Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Columnist Braverman skeptical of incoming LMB president

The announcement earlier this month that former soccer executive Javier Salinas will replace Plinio Escalante as president of the Mexican League has been met with skepticism among a number of Mexican baseball columnists.  Salinas, who will serve as Escalante's vice president until the latter retires following the current season, has spent the past two decades in marketing roles of the Liga MX, Mexico's most popular sports entity with crowds averaging about 27,000 per match, so he's had some earlier success before joining forces with the LMB.

However, Salinas (who has already floated the idea of breaking the LMB baseball season up into two Apertura and Clausura "tournaments" similar to the Liga MX) also has no prior experience in baseball, something that has raised concerns among more than one cronista. Among them is David Braverman, one of Mexico's leading baseball writers whose "Out 27" column is carried by Puro Beisbol, among others.  A recent Braverman offering was less than sanguine about the future of the Mexican League under Salinas, whose name was interestingly never mentioned.  The following is one far-from-perfect translation of that Braverman column (the original in Spanish can be found on the Puro Beisbol site):

In the weeks since the last assembly of the LMB, where the successor of Plinio Escalante for the presidency of the circuit was announced, many comments have begun to emerge about the immediate future of the top summer circuit of our country.

It seems that more than 90 years of existence have not been enough for the tycoons, or at least some of them (including the multiple-team owners), to conscientiously analyze the present and the future of the league without forgetting the past, a long history that no other professional sports league in our country can boast.

And, of course, we do not want to be spoilers and think that only the usual works. But baseball is traditional, and anyone who tries to break it is simply an ignoramus of the King of Sports.

Commencing the talk of baseball in full transition is the idea of ​​changing the format a full season into two "short tournaments" in what is nothing more than a soccer mentality. The difference with soccer is that their two short tournaments span the whole year.  In the LMB, the season runs from late March to early September, around six months in which the regular schedule and the long playoff round are completed. The "brilliant" idea is to make two small seasons with many playoffs, making believe that sponsors will be found to enter baseball and fans will invade all the stadiums.

This simplistic idea is filled with baseball ignorance. Do you think that having two seasons, with the All-Star Game in between, the standings will change so that the interest is greater and people go to the stadiums?  Of course not.  The teams that have worked to arm themselves to the teeth will continue dominating in fan attendance and in the standings and the stragglers will continue staying there, with disappointed fans waiting anxiously to finish the season and praying that the following year will go better.

The poor attendance at most of the stadiums of the LMB, the lack of institutional sponsorships and the pending retirement of Plinio Escalante to leave the presidency caused so much despair among some magnates that many decisions have turned to steam. The arrival of Durango and León, both operating on hope and a shoestring, is just one example.  Of course, they are within their right to do it since they are the owners of the league, although in the group of 16 only a few who actually command and decide.  The LMB is lying in its presentation bulletin of who will replace Plinio, noting that they interviewed several candidates to select the candidate.  There were certainly several but they blocked the path.  Voting or analysis was not in full, in the purest style, with some executives in the Assembly of Presidents who could not and would not comment.

It is a fact: Baseball is behind and the league will function as an advertising agency, something that has already happened in the past with poor results.  Alejandro Hutt, Raul Gonzalez and Jose OrozcoTopete were presidents who came from outside to venture into baseball.  Some current magnates did not live through it, but now they want that experience in the middle of despair.

Another topic that caught my attention was the suggestion that came from Monterrey, where the Sultanes have some soccer fans among their new Directors. An idea was thrown out when proposing the former president of the Mexican Futbol Federation, Justino Compean, to occupy the presidency of the LMB: Why not have two tournaments for two leagues, with promotion and relegation so that poorer teams in Tabasco, Durango, León, Saltillo, Veracruz, Campeche, Oaxaca and others can move up to the LMB “Premier Division?”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Monterrey, Yucatan continue to lead LMB divisions

It's been a long time since BBM has done a team-by-team weekly wrap.  Five interrupted hours and 1,600+ words after starting to write this, I remember why. It takes a pretty fair amount of time to write capsules for 16 baseball teams.

Even so, it was fun to take a closer look at who's been doing well (or not so well) in the Mexican League as it approaches the midpoint of the 2017 season, with the All-Star Game in Campeche just three weeks away.  Monterrey and Yucatan continue to lead their respective divisions (with both teams opening their leads a bit), there are still 60 games to go in the regular season schedule and if there's anything to be learned about baseball in Mexico in general, it's to expect the other words, there's a lot of season left to play.

With that in mind, let's look at who's doing what at the 50-game mark of the LMB season:


MONTERREY (36-13) won 4 of 6 road games in Puebla and Leon to stretch their lead over second-place Tijuana to 4.5 games.  CF Chris Roberson (.380/10HR/35RBI) continues to hit well, as does LF Zoilo Almonte (.361/10/38).  3B Agustin Murillo is batting .360 in 25 games after an injury delayed his season debut until April 28.  Angel Castro beat Leon Saturday to run his LMB-best record to 8-0.  He's won eight straight starts but allowed four earned runs in each of his last three outings.

TIJUANA (32-18) continues to hold second place after winning two of three against the Tigres in Cancun over the weekend.  OF Cyle Hankerd (.339/10/42) is quietly putting together a very strong year in the shadows of Toros power hitters OF Corey Brown (.312/13/51) and 3B Alex Liddi (.269/12/44).  Brown still leads the LMB in homers despite not hitting one out in two weeks.  Tijuana leads the LMB in team ERA without a dominant pitcher, although closer Jason Urquidez (2-0/0.47) is 10-of-10 in save situations.

MONCLOVA (29-21) has won 7 of 8 games since manager Wally Backman was replaced by Jorge Loredo, including two of three in Puebla last weekend.  SS Amadeo Zazueta leads Acereros batters with a .358 average.  2B Manny Rodriguez (.351) has 6 homers, 48 RBIs and 11 steals.  Monclova has four pitchers with 4 wins each.  Jose Oyervides (4-1/3.52) and Mauricio Lara (4-3/3.64) have looked good, but Josh Lowey (4-4/4.58) has won just 1 of his past 5 starts.  Chad Gaudin has 15 saves and a 2.06 ERA.

LAGUNA (29-22) is on a five-game win streak after sweeping Campeche over the weekend.  1B Ricky Alvarez (.332/10/57) had a 4-hit night Friday and leads the LMB in RBIs, but 2B Anderson Hernandez (.344) is just 6-for-37 over his past 10 games.  OF Ethan Chapman (.265/14 steals) is writing a season diary for Sports Spectrum, a Christian magazine.  P Dustin Crenshaw (6-2/4.03) lost at Veracruz last Tuesday, but pitched well his last three start. Edgar Osuna is 0-3 this month after winning his first five starts in April.

