Friday, March 17, 2017

Will they or won't they? Meet your 2017 Durango Generales!

After the tension, the anger and ultimately the disappointment among Mexican baseball aficionados in the aftermath of the World Baseball Classic's Pool D competition in Guadalajara last week, this seems an opportune time for a little comic relief, thoughtfully provided by the Mexican League's Durango Generales.

If you're a regular reader of BBM, you're likely already aware of the Liga's version of "The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight," but here's a brief refresher course:  The Generales story really begins in 2012, when businessman Carlos Mejia bought the moribund Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes (who were drummed out of the LMB after refusing to show the league their financial situation) and moved them from the Mexico-Texas border to Cuidad del Carrmen, a city of 170,000 in the state of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico's southern coast.  The newly-named Carmen Delfines spent five summers at 8.200-seat Estadio Resurgimento, winning a South Division regular season title in 2013 under manager Felix Fermin but otherwise finishing among the also-rans while being first-round casualties the two seasons they reached the playoffs.  The Delfines averaged over 4,000 fans per opening for their 2012 debut season, but attendance steadily declined before the franchise shut down after drawing 2,615 a night in 2016 and moved to Durango when team owner Virgilio Ruiz got approval for the transfer from the LMB Assembly of Presidents in November.

This is where the fun begins.

Durango is not a stranger to the Mexican League.  The colonial city of over 500,000 residents has had two LMB teams (both named the Alacranes), first for the 1956 and 1957 seasons and again from 1976 through 1979, but baseball has never really gained a foothold there.  The last year a Class AAA team represented Durango was in 1980, when yet another club called the Alacranes played in the so-called ANABE league that sprang up in the wake of a player strike that cancelled the Mexican League campaign in midseason.

One result of the sport's longstanding absence was that 8,000-seat Estadio Francisco Villa (pictured amid mounds of dirt), opened in 1972 and renovated four years later when the Alacranes 2.0 began their four-year LMB run, had fallen into disrepair.  One of the stipulations of the franchise shift was that Ruiz was to secure renovations to the ballpark in time for the 2017 season, something the owner assured his fellow team presidents would be done.  Instead, there was no movement on the facility for months, as the Durango state government dragged its heels on paying for the work to be performed.  The renovations finally began after the first of the year but there was no way the ballpark would be ready for the start of the season in the best of circumstances and a league schedule shows the Durango Generales playing their first five series of the coming season on the road.  The consensus opinion among Mexican baseball writers appears to be that there's no way the facility will be ready to open for Liga home games by mid-April, however, as work was progressing much slower than expected.  Proceso's Beatriz Pereyra (who is rapidly becoming my favorite Mexican baseball writer) says the state is spending 30 million pesos, or about US$1.5 million, on stadium upgrades, adding that LMB operations manager Nestor Alva Brito recently toured the facility and estimates that it won't be ready until at least June.

Another fly in the ointment regards further state subsidies for the team itself, or the lack thereof.  Ruiz claimed at the November Presidents meeting that he would receive financial and tax assistance from the State of Durango to operate the Generales, a not-uncommon occurance among a number of Mexican League franchises (mostly among the so-called Old Guard owners and teams).  That situation changed following the elections last November when then-governor Jorge Herrera Caldera was replaced by Jose Rosas Aispuro, who has been far less willing to share state resources with the team, a situation mirrored in Quintana Roo which helped compel longtime owner Carlos Peralta to sell the storied Tigres franchise to a group fronted by former Dodgers All-Star pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.  The lack of taxpayer pesos flowing into the Generales' coffers seriously threatened to kill the team's season before it started and the issue remains unresolved as of today.

Then there's the matter of hiring a manager.  Ruiz did not announced a skipper for his team until Thursday, when Cuban-born Joe Alvarez was chosen to lead the Generales with just two weeks to prepare for the regular season.  Alvarez spent nearly four decades playing or managing in the minor leagues for a number of MLB organizations and took the Puebla Pericos to the 2014 LMB championship series against Mexico City on an interim basis before spending the past two summers coaching with the SK Wyverns in South Korea.  He was rumored to be Ruiz' choice as far back as December.  Alvarez and his coaching staff will need to prepare their team in just 14 days of training camp before their season begins March 31 in Aguascalientes, according to the team's Facebook page (there's no website yet).

Ahhh, training camp.  Players began showing up to begin working out in preparation for the regular season a couple weeks ago.  The problem?  Nowhere to play and nobody to lead them.  An exhibition game against the Union Laguna Vaqueros last week had to be scuttled and it appears that Durango still has yet to play a preseason contest.  Not to worry, according to Ruiz, who was quoted by Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballasteros as saying, "Our team is not out of shape and they have not stopped preparing.  In 2012, the Carmen Delfines had only 20 days of practice and we were leaders of the South Division."  The record shows that Carmen tied for fifth with a 51-60 record that year (they finished first in 2013).  In any case, the team will need a lot of things to go right in short order before their road opener against the Rieleros in two weeks.  Ruiz also claims to have the financial wherewithal for the 2017 season, that the government is "fully engaged" in ballpark renovations and that the scheduled April 18 home opener against Veracruz, assertions that may be similar to the assurances he gave at November's league meeting.

So whither goest the Durango Generales?  Even Mexican writers who've covered the Liga for years are unsure, although skepticism appears to be the order of the day even among those who think they'll be able to at least begin the regular season.  A more common thread is that the LMB would be better served by fielding just 15 teams this year (assuming the Arellano brothers are able to operate their teams in Yucatan and Merida after having their assets frozen by the federal government earlier this month) to give Ruiz more time to properly build his team and ensure ballpark renovations are completed by April 2018.  It's believed that although a 111-game season schedule with all 16 teams has been released, the league reportedly has an alternate 15-team schedule (including rotating byes) in case the Generales don't make it to the starting gate.

So will the Generales play in 2017?  My own guess is that they won't unless the Alvarez, his coaches and his players are willing to spend at least the first ten weeks of the season living out of their suitcases.  There have been instances of "Road Warriors" teams playing entire seasons on the road, but those have usually been independent clubs, not members of a league with a Class AAA designation.  At this point, I'm not holding my breath and neither should you.