana and Aguascalientes.  Durango opened the season by beating the Rieleros, 2-1, on March 31, winning two of three in TJ over the potent Toros and then copping a pair of games in Monterrey over the weekend.  Cuban outfielder Yadir Drake is off to a hot start for the Generales, leading the club with a .389 average, 2 homers and 6 RBIs, but it's been the pitchers doing much of the heavy lifting, as the Generales are among the LMB's team ERA leaders at 3.99.  Adrian Garza won his first two starts of the season, middleman Antonio Garzon has a pair of wins in relief and closer Tiago Da Silva's five saves leads the loop.

Saltillo's Luis Borges leads the LMB with a .500 batting average after going 13-for-26 over 8 games, Alex Liddi of Tijuana has crashed 5 homers, Monclova newcomer Manny Rodriguez' 17 RBIs top the circuit and Justin Greene has swiped 5 bases for Saltillo to take the early lead in steals.  Among pitchers, besides Negrin's 0.69 ERA for Yucatan and Da Silva's 5 saves for Durango, thirteen pitchers have 2 wins apiece and Lowey's 16 strikeouts for Monclova are tops in that category.

On the upcoming schedule, the Quintana Roo Tigres make the loooong trip from Cancun to Tijuana to face the Toros in a big midweek series while next weekend's slate of games includes another big cross-divisional set in Monclova when Puebla comes to town.  Somehow, one thinks emotions in the stands will likely run a little higher when the Acereros make their first visit to Angelopolis with so many former Pericos players on their roster.

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS as of March 10, 2017
LMB North: Monclova 6-3, Aguascalientes 5-4, Durango 5-4, Tijuana 5-4, Laguna, Monterrey 4-5, Saltillo 4-5, Mexico City 3-6
LMB South: Yucatan 7-1, Puebla 6-3, Leon 5-4, Oaxaca 5-4, Quintana Roo 5-4, Campeche 3-6, Tabasco 3-6, Veracruz 2-7

Friday, April 7, 2017

Mexico City ballpark to be ready by July, Diablos will wait to play in it

Construction of Mexico City's new 13,000-seat ballpark will apparently be completed by July and ready for occupancy, but Mexico City Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helu says his club will remain at 5,200-seat Estadio Fray Nano for the entire current season and open the new facility in 2018.

At a recent press conference, Harp told assembled media that he is the owner of the as-yet-unnamed stadium, which he added was costing him US$80 million, rather than the original US$60 million pricetag.  Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso said the media outlet has confirmed the cost at US$90 million and that a uniquely-shaped roof over the grandstands will cost just over US$20 by itself to erect.

While Harp may indeed be financing the ballpark and is thus its legal owner, the land it sits on within the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City is being leased from the city.  Pereyra quoted Harp as saying, "I am the owner, not the government of the city.  I created a partnership with my family to get all the resources. There is no help from anyone, like in other cities or states. It's my family's money. The land was given through a special loan, first for 12 years but that can be renewed.  We will have to pay somehow because in the long run they stay (the government) with everything."  Harp, who Forbes magazine has listed as the 974th richest man in the world, says the city will take ownership of the facility after his passing.

Whoever owns what for how long, the new stadium will end a somewhat uncertain ballpark stuation that has existed for the second-largest metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere since the 25,000-seat Parque del Seguro Social (pictured) last hosted baseball on June 1, 2000, when the then-Mexico City Tigres topped the Diablos, 7-5, in a game that lasted until 12:34 the next morning.  Current Diablos skipper Miguel Ojeda belted the old park's last home run.  Parque de Seguro Social was eventually razed to make room for a shopping center.  The two teams inaugurated Foro Sol for baseball the following day, something that won't be repeated in 2017.

While Foro Sol is comparable in seating capacity to its predecessor, it was built in 1993 primarily as an outdoor concert venue and was never considered a "baseball-friendly" stadium during the 15 seasons it was used by the Diablos (the Tigres moved to Puebla following the 2001 season).  After announcing in 2014 that a new ballpark would be built in Mexico City, Harp moved the Diablos to Estadio Fray Nano, where he invested in renovations and expansion to 5,200 seats there.  Over the past two seasons serving as a placeholder for the team until their new digs are ready, attendance at Diablos games has been negligible at best.  Mexico's most storied ballclub has drawn just 283,004 fans to 107 home games over the past two seasons for an average of 2,645 per opening, finishing 13th in the Liga attendance derby both years.

Harp also owns the Oaxaca Guerreros, where there don't appear to be any plans to replace Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos, a 7,200-seater opened in 1950 (although Harp has constructed a baseball academy in the southern Mexico city).  Both teams are fielding all-Mexican teams in 2017, Harp's reaction to Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor's ruling that there will be no limits on the number of Mexican-American players an LMB team can carry on their roster.  "At the academy," Proceso quotes him as saying, "we bring in boys at 14 or 15 years, we give them schooling, we give them everything and I do not want them sitting on the bench."  It's a somewhat ironic twist, since longtime rival Tigres owner Alejo Peralta was a very vocal proponent of Mexican-only teams in the Liga, assembling a number of such teams himself while serving as the driving force for the national baseball academy just outside Monterrey in El Carmen.