Friday, April 28, 2017

Benji Gil returns as manager in Culiacan under new GM Valdez

It's been an awkward 2017 thus far for the Mexican Pacific League's Culiacan Tomateros, to say the least. Entering the year, the team was still adjusting to new manager Enrique "Che" Reyes, who had replaced former skipper Lino Rivera in December, as as they headed into the first round of the playoffs against Hermosillo.  The players were said to have regained their confidence under Reyes and took the Naranjeros to a seventh game before falling, 4 games to 3, to see their season end.

The early exit displeased owner/president Hector Ley, who had desperately wanted to win a MexPac pennant in a year Culiacan was hosting the Caribbean Series and said as much publicly.  Longtime general manager Ray Padilla was fired in February after more than a decade on the job.  The move led several Tomateros players to write a letter protesting the firing of their GM, something almost unheard of in baseball.  Padilla was obviously popular among the players but ballcubs in Mexico are typically far more win-oriented than their minor league counterparts north of the border (where baseball is often little more than a distraction between on-field promotions) and Padilla's teams had produced only one title during his tenure.  Enter Mario Valdez.

The new Tomateros GM is a 42-year-old native of Obregon wno spent 21 seasons in pro ball as a first baseman, batting .238 with 2 homers in 91 games over parts of three seasons with the Chicago White Sox and Oakland between 1997 and 2001.  Valdez also spent time with Japan's Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2004 but Valdez' career was split almost evenly between the U.S. minor league and the Mexican League, where he hit .272 with 119 homers in the latter playing for Monterrey, Laguna, Mexico City and Tijuana.  He also spent ten winters in the LMP with four different teams before wrapping up his playing career in 2014-15 with Culiacan.  Valdez was a member of the Tomateros' coaching staff last season and ascends to his new role with no experience at that level.

Fast forward to this past Monday, when Valdez introduced former MLB infielder Benji Gil as Che Reyes' replacement in Culiacan's managerial post.  The 2017-18 season will mark Gil's second go-round as the Tomateros skipper.  He led the team to their tenth and last pennant (the only one under the departed Padilla) in 2014-15, but was let go by the club after failing to reach the playoffs the following season.  Most fans north of the border will recall the Tijuana-born Gil as a 1991 first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers who eventually played shortstop with the Rangers and Angels between 1993 and 2003.  He hit .237 with 32 homers over all or part of eight big league seasons, plus a 2002 World Series for Anaheim during which he went 4-for-5 at the plate with a double over five games as the Angels topped San Francisco in seven games for the World Championship.  Gil was out of the majors after the 2003 season but continued playing in the minors (with time in Monterrey, Chihuahua and Oaxaca in the LMB) before retiring as a player at age 39 in 2012 after playing one game with Fort Worth in the independent North American League.

Known in Mexico as "El Matador," Gil also spent 13 winterball campaigns with Culiacan before becoming manager of the team the first time in 2014.  He is said to be a volatile sort who nearly got into a dugout fistfight with one of his Tomateros players, Rico Noel, during the 2015-16 season and was compared to Bobby Valentine and Ozzie Guillen in the comportment department earlier this week by Puro Beisbol editor and columnist Fernando Ballasteros, who nonetheless wished Gil well in his second chance in Culican.