Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mexican League split: Is a "two-state solution" best?

The ongoing battle among Mexican League owners over the number of Mexican-American players, considered "domestic" (and thus protecting them from the six-man limit on foreigners) by LMB policy, took another twist Wednesday when league president Plinio Escalante walked out of a Board of Governors meeting and told the media he'd resigned. Some sources back up Escalante's version, but others say he was more or less invited to leave.  Escalante did tell gathered media at the Mexico City meeting that he'd be consulting his attorney over compensation for the remainder of his contract, not the usual action of someone who left his job voluntarily.  Whatever led to his exit, the Mexican League now effectively has no sitting president.

The Yucatan native had been president of the Liga since 2007 and previously planned to step down at the end of the 2016 season, perhaps to return to the Yucatan Leones front office in his hometown of Merida.  Instead, league owners convinced Escalante to agree to a two-year contract extension last winter (only Quintana Roo voted against the offer), presumably with an accompanying salary increase.  He may now be regretting not sticking to his initial decision. Escalante couldn't bring together the two warring factions of owners, one advocating the continuation of a limit of nine Mexican-Americans per team while the others wanted no limit on Mexican-American players, claiming they can't afford to develop their own domestic talent.  The rift has grown into a full-blown schism that threatens to either split into two separate eight-team leagues or even end with a total shutdown for the 2017 season and beyond until the issue is finally resolved, something nowhere near happening at present.

A summer without baseball?  I think of baseball fans across Mexico facing that prospect.  A stevedore in Veracruz...an artisan in Oaxaca...a schoolkid in Monterrey...  What happens to them?  And how about homegrown thirtysomething veterans like Carlos Valencia, Mauricio Lara or Cesar Tapia; players too old to be considered MLB prospects but good enough to be productive in the top level of baseball at home? How will they make a living from March until Mexican Pacific League training camps open in September?  Clearly, shutting down is the worst possible scenario; both sides will have lost the first major battle in their not-always-civil war.  Thus the other option, a "two-state solution" of sorts in which the LMB splits into two divisions (or even leagues) with schedules independent of each other, becomes worthy of a long look.

As I write this, the Mexican League is a sometimes-unwieldy league with 16 teams stretching from Tijuana to Cancun.  According to Puro Beisbol editor and columnist Fernando Ballasteros (perhaps Mexican baseball's best cronista today), the coalition of owners wanting no limit on Mexican-Americans is led by Tijuana's Alberto Uribe, Puebla Pericos owner Gerardo Benavides (the LMB's 2016 Executive of the Year) and brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano, who own both the Yucatan Leones and now the Laguna Vaqueros.  They're joined by Monclova, Veracruz, Aguascalientes and maybe Leon to represent a so-called "new breed" of owner butting heads with the establishment.  The more entrenched likes of Quintana Roo owner Carlos Peralta, Monterrey's Jose Maiz and Alfredo Harp Helu, owner in both Mexico City and Oaxaca, are joined by their counterparts in Saltillo, Campeche, Tabasco and maybe Durango who prefer less reliance on players from outside Mexico.  That appears to be a clean enough split for two separate LMB divisions playing their own internal schedule (and wouldn't a Mexico Series in September between the two champions be interesting?), but things rarely get settled easily in the Mexican League and this would be no exception, based on those aforementioned "maybes," Leon and Durango.

Both came into existence last November after the Reynosa Broncos and Carmen Delfines, respectively, morphed into the Leon Bravos and Durango Generales for 2017.  Both are also on very shaky ground due to ballparks that have fallen into disrepair with no work being done and the clock ticking as the April openers (if there ARE openers) approach.  Bravos owner Mauricio Martinez, who moved the Broncos to Leon with Liga approval, was strangely not allowed to represent his franchise at Tuesday's meeting, giving the upper hand in votes to the Old Guard.  Villareal is said to already want out of Leon and its substandard 3,000-seat ballpark, moving the franchise instead to Nuevo Laredo, where a 12,000-seater built in 2007 as part of a sports complex outside the border city limits, a point of contention among local fans.

Things aren't much better in Durango, where Estadio Francisco Villa (yes, a ballpark is named after Pancho Villa, a Durango native who was a hero of the Mexican Revolution) does hold 8,000 fans but also needs upgradeing. LMB Operations Manager Nestor Alva Brito and Umpire Supervisor Luis Alberto Ramirez toured the park last month and said it would need extensions to both dugouts and dressing rooms for players and umpires, bathroom upgrades, new mesh screens around home plate, parking for team buses and improved lighting.  Rumors have included both teams dropping out this year and the 14 remaining franchises moving forward, which could create a scheduling nightmare if a split resulted in two seven-team loops.  That all of this is happening on the heels of a 2016 season that saw declining attendance figures in many Liga cities last season does not help solve that problem either.

Both factions have merit to their arguments.  The free-market guy in me agrees that sports teams owe it to themselves and their fan base to bring in the best players they can find and put them on the field.  It's called "competition" and that's not a bad thing.  In any business, not just sports, owners who don't continually seek to improve their product risk being passed by competitors. On the other hand, even though BBM might gain a few clicks with stories on exploits south of the border of former big leaguers like Yuniesky Betancourt, Kyle Farnsworth, Ruben Rivera and Travis Blackley, I ultimately want to see overall improvement among Mexican players as a result of experience gained playing in both the LMB and LMP, and they can't gain that experience if more players from outside the country take up roster spots.  I'm very happy that Mexico has risen to sixth in the world in the latest WBSC rankings and would love to see even better things but to achieve that, Mexican players gotta play.

If the Mexican League schism can't be resolved (and without a leader, resolution becomes more difficult), I'd rather see a fractured two-league setup than no baseball at all.  Baseball has survived far worse because the game is bigger than any owner, but I think about players like Carlos Valencia and Mauricio Lara, guys I've written about for years who might lose their livelihoods if the LMB goes dark, and I also think about fans of all ages in places like Monterrey, Veracruz and Oaxaca.  As a gringo observer on the outside looking in, I don't deserve better from the Mexican League, but those players and fans sure do.

Opinions expressed above do, in fact, reflect those of staff and management at Baseball Mexico because I AM the staff and management of Baseball Mexico...it keeps the payroll down.