AGUASCALIENTES (27-24) split their six-game homestand against Oaxaca and Veracruz last week, beating the Rojos Aguilas two of three in a weekend series.  1B Jesse Castillo (.373) has hit .335 or better the past three seasons with the Rieleros and is among the LMB leaders in homers (12) and RBIs (52).  OF Dave Sappelt has hit .365 in 21 games after he was released by Tabasco in April.  P Roy Merritt (4-1/3.10) has been solid and ex-MLB P Jose Valverde (2-2/2.70/8 saves) has shored up the Aguascalientes bullpen.

MEXICO CITY (27-24) has gone 3-6 over their last three series after threatening to move up in the standings earlier this month.  Vet OF Ivan Terrazas (.343) is looking to top .320 for the eighth time in sine summers with the Diablos while SS Ramon Urias (.326/9/41) is in the midst of a career year.  Ace P David Reyes (3-5/4.88) and former Rookie of the Year Juan Pablo Oramas (1-2/5.84) have both struggled but unsung Octavio Acosta (5-1/3.21) and vet Arturo Lopez (5-1/4,37) have picked up some of the slack.

SALTILLO (21-28) manager Orlando Sanchez was fired earlier this month.  The Saraperos won four games at home against Veracruz and Oaxaca last week under new skipper Fernando Elizondo.  2B Luis Borges (.374) has cooled considerably after leading the Liga with a .417 average two weeks ago but 1B Max Ramirez (.397) is second in the LMB. OF Justin Greene (.343) leads the league with 25 steals.  Ps Frankie de la Cruz (4.29) and Danny Rodriguez (4.63) each have 5 wins, Neither has set the world on fire.

DURANGO (21-30) has won 9 of their last 12 games, winning all four series in the process.  The Generales blew out Tabasco, 23-5, Friday night at home as DH Jairo Perez (.352) went 5-for-6 with two homers and nine RBIs.  OF Yadir Drake (.401/11/45) leads the Liga in hitting as the Cuban refugee is becoming the LMB's feel-good story of the year.  Closer Tiago da Silva (2.28/18 saves) has been the only consistent Durango pitcher as fans across Mexico have apparently embraced the hard-luck team.


YUCATAN (31-18) took 2 of 3 against both Tijuana and Mexico City last week in Merida to strengthen their grip on the Southern Division, drawing nearly 34,000 for the Diablos series.  LF Jesus "Cacao" Valdez (.356) and 2B Jordany Valdespin (.349) top the team's batting table, but this is a typical Leones club with more pitching and defense than offense.  P Yoanner Negrin (6-2/3.79) hasn't dominated as he did in 2016, but Jose Samayoa (6-0/2.25) has been a revelation, winning four straight starts since joining the rotation.

PUEBLA (25-26) dropped a pair of important home series to Monterrey and Monclova to go 2-4 last week. Former A's 1B Dan Johnson (.375) has hit 5 homers in 12 games while ex-MLB OF Endy Chavez (.355) and last year's bat champ C Cesar Tapia (.349) are hitting well but pitching has been problematic, Josh Roenicke (5-3/3.20) notwithstanding. Former Monclova manager Wally Backman is now Von Hayes' bench coach.  The Pericos would be seventh in the LMB North, which says it all about the LMB South.

QUINTANA ROO (23-25) is hard to figure out.  In the past two weeks, the Tigres have swept a series in Monclova, dropped three in Monterrey, won two at home against rivals Mexico City and lost two to Tijuana in Cancun.  Q-Roo's offense is anemic: Last in the LMB with 22 homers, last at 3.94 runs per game and 15th with a .262 average. 3B Brian Hernandez (.339/4/35) and 2B Carlos Gastelum (.333) need help. The pitching's fine, though, fourth in the Liga with a 4.07 ERA. Ageless Pablo Ortega (5-2/2.89) continues to amaze.

VERACRUZ (23-27) lost 4 of 6 games in Saltillo and Aguascalientes last week, but the Rojos Aguilas have won 12 of their last 19 games to climb to fourth.  One reason is newcomer 1B Balbino Fuenmayor (.335/9/32 in 32 games), who's injected power into a lineup of slap-hitters.  Another is RF Luis Suarez (.310), a 20-year vet and lifetime .321 hitter coming off a pair of .242 seasons.  3B Juan Martinez (.324/5/26) has helped, too.  P Nestor Molina (5-1/2.33) leads the Liga in ERA to lead an overmatched mound staff.

OAXACA (22-28), owner Alfredo Harp Helu's "other" team (and, like their counterparts in Mexico City, fielding an all-Mexican roster), hit a rough patch earlier this month by losing 8 of 10 contests between the 11th and 21st before splitting six games last week.  CF Alan Sanchez (.330/4/23), C Erick Rodriguez (.326) and vet DH Mario Valenzuela (.274/6/22) head the offense.  Irwin Delgado (7-2/2.39/69K) has been the top pitcher, with 6'6" Ruddy Acosta (2-3/2.23) throwing well this month after coming off the disabled list.

CAMPECHE (21-30) has lost five in a row (all on the road, including a sweep in Laguna) after starting last week with a win in Durango.  SS Paul Leon (.353/4/24) and 2B Yosmany Guerra (.306) give the Piratas a good keystone duo while 1B Frank Diaz (.302/9/38) and 3B C.J. Retherford (.282/6/26R) provide power from the infield corners.  The pitching no better than so-so.  Rolando Valdez (4-3/3.97) has been the best starter with Francisco Campos (0-2/3.55) hurt most of the year and Oscar Rivera (0-6/6.17) ineffective.

TABASCO (17-33) hasn't done any better under manager Marco Antonio Guzman than they did under Che Reyes.  Waiving OF Dave Sappelt while adding ex-MLB IFs Ronny Cedeno and Carlos Triunfel didn't work out. Signing free agent 2B Jordany Valedspin (.372/32R in 33 games) HAS worked, while OF Alex Romero (.368) and DH Sandy Madera (.340/5/29) are having good years.  None of the 24 pitchers who've thrown for the Olmecas have won more than twice.  In short, another long year in Villahermosa.

LEON (17-34) lost six in a row before surprising LMB-best Monterrey, 6-4, Sunday at home as 2B Carlos Valencia homered after coming off a 50-game drug suspension.  Vet 3B Miguel Torrero (.293) and ex-Phils OF prospect Leandro Castro (.279/10/33) are hitting well and SS Niko Vazquez (.297) has been solid after missing three weeks to injury.  P Mitch Lively (4-1/1.88) was inexplicably moved to the bullpen by manager Luis Rivera after one bad start.  Walter Silva (3-4/2.83) has pitched better than his record shows.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Jorge "Chato" Vazquez retires after injury-plagued career

Injury-prone Mexico City Diablos Rojos slugger Jorge "Chato" Vazquez has retired from baseball at age 35.  When healthy, the 5'11" 250-pounder from Culiacan was capable of terrorizing pitchers in any league he played in, pounding out a combined 314 homers with 1,090 RBIs over 1,374 games for his professional career on both sides of the border, homering every 17.1 at-bats along the way.  Great power numbers indeed, but those 1,374 games were spread out over 19 summers and winters dating back to Vazquez' debut with the Mexico City Tigres late in the 1999 season as a 17-year-old.  Given that it's possible to play nearly 180 games in single a year between the Mexican and Mexican Pacific leagues, that's a problem.

After never hitting more than 14 homers in the next four seasons, Vazquez had a breakout year in 2005 for the Tigres (then playing in Puebla) by hitting .379 with 33 homers and 96 RBIs in just 71 games.  That began a string of four injury-plagued years for the Tigres during which the first baseman only played 280 of a possible 440 games but still clubbed 99 homers and drove in 302 runs while never batting less than .323.

That was enough for the New York Yankees to sign him as a 27-year-old for 2009, and he went on to play three years at AA Trenton and AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and knocking out a combined 63 homers in 261 games.  Vazquez' best year was 2011 with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, when he socked 32 homers with 93 RBIs (but also striking out 166 times) in 118 games.  The New York press was intrigued by the stocky slugger, who was invited to the Yankees' spring training camp in 2010, but he never received a call-up to the big club and was let go during spring training in 2012 despite his gaudy numbers in the International League the previous season.

Vazquez returned to the Tigres that spring and continued his pattern of spending time on the DL each of the next five years, hitting 42 homers and topping .300 twice in 232 total games.  Let go by Quintana Roo last winter as part of the Tigres' housecleaning of veterans after the team was sold by longtime owner Carlos Peralta to a group fronted by ex-Dodgers pitching star Fernando Valenzuela, Chato was signed by the Diablos Rojos for the current season.  He got off to a good start in Mexico City, rocking 8 homers with 24 ribbies while hitting .281 over his first 34 games before back problems made it impossible for him to continue playing.  His last game was Tuesday in Cancun against his old team, the Tigres.  Vazquez batted fourth and went 0-for-4 with a walk and a run scored but by then, his back pains were such that 38-year-old Refugio "Cuco" Cervantes (himself a 20-year LMB vet) had already been pressed into service at first after the latter played just six games for Tabasco last year.

Vazquez retires with 201 homers and 703 RBIs in 895 Mexican League games while also cracking a grand slam for Mexico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and winning MVP honors in the 2011 Caribbean Series as a reinforcement for the champion Obregon Yaquis (he cracked a walkoff homer in the title game, which certainly didn't hurt his chances for the trophy).  He spent nine winters in the Mexican Pacific League, eight with his hometown Culiacan Tomateros, hitting .307 with a total of 71 homers and 234 RBIs in 208 games.   However, for all the things he accomplished on the field, Jorge "Chato" Vazquez will also be remembered as one of those cases of "what might have been" after never playing a full season during his career.

As a sidebar, Vazquez' nickname "Chato" translates to "flat" in English, which is puzzling until you dig a little deeper into Mexican culture.  South of the border, it's common to give someone a handle that is totally opposite of appearance.  Thus, Bartolo Colon might be nicknamed "Flaco" (or "Skinny") while Jose Altuve would be called "Gordo" (or "Fatso").  Within that context, nicknaming someone standing 5'11" while tipping the scales at 250 pounds "Flatty" is entirely within the tradition.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fragoso elected Presidente of Mexico's largest Little League

Whether you attend a pro baseball game in Phoenix, Puebla or Pawtucket, you’re watching athletes who’ve been honing their craft on baseball diamonds for years, even decades.  For nearly all ballplayers, the process of becoming good enough to draw a paycheck begins when they’re grade schoolers, and the yellow-brick road leading to Fenway Park or Estadio Monterrey almost invariably starts on the scaled-down fields of Little League Baseball.  Anyone who has played baseball seriously will tell you just how hard baseball is to play WELL, no matter how gifted you are or where you’re playing it.

Mexico’s largest Little League organization is the Liga Olmeca in Mexico City, where nearly 1,000 boys and girls first swing a bat in earnest and can spend years learning the fundamentals of the sport such as how to field a grounder to their right, hitting against pitchers who can throw breaking stuff and turning a double play around second base.  Since its formation in 1963, the Liga Olmeca has produced future major league pitcher Rodrigo Lopez (AL Rookie of the Month in July 2002 while hurling for the Orioles) along with numerous minor league and college players.  Former Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre, who is also owner of the Class AA Erie Seawolves and a minority owner of the Cincinnati Reds, also learned to play ball in the Liga Olmeca.  However, the organization’s new president, Carlos Fragoso, says the focus isn’t on discovering future MLB or LMB players but rather on the traditional Little League values of “helping boys and girls develop into a future valuable citizen through the practice of baseball.  If we happen to find a prospect, well, that will be a plus.”

Fragoso (pictured next to Ken Griffey Jr. at a Liga Olmeca clinic) is a native of Obregon, Sonora who now lives in Mexico City and has worked as an engineer with Siemens for several years.  He is also a certified baseball nut who is godfather to Dodgers star Adrian Gonzalez and has served as an advance scout for both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.  He was unanimously voted in as Liga Olmeca president last Sunday in Mexico City, and will begin his term in August.  

Salon de la Fama member Tomas Morales, a leading Mexican cronista since the days of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (think a Latino version of Shirley Povich), devoted his Tommy al Bat column to Fragoso on Monday and I’m barely smart enough to know his words carry more weight than mine.  Here is a translated version of Tommy’s column in its entirety:

For the first time in the history of Little League of Baseball in the capital, a Major League scout was named president of one of the circuits.  That’s what happened on Sunday when the Liga Olmeca chose engineer Carlos Fragoso as the new boss of this circuit, which is considered the jewel of the crown between Little League Baseball organizations in the DF, having the best fields for the practice of the king of sports. Fragoso is currently a scout for the New York Yankees as the right arm of Lee Sigman in Mexico City, and has for several years been linked to the Olmec League that has now elected him as the new president.

Throughout his life Carlos Fragoso has been a lover of our King of Sports and some years ago, as a scout of the Boston Red Sox, discovered the young pitcher Luis Alonso Mendoza, who was signed by Lee Sigman on the recommendation of the engineer, reached the Major Leagues with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, is currently pitching in Japan and whose right of return is held by the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.  For the Red Sox, Fragoso also signed left-handed pitcher Mauricio Lara, who was injured but after recovering has had a good run on the Mexican ball.  His contacts in baseball meant that past Liga Olmeca season inaugurations were attended by Major League players like Edgar Gonzalez as well as pitchers Alfredo Aceves and Fernando Salas.

Now Carlos Fragoso has put his back into the intense work that will be to successfully lead the destinies of the Olmec League in this new season that started on Sunday with the election of a new president. Of course it is not an easy task to take the reins of this Little League that numbers a population of almost a thousand young people between 3 and 21 years of age who play on the fields of Liga Olmeca, including girls softball.  Carlos Fragoso told us that his main goal is to consolidate the good path that has led the league over the years and praised the work that the previous presidents have done.  One of the goals set by the new president is to improve the quality of baseball that is played, and for this he announced that the Liga Olmeca will take part in tournaments as famous as Williamsport as well as the International Pony League.

Fragoso has the full support of the Mexican Amateur Baseball Federation, which was represented on Sunday in the Liga Olmeca by the president of that body, Enrique Mayorga, and treasurer Carlos Buenrostro, who is also in charge of overseeing all The Little and Juvenile Leagues of the capital.  Fragoso, Mayorga and Buenrostro all came to play in those tournaments of the Metropolitan League with pleasant memories of what for a long time had Social Security Park as a stage, and who one of the founders and president of the circuit for many years was the unforgettable gift Miguel Oropeza.

Fragoso will have a lot of positives to start working with, including a complex of fields (with clubhouses and a food court) considered among Mexico’s best Little League facilities with in-house groundskeepers and maintenance workers.  A crew of 14 full-time trainers and coaches works with the Liga Olmeca’s young ballplayers drawn from the hemisphere’s second-largest city of 21 million inhabitants.

Conversely, the Liga Olmeca now has one more positive to work with: Carlos Fragoso will be occupying their Presidente’s chair.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wally Backman fired in Monclova; will Tim Johnson take over?

When Wally Backman was hired last winter to manage the Monclova Acereros, all that was missing was a betting line from Las Vegas oddsmakers on how long the former Mets infielder would stay.  Speculation was that Backman, who's had success managing teams (including Vegas) in both affiliated and independent minor leagues, was viewing Monclova as little more than a placeholder until he got another offer from a team in the States.

USA Today writer Bob Klapisch quoted Backman at the time as saying, "I would take it in a minute.  What I'm worried about is being out of sight, out of mind.  If I go to Mexico, I'll be out of sight from the people I'm trying to connect with."  After new Acereros owner Gerardo Benavides transferred several key players to Monclova from his 2016 champions in Puebla, the Steelers were considered a favorite to win the Mexican League's North Division title and contend for the city's first LMB championship.  As manager, Backman was obviously a major component of Benavides' win-now philosophy.

Backman has indeed left Monclova less than two months into the season, but not the way a lot of people (including himself) expected after he was fired last Friday with the Acereros holding a 22-20 record and fifth place in the LMB North.  In his defense, the team was not playing all that badly in what has been a very competitive division over the first eight weeks of the season, neither winning more than three consecutive games once nor suffering longer than one three-game skid either while averaging about six runs per contest with a team ERA of 4.43.  

However, there were two problems the fiery Oregonian couldn't overcome.  One was his inability to speak Spanish, something that can be a detriment to effectively managing a baseball team in Mexico (let alone writing about Mexican baseball, believe me).  Another is that while Benavides has spared little expense in collecting enough talent to elicit title talk among Liga observers, he is also a native of Monclova who now owns the team his grandfather, Harold Pape, formed in 1974 and keenly aware that no pennant flag has ever flown atop Estadio Monclova.  Managers in Mexico typically face much more pressure than their counterparts in other Class AAA leagues because the latter group are less concerned with winning than player development, but Backman worked under less margin for error than the 15 other Liga skippers who opened the season.

Although Backman has been replaced at the helm in Monclova by Jorge Luis Loredo, who hit .247 with 24 homers as an infielder for five LMB teams between 1987 and 2000 before embarking on a coaching career, at least one Puro Beisbol columnist has speculated that another former big league infielder, Tim Johnson, may end up with the Acereros job.  It's far from a far-fetched notion.  Benavides has shown a proclivity for hiring ex-MLBers to manage his teams (Cory Snyder and Von Hayes in Puebla, Backman in Monclova), Johnson has had success managing Toronto to an 88-74 record in 1998, copped two winterball titles for Hermosillo in the early Nineties and won the 1999 Liga pennant with Mexico City in his LMB debut.  He's currently managing in the Northern Mexican League's San Luis Algodoneros, who are 22-19 in the LNM and conveniently a farm team for both Benavides LMB clubs.  Johnson has effectively been blackballed from organized baseball after stories he told Blue Jays players about his exploits during the Vietnam War were proven false, but both his MLB playing and managing experience plus his track record in Mexico may be attractive to Benavides, who didn't hesitate to hire another controversial manager in Backman.  Time will tell.

The Acereros will have to pick up the pace soon, no matter who their helmsman is.  Monterrey has won three straight game (and 8 of their last 10) to run their LMB-best record to 30-11 under yet another former big league infielder, Felix Fermin.  Tijuana has stumbled a bit by losing four of their last ten contests to fall three-and-a-half games behind the Sultanes at 28-15.  After a halting start to their season, the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (with an all-Mexican roster) have won eight eleven games to pull into third place with a 25-20 mark.  There are a number of reasons, but the season shortstop Ramon Urias is having may the the biggest.  Although he won't turn 23 until June 3, Urias is in his fourth season with the Diablos after spending two summers in the Rangers organization as a teen.  After an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, the 150-pound Sonora product is hitting .331 with nine homers in 43 games.  The Red Devils are battling Monclova, Union Laguna and Aguascalientes (who released last year's RBI champ and BBM Summer Batter of the Year Diory Hernandez last week without explanation and no more notice than a line on the Transactions list) in the middle of the pack.  Saltillo and Durango are both more than 14 games out of first in the LMB North.

Yucatan has leveled off a bit, winning five of their last ten, but that early cushion they build has come in handy as the Leones still have a five-game lead in the LMB South over Puebla with a 27-16 mark.  The 23-22 Pericos have gone 7-3 over their past ten tilts to take over second place from Quintana Roo (20-21).  The defending champs are 16-11 away from home (including a three-game sweep in Tijuana last week in a rematch of last year's Mexico Series) but only 7-11 in Estadio Hermanos Serdan.  Steadily-improving Veracruz, Campeche and Oaxaca are all within eight games of Yucatan with Leon and Tabasco bringing up the rear.

Saltillo's six-time All-Star second baseman Luis Borges leads the Liga with an even .400 average, ten points ahead of Monterrey centerfielder Chris Roberson (himself a four-time LMB All-Star and the 2014 Caribbean Series MVP).  Tijuana outfielder Corey Brown has homered just once since his two-dinger game at Aguascalientes on May 4, but his total of 13 roundtrippers is still tops in the loop by two over the Rieleros' Jesus Castillo and Toros teammate Alex Liddi.  Castillo's 49 RBIs top that category, with Laguna's Ricky Alvarez second at 47.  Justin Greene of Saltillo has 19 stolen bases, five more than Quintana Roo's Freddy Guzman.  Guzman's 14 swipes have come in 25 games since signing with the Tigres as a free agent April 23.

Monterrey pitcher Angel Castro survived a so-so start (4 earned runs, 11 hits over 7 innings) on Saturday at home against the Tigres to lift his perfect record to 7-0, becoming the first hurler to reach seven victories.  Dustin Crenshaw of Laguna tossed five shutout frames at Oaxaca last Tuesday to go to 6-1 for the season.  Durango won four of six games last week, all saved by Tiago Da Silva (as he has for every Generales victory in 2017).  Da Silva's 16 saves leads the LMB, four up on Monclova's Chad Gaudin and Jairo Asencio of Yucatan.  Mitch Lively and Walter Silva continue to do well for a weak Leon club.  The Bravos' 16-18 record hasn't prevented the pair from posting the top two ERAs in the Liga, with Lively at 1.98 and Silva registering a 2.15 on the scale.  The tandem has gone 7-4 for the newcomer team, who continue to struggle at the gate with an average attendance of 2,300 through 13 openings (15th in the 16-team circuit).  Conversely, Durango has overcome a myriad of problems, including a delayed home opener of their own, to draw an average of 3,616 to place eighth on the turnout table.

There'll be a pair of matchups highlighting upcoming midweek series when Monterrey visits Puebla and Tijuana travels to Yucatan Tuesday through Thursday.  Attention will be maintained on Puebla next weekend when the ascendant Pericos play host to Monclova in a duel between the two Benavides-owned ballclubs.

Friday, May 19, 2017

1,000th BBM post coming Monday: A look back

Sometimes stream-of-consciousness writing goes sideways, especially when you go into it without an exit strategy.  That’s what happened when I first wrote this story on Friday and ended up with over 1,500 words.  Too much, so I’m rewriting the piece using the self-imposed, 800-word limit Rick Reilly employed writing for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.  What better example than (IMHO) the best American sports columnist of our generation?

This was just going to be a “between-jobs” creative outlet in 2005, something exotic (to me) to write about for the OurSports Central site while looking for radio work.  Instead, in 2017, I’m five years removed from my last radio gig while after a pair of time-outs (one for 3+ years), I’m committed to Baseball Mexico for the long haul.  While composing a column sitting next to my mother in a hospital bed the night she died, I knew that writing about Mexican baseball was something I wasn’t going to let go of even as I was struggling with having to let Mom go, a struggle that continues.  My mistake in 2012 when we thought we were going to lose Mom was dropping Baseball America instead of seeing it as the oasis it is.

Monday will mark Baseball Mexico’s thousandth post since 2009, when it was revived and renamed from Viva Beisbol (itself renamed from Pelotero after two or three weeks in 2005...Pelotero is still my favorite name but least-understood by Anglos like me).  It’s all been quite a ride, with lots of excitement interspersed with disappointment along the way.  Even though there’ve been decisions that haven’t worked out and I’ve made less than $1,000 total over twelve years, I don’t regret the decision to cover baseball south of the border in the first place, even though it wasn’t my first choice at the time.

I’d written for OSC before, including covering the Pacific Coast League’s 2001 season, but wanted to write about something different in 2005 after losing a radio job in Washington state.  After first floating the idea of covering cricket and then pitching Japanese baseball (both were turned down by OSC editor/webmaster Paul Reeths in Wisconsin), we settled on the Mexican League because it is an official Class AAA baseball circuit.  I figured the LMB season would run into August, by which time I should have a new radio job to concentrate on.  I did land a radio job, but I also discovered something about Mexican baseball: I was fascinated by it and didn’t want to stop writing about it.

If you’ve read BBM for any real length of time, you know that baseball in Mexico is not the same as baseball in the United States.  Even though the Mexican League is indeed a AAA league, there is no other loop in Minor League Baseball with the Liga’s autonomy.  It’s a different world down there, sort of like the minors were before Branch Rickey invented the farm system.  The results are often confounding but rarely boring, and the fact baseball is played year-round between the LMB and the Mexican Pacific League (which has become a juggernaut in recent winters) means there’s almost always a game going on.  Mexico is Baseball Heaven.

As mentioned, there’ve been disappointments over the years, but two individuals have done more than anyone to keep my flame burning when it’s flickered.  Jim McCurdy is a retired college professor in Texas who played semipro ball in Mexico and has always been a source of encouragement.  Everyone needs an El Profe in their life and I’ve been blessed to have Jim in mine since VB's earliest days.  Then there’s Carlos Fragoso in Mexico City.  

Sometimes I think Carlos knows everyone in Mexican baseball and maybe he really does.  When Craig Tomarkin added Viva Beisbol to his Baseball Guru website, Carlos was the Guru’s “Latin Insider” who reported on Mexican baseball.  Far from being resentful of a gringo invading his territory, Carlos was supportive from the start and his personal kindness over the years would take up an entire column.  I can’t describe how much these two guys have meant to both me and VB/’s very possible I wouldn’t be here without them.

By the way, Carlos is running for president of the Olmeca Little League in Mexico City, the largest LL in Mexico.  The election is Sunday and while I try to keep BBM as politics-free as possible (don’t we sometimes turn on a ballgame for three hours WITHOUT politics?), I will wholeheartedly endorse Carlos Fragoso for that job.  So does Tomas “Tommy al Bat” Morales, who’s still writing about baseball after more than 65 years and is a national treasure as well as a full member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.  If Carlos is good enough for Tommy…

Finally, thanks to you for reading BBM.  I hope that my love for writing, baseball and Mexico shows through.  We should always follow our passions, and I get to follow three. Even though this has been an awful year personally, I’m so lucky that I can do this and that someone like you actually reads it.  Monday may be BBM’s thousandth post, but it’ll be far from the last.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Javier Salinas elected new Mexican League president

The Mexican League's Assembly of Presidents this week named Javier Salinas as successor to Plinio Escalante as league president, effective at the end of the 2017 regular season.

Salinas (pictured, on microphone with Escalante at left) earned a degree in Communication Science at Latin American University plus postgraduate degrees in Sports Sponsorship in the Business School of Sports in Bogota, Colombia with a Masters in Business and Administration of Football from Johan Cruyff University.  His two-decade career has focused on marketing of sports teams and leagues, with time spent in Mexico's Liga MX soccer organization, which has become the preeminent sports league in the country.

After a tumultuous offseason, during which he'd been forced from the president's office by a faction of so-called "Old Guard" owners led by Monterrey's Jose "Pepe" Maiz, only to be reinstated by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor at a February meeting in Houston called by O'Connor himself, Escalante told the league presidents that he would indeed follow through on his desire to leave his current position at the end of the season.  The Liga's Board of Directors, led by Puebla and Monclova owner Gerardo Benavides, then took on the task of interviewing a number of candidates before Salinas was selected.

Salinas will serve as the LMB's Deputy President until Escalante steps down to aid in the transition.  "It is with pride and honor to be the next president of the Mexican League," he said following the meeting.  "I've been a baseball fan as far back as I can remember, and to become the president of the Liga implies enormous responsibility and passion.  I'm grateful to Plinio Escalante, whom I've been close to, and also grateful to the entire Assembly, where I've met Mexican entrepreneurs who love baseball and are looking for significant change.  It's a huge challenge, and we will face it in the best way."

Also during Monday's meeting in Mexico City, the LMB Board of Directors and various committees were restored.  The new Board includes Benavides as President, Mexico City team president Roberto Mansur and Veracruz' Jose Mansur (Roberto's brother) as co-Vice Presidents, Alejandro Uribe of Tijuana (son of Toros owner Alberto Uribe) as Treasurer and Eustacio Alvarez of Aguascalientes as Secretary.

Salinas' election to succeed Escalante at the big desk indicates that the internecine war between the Old Guard of Mexican League teams and the New Breed of franchise owners has been won by the latter group.  The two factions had been split 50-50 and the rift over the winter threatened to break up the LMB into two circuits this season or even cancel the schedule altogether.  While the debate regarding the use of Mexican-American players who do not count against the ceiling of six "foreign" players per team (the Old Guard wanted to limit their numbers, the New Breed wanted no limits) represented the focal point of the schism, it was hardly the only issue between the two groups.  At its heart was a desire by the Old Guard to continue as things had been for years against a New Breed wanting to change the way the Liga is run into a marketing-driven model in which teams generated revenue by selling their product to the public rather than rely on government largesse to meet expenses.  Salinas is clearly cut from the cloth of the New Breed mentality and his election would appear to put the debate to rest.

One has to believe that Plinio Escalante has breathed several sighs of relief this week in the knowledge that he'll be handing the gavel over to Salinas in August.  The Merida native ascended to the LMB presidency in 2007 and brought a sense of stability after four men had held the office since Pedro Treto Cisneros stepped down in 1999.  While the Liga has not made any great leaps forward in Escalante's ten years, he has steered the circuit through at-times turbulent waters in that span.  He had planned to retire in 2016, but was talked into staying on two more years by a group of men led by Carlos Peralta, the then-owner of the Quintana Roo Tigres.

The move took on a sense of irony last winter when Peralta was among the owners who voted to oust Escalante in a rather dubious procedure during which a representative of the Reynosa Broncos (who sided with the New Breed) was kept out of league meetings because the franchise had not yet officially shifted to its current site in Leon.  At that point, Pepe Maiz became the de facto LMB leader in his role as president of the Board until O'Connor stepped in one month later to tell owners that their league's continued membership in MiLB was in question and that the only person he would deal with as Liga president was Escalante.  That meeting shifted the dynamic in favor of the New Breed, culminating in Monday's election of Salinas as Escalante's successor.

Since then, Peralta has sold the Tigres to a group fronted by former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Fernando Valenzuela while for all intent and purposes, Pepe Maiz has disappeared from the Mexican baseball scene after selling 50 percent of his Monterrey Sultanes to Grupo Multimedios.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sultanes win eighth straight as Castro goes to 6-0

The Monterrey Sultanes bashed Durango pitchers for 24 hits and put together a seven-run fourth inning en route to a 15-9 win over the Generales Sunday afternoon at Estadio Francisco Villa in Durango.  The win was the eighth in a row for the Sultanes, who swept the series to take sole possession of first place in the Mexican League North Division with a 28-9 record, including a current win streak of eight games in a row.  Durango fell further into last place in the LMB North at 12-27.

Monterrey starter Angel Castro (pictured), who briefly pitched for Oakland in 2015, picked up the win to go to 6-0 on the season, becoming the first LMB pitcher to cross the six-win threshold.  Castro fairly sailed through the first five innings, tossing shutout ball over the first four frames before giving up a single run in the fifth.  At that point, however, the Sultanes had scored 11 runs so there was little to worry about.  Monterrey had sent twelve batters to the plate in that big fourth inning, scoring seven runs on six singles, two errors and a walk in a baseball version of death by a thousand cuts.  However, Castro ran into his own troubles in the bottom of the sixth, an inning in which eleven Generales hitters came up to bat and plated eight runs to close Durango's deficit to two.

Daniel Mayora opened the sixth by homering off Castro to straightaway center field.  After Jairo Perez reached base on a fielding error by Monterrey third baseman Moises Gutierrez, Yadir Drake singled Perez to second and Jesus Loya's safety up the middle brought Perez home to make it an 11-2 game.  Castro struck out Humberto Castro (no relation) swinging for the first out, then was replaced by Edgar Torres with two runners on after tossing 104 pitches in Castro's first start after a 135-pitch complete game against Laguna on May 9.  Torres continued the struggle, giving up two run-scoring singles, hitting a batter, tossing a wild pitch and serving a three-run homer to Henry A. Rodriguez without recording an out before Monterrey skipper Felix Fermin had seen enough and waved in Marco Carrillo, who got the final two outs after the Sultanes' lead had been cut to 11-9.  A four-run ninth inning keyed by Said Gutierrez' two-run double brought Monterrey's advantage to 15-9 and it was left to closer Wirfin Obispo to retire the Generales without a run in the bottom of the ninth for his sixth save in seven opportunities.

Castro's stat line was anything but pretty (5.1 innings, 8 hits, 2 walks, 4 earned runs), but he got the one stat that trumps anything a sabermetrician can come up with: The W, his sixth of the campaign.  Five other LMB pitchers have five wins.  Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin, Laguna teammates Dustin Crenshaw and Edgar Osuna were unable to pick up a win last week with a similar fate befalling Saltillo's Frankie de la Cruz (who has lost his last two decisions after starting out 5-0).  Negrin's Leones moundmate, Juan Delgadillo, earned his fifth win last Tuesday by hurling five shutout entradas at Campeche to go to 5-1.

Among other LMB pitchers, Leon teammates Walter Silva and Mitch Lively have pitched better than their seventh-place team's record (15-24) indicates and hold the top two berths on the ERA table, Silva at 1.62 and Lively at 1.98 as the only two starters in the Liga with a sub-2.00 ERA.  They've combined for a 7-3 record, which at least implies where the Bravos would be without them.  Oaxaca lefty Irwin Delgado struck out seven Puebla batters over six innings in a loss to the Pericos last Thursday to maintain the lead in strikeouts with 50 in as many innings.  Monclova's Josh Lowey turned in a standout start against a powerful Laguna lineup Saturday night in Torreon, whiffing six Vaqueros over seven shutout innings of three-hit ball to bring his K total to 47 in 44 frames.  Yucatan closer Jairo Asencio has caught up to tie Durango's Tiago da Silva for the saves lead with 12 apiece.  Asencio made 43 appearances out of the bullpen for four MLB teams between 2009 and 2013, but was 0-for-1 in saves opportunities.

One has to feel for da Silva, who's saved every win Durango has picked up this season but hasn't had much opportunity for that with the cellar dwellers.  One bright spot for the Generales is that despite the myriad of problems the franchise faced after moving to Durango from Ciudad Carmen in the offseason (many of them self-inflicted), the team has drawn better than expected crowds since finally playing their first home game two weeks ago after playing their first 27 games on the road.  The Generales drew 11,327 fans for their three-game home set with Monterrey over the weekend to bring their season total to 32,547 over nine games, an average of 3,616 that ranks eighth in the 16-ream circuit.  Conversely, the LMB's other newcomers in Leon rank next-to-last on the attendance table with an average of 2,300 per opening.

Luis Borges of Saltillo has overtaken Monterrey's Chris Roberson for the top slot in the LMB batting race.  The veteran second baseman went 2-for-4 against Tijuana Sunday to raise his average to .417 for the season, two points ahead of Roberson's .415.  Union Laguna second sacker Anderson Hernandez is third at .387.  Tijuana's Corey Brown hit his first homer in ten days Sunday at Saltillo to bring his Liga-leading total to 13, two more than teammate Alex Liddi and three up on both Roberson and Jesus Castillo of Aguascalientes.  Brown has also been duelling with Laguna's Ricky Alvarez for the RBI lead, with the latter holding a 46-45 advantage after the weekend.  Castillo is just behind in third with 44 ribbies.  Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene had a great week on the basepaths, stealing six bases over his last six games to bring his season swipes total to 17, well ahead of the 10 apiece by Laguna's Ethan Chapman, Quintana Roo's Freddy Guzman, Dustin Martin of Tijuana and Saltillo shortstop Christian Zazueta.

While Monterrey holds first place in the LMB North with a 28-9 record, Tijuana is only a game-and-a-half behind at 27-11.  The two combatants have created a bit of breathing room between themselves and the rest of the pack, with Monclova and Union Laguna seven games out of the lead at 22-17.  Five of the LMB North's eight teams have winning records while Aguascalientes is a game below .500 at 19-20.  In the LMB South, on the other hand, Yucatan is the only team with more wins than losses.  The Leones have won seven of their last ten games to bring their season mark to 25-13, good enough for a seven-game bulge over 18-20 Oaxaca and 17-19 Quintana Roo.  Defending champion Puebla and Campeche are tied for fourth with identical 18-21 records.

In upcoming games, the biggest midweek series will feature a battle of divisional leaders when Yucatan visits Estadio Monterrey for three games against the Sultanes.  The Leones will move to Monclova Friday to open a series against the Acereros in what looks to be the most intriguing set next weekend.

LMB NORTH: Monterrey 28-9, Tijuana 27-11, Monclova 22-17, Union Laguna 22-17, Mexico City 21-18, Aguascalientes 19-20, Saltillo 15-22, Durango 12-27
LMB SOUTH: Yucatan 25-13, Oaxaca 18-20, Quintana Roo 17-19, Campeche 18-21, Puebla 18-21, Veracruz 17-21, Leon 15-24, Tabasco 12-26

Friday, May 12, 2017

LMP Manager of Year Matias Carrillo fired by Mayos

The topic of managerial firings in Mexican baseball has been pounded into sand on this site, but they're often the result of team ownership or management pressing the panic button (sometimes remarkably early into a season).  However, even in Mexico, it's a rarity that a manager is shown the door after a season in which he led his team to the best regular season record in the league and won Manager of the Year laurels.

Matias Carrillo must be wondering what he has to do to keep a job after being let go earlier this week by the Mexican Pacific League's Navojoa Mayos.  All Carrillo did last winter was take the Mayos to a 39-29 overall record, the LMP's second half title and a tie with Los Mochis for the most accrued points for the season.  However, Navojoa absorbed a first-round playoff loss to eventual champion Mexicali in six games, and perhaps that served as catalyst for his ouster from the Mayos job.  We may never know, as apparently owner Victor Cuevas never gave Carrillo a reason for his firing. Yucatan Leones skipper Willie Romero (who once played with and for Carrillo with the Quintana Roo Tigres) was immediately announced as Navojoa's new manager.  Willie may want to start looking over his shoulder with the Mayos, however, as he's won two consecutive Manager of the Year awards in the Mexican League himself.

Carrillo's firing surprised even the usually skeptical columnists at Puro Beisbol, who've seen managers come and go with almost alarming regularity, and they no doubt notice that it seems to be the same men doing the coming and going, but the former Florida Marlins outfielder and one of the top sluggers in Mexican baseball history has had a strange baseball journey since retiring as a player at age 45 in 2008.  The following year, he replaced Enrique "Che" Reyes at the helm in Quintana Roo and led the Cancun squad to a 71-36 record to win the Mexican League South Division title before advancing to the LMB Championship Series, losing to Saltillo in six games.  In 2010, Carrillo took the Tigres to a 56-47 mark before losing to Oaxaca in the first round, but the club rebounded in 2011 by winning the LMB South 59-41 and copping the pennant by sweeping archrival Mexico City in the title series to earn Manager of the Year honors.

There was more success for Quintana Roo under Carrillo in 2012, with another division title at 73-39 and a trip to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Veracruz at that stage of the postseason.  The 2013 season was when things began to get weird for "El Coyote" and the Tigres, as the team was 55-43 in July when owner Carlos Peralta fired Carrillo with two weeks left in the regular season (for "poor results") and replaced him with Roberto Vizcarra.  The Tigres went on to win the LMB pennant that year, but one has to wonder what was wrong with a manager who'd gone 314-206 (.604) with three division crowns and a Liga championship between 2009 and 2013.

