Monday, July 18, 2016

Cesar Tapia's amazing year continues in Puebla

If you'd never heard of Cesar Tapia prior to the current Mexican League season, you'd hardly be in exclusive company.  In fact, despite career statistics that would usually bring the kind of acclaim that lesser players have received, the Puebla Pericos' 12-year veteran catcher is still a relative unknown even inside Mexico, although that perception may be finally starting to change.

The 33-year-old Tapia (pictured), who has spent all but one of the past twelve summers in Puebla, went 11-for-19 (.579) with seven RBI's and six runs scored in five games last week to raise his season batting average to .387, good for a 21-point lead over Veracruz outfielder Carlos Lopez' .366 mark in the Liga batting race.  Barring a meltdown over the final four weeks of the regular season, Tapia is the odds-on favorite to win his first batting crown for the career .330 batsman.  "Wait a minute," you may be wondering, "he's a catcher with a .330 average after twelve seasons?  Why haven't I heard of this guy before?"  Tapia has good reason to ask that question himself.

Born November 10, 1982 in Empalme, Sonora, Cesar Tapia Figueroa grew up around the game, as so many youngsters in that baseball-crazy part of Mexico do, when he attended a Pericos tryout in 2000 to which one of his friends had been invited.  Former Detroit shortstop Cesar Gutierrez, who was overseeing the tryouts for Puebla, asked Tapia if he'd like to join in and ended up signing the 17-year-old to a contract.  Tapia then had to spend most of four seasons playing A and AA ball in the Mexican minors, often having to share houses with all his teammates while searching for a permanent defensive position.  He finally reached Puebla in 2004 and, except for spending the 2006 campaign with the Angelopolis Tigres, has been in the Pericos' green-and-gold togs ever since.

Not that many outside Puebla have noticed.  After batting .229 as a Pericos part-timer in 2005, he hit .301 in his lone Tigres season and has fallen below .300 only once since returning to Puebla in 2007.  Despite consistently batting in the .330-.350 range with moderate extra-base power (Tapia had 227 career doubles and 87 homers through last weekend), he has only been picked for three All-Star Games, including last month in Monterrey.  Tapia has also been obscured by the Pericos' relative lack of success, as Puebla has reached the championship Serie del Rey twice, losing to Saltillo in five games in 2010 and getting swept by Mexico City in 2014.

The relative obscurity Tapia has toiled in for over a dozen years is finally giving way to some attention outside Puebla, where he is the franchise's all-time leader with 214 doubles and ranks among the leaders in several other categories.  Aside from his .387 average, the 5'11" 200-pounder nicknamed "El Natural" has already set career highs with 16 homers and 11 stolen bases (the first time he's ever swiped more than five sacks in a season) with a month to go.  As well, with Puebla holding the Liga's best record at 62-26 and a 2.5-game lead in the LMB South Division, Tapia and the Pericos are a valid pick to bring home the team's first pennant since 1986, which would undoubtedly bring him more attention.

But even if his amazing 2016 campaign didn't result in a noticeable uptick in the amount of attention he's deserved, you get the sense that little would change with Cesar Tapia's approach to the game.  "You just come every day with the mentality of being well-prepared and giving 100 percent all game, not just a few innings...we owe it to the public, the people who come to the game and buy tickets."


Culiacan Academy opens with MLB VP in attendance

Anybody familiar with baseball in Latin American countries are probably well aware that academies for young prospects are almost ubiquitous.  Major League Baseball teams commonly operate academies in nations like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic (the independent movie "Sugar" is a terrific primer in how Latino teens work their way through the system), but no MLB-owned facility has existed in Mexico even though academies have been popping up here and there south of the border.  However, a step in that direction may have been taken with the recent opening of an academy in the Sinaloa city of Culiacan.

Although MLB is not involved with the Sinaloa Baseball Academy & Interactive Museum in a proprietary role, they will serve in a direct advisory capacity, marking the first time the big leagues have had an active hand in developing teen talent in Mexico.  MLB's Vice President for International Operations, Kim Ng, was on hand for inaugural ceremonies on July 8.  Speaking to those gathered, Ng said, "I'm very happy to be with you on behalf of Major League Baseball.  For my part, I'm very happy to be part of something that will be good for Mexico and MLB.  This program is the first of its kind."

Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales remarked, "We're all present here because we love baseball, and this unites us because it'll lead us to make baseball bigger."  Canizales also addressed his Mexican League counterpart, outgoing president Pinio Escalante, saying "We need to work hand in hand.  The governor (Mario Lopez Valdez) has united us around this table and this great project.  I think we have a huge responsibility to find points of agreement to grow Mexican baseball."

That latter goal may be difficult to achieve.  The Mexican League has operated its own academy near Monterrey for two decades as part of the control it has exercised over player rights in the country.  Historically, young prospects have signed contracts with Mexican League teams who routinely ship them to the LMB Academy for seasoning before moving them up to Class A or AA teams within the LMB system to determine whether they're ready to play in the Liga.  The LMB has had a virtual monopoly over rights to Mexican players (that last that player's entire career within Mexico), and fees are routinely charged to Major League organizations for the right to negotiate contracts with those players.  Sometimes those fees are too high for MLB teams, who will instead spend a similar amount to sign multiple prospects in other countries.  The result is that several Mexican youngsters with some MLB potential have never been able to head north to further their careers.

The entry of MLB, even peripherally, could alter that dynamic.  There have been attempts at rival academies challenging the Mexican League's hegemony over domestic talent in the past, most notably one east of San Diego owned and operated by Dodgers All-Star first baseman Adrian "El Titan" Gonzalez, his brother Edgar (now Mexico's National Team manager) and their father David, a longtime Mexican baseball figure, but that did not last.  However, direct involvement by MLB in player development south of the border could be a game-changer regarding contractual rights to prospects.  We shall see.


BBM to produce book on Mexican baseball legends

Okay, rather than put together a story where I talk about myself in the third-person (included quoting myself), let's break down the fourth wall for a few lines.  The book that I recently finished about the history of the Seattle Rainiers team that spent five seasons in the Class A Northwest League during the Seventies is done after starting it as a one-page master roster sheet four decades ago.  The finished product is 108 pages long (covers included), I'm reasonably happy with it and am now in the process of figuring out how to sell enough copies at $12 apiece to cover the cost of printing.  It's titled "Anonymous Heroes: Seattle Rainiers baseball in the 1970's" and if you're interested, email me at SeattleRainiers@outlook.com for details.

Although I'm currently focused on selling the Rainiers book, I'm starting to put together another book with two-page profiles, pictures and stats (where applicable) commemorating 50 of the most important players, owners and writers in modern Mexican baseball history.  The working title is "The Golden Greats of Mexican Baseball" and will be very loosely based on the "Maestros of Mexico" profiles on prominent Mexican baseball figures that I used to write for the old Viva Beisbol site and column.  I expect this book will be in the neighborhood of 120 pages and be published as a digest-sized 5.5" x 8.5" paperback.

Actually, there will be 51 people profiled in "Golden Greats."  I want to give Hector Espino a separate section of his own apart from the 50 others because, well, he's Hector Espino, who I consider a combination of power and pride who really has no counterpart in Mexican baseball history.  Imagine a hybrid between Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente or Jackie Robinson and you start to get the picture.  I've got the 37 profiles I wrote for VB back in the day with wildly-varying degrees of length and focus that'll need to be revamped into uniform word count (400-500?) and purpose with another 14 people added.  I'd love to have this ready in time for Christmas, but I don't want to rush it into production if it means lesser quality.  I may not take myself too seriously, but I take what I do here VERY seriously and I want to get this right.

More in the months ahead as things develop.  If you're curious about THIS book, email me at BaseballMexico@live.com.  It's a big project in some ways, but long overdue.