It took ten hours for the Yucatan Leones to hire Carrillo to manage them over the final 12 games of the 2013 regular season, but it was too late to salvage the season as the Lions came in sixth in the LMB South with a 50-61 record.  He was carried over as skipper in Merida for 2014 but was replaced by Orlando Sanchez after starting out 8-18.  Carrillo was hired within days of his ouster in Yucatan to manage the newly-formed Tijuana Toros, who were 18-23 at the time.  The Toros went 37-35 under Carrillo but failed to reach the playoffs, which was apparently sufficient for TJ management to say adios to the Sinaloa native.  2014 wasn't a total washout for Carrillo, who'd managed the Hermosillo Naranjeros to Mexican Pacific League and Caribbean Series championships to start the year.  The trophy presented annually to the LMP batting champion bears his name.

It didn't take long for Carrillo to find work again.  He was initially hired as batting coach in Saltillo for 2015, but the Puebla Pericos came calling a month into the season to replace Von Hayes as manager after the Parrots opened the campaign with a 13-19 record.  The team went 38-38 the rest of the way and missed the postseason, but Carrillo was kept on board for 2016.  Even veteran observers of Mexican baseball had to scratch their heads when El Coyote led the Pericos to a Liga-best 38-15 record at the All-Star Break, during which he was inexplicably fired and replaced by Cory Snyder, who went on to take Puebla to the LMB pennant.  Carrillo went on to coach briefly with Yucatan under Romero before moving back to Tijuana, where he currently serves as batting coach under manager Pedro Mere.  Mere led the Toros to the LMB Championship Series last summer, losing to Puebla.

The 54-year-old Carrillo's managerial career in winterball has been no less nomadic, with stints running teams in Obregon, Guasave, Hermosillo and Navojoa.  He won his first LMP Manager of the Year with Guasave in 2011-12 and (as mentioned) led Hermosillo to a Serie del Caribe title three years ago.  As a player, Carrillo stands as one of Mexico's greatest, sporting a Mexican League career batting average of .335 on 2,484 hits with 325 homers and 1,526 RBIs.  He topped the .300 mark 15 seasons in a row, an LMB record, and was also the first player in Liga history to reach both 250 homers and 250 stolen bases in his career.  However, in yet another mystery regarding Carrillo, he is not a member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.

Some guys just can't catch a break.

BBM EXTRA: Generales end 14-game losing skid

The Durango Generales rallied for four runs in the eighth inning and went on to take a 5-3 win in Monclova Thursday night to end Durango's 14-game losing streak, the Mexican League's longest in three decades.

Daniel Mayora, Jairo Perez and Yadir Drake rapped back-to-back-to-back doubles off Acereros reliever Casey Janssen to key the eighth, with Mayora's two-bagger producing two runs to give the Generales a 5-2 lead after trailing 2-1 going into the frame.  Durango closer Tiago da Silva struggled his way through the bottom of the ninth, allowing one run on three hits before getting Oscar Sanay to hit a grounder to short for a game-ending forceout at second.  Da Silva has now saved all 12 Generales victories against 24 losses this year.  Janssen took the loss for Monclova to fall to 0-3 for 2017.

The last LMB team to lose 14 consecutive games was the 1986 Veracruz Aguilas, who went through five managers that year en route to a last-place finish at 30-98 before dropping out of the Liga after the season.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Slugger Matt Clark hitting stride with Acereros

When massive (6'5" and 230 pounds) Matt Clark signed with Monclova, the former NCAA home run leader was expected to add light-tower power to the middle of the Acereros batting order.  Thus far, the former LSU star and one-time U.S. National Teamer has not disappointed.

Clark belted three homers Sunday in Monclova's 13-12 loss to Monterrey in 12 innings before nearly 22,000 spectators at Estadio Monterrey, bringing his season total to nine longballs (tied for third in the Mexican League with Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo and Alex Liddi of Tijuana).  Two of those homers were launched in the first and third innings against Monterrey starter Javier Solano, one of Mexico's top pitchers who'd won his last three starts.  Clark ended up with six RBIs on the day, with half of them accounted for via that three-run bomb in the initial entrada.  A risk/reward type of batter, Clark also struck out in his three other plate appearances.  He's now batting .317 and his 41 RBIs are tied for second with Tijuana's LMB home run leader Corey Brown.

This is not the first go-round in Mexico for the well-travelled Clark, who went 3-for-15 with a homer for Laguna last season before the Vaqueros let him go in early May.  He'd begun 2016 in spring training with the eventual world champion Chicago Cubs, who released him in late March after signing Clark as a free agent one month earlier and went on to spend another month in Japan after leaving Torreon.  Clark's unsettled 2016 season was emblematic of what has been a peripatetic career dating back to his college days.

The son of former MLB pitcher Terry Clark (who was mostly a reliever for seven teams between 1988 and 1997), Matt attended high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California before enrolling at UC-Santa Barbara in 2005.  He spent one year with the Gauchos, transferred to Riverside CC for his sophomore season (where he was a Juco All-American), then signed on at Louisiana State as a Junior for the 2008 campaign.  Clark found Baton Rouge to his liking, tying Georgia's Gordon Beckham for the NCAA D1 home run title with 28 apiece.  Clark was drafted in the 12th round by San Diego that June and signed with the Padres.  He'd been picked a year earlier in the 28th round by Pittsburgh, but chose to attend LSU instead.

Beginning with Eugene in the Class A Northwest League, Clark worked his way through the Padres system for five seasons, including two years at AAA Tucson.  Despite hitting 97 homers and driving in 358 runs over his four full seasons with an accrued .282 average (picking up a couple of organizational All-Star selections along the way, but also striking out 509 times), he never got the call to report to San Diego beyond an invite to the Padres 2012 camp in Arizona.

After he was released from the Tucson roster a year later, Clark played in 2013 for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan, where he socked 25 homers and collected 70 ribbies in 132 but only hit .238.  Still, that was enough for the lefty-hitting first baseman to be signed by the Mets for 2014.  After spending time at AA Binghamton, Clark was let go but quickly picked up by the Brewers, who assigned him to AAA Nashville for the rest of the MiLB schedule.  Between Binghamton and Nashville, Clark hit .308 with 26 homers and 83 RBIs over 120 games before his September call-up to Milwaukee.  Clark's month in MLB resulted in a .185 average with three homers in 16 games with the Brewers, who then farmed him out to Colorado Springs for 2015.

After a good year with the Sky Sox, Clark chose to file for free agency and eventually signed with the Cubs.  Following his spring training release from Chicago and his month with Laguna, he returned to Japan with the Orix Buffaloes, but only batted .172 with a couple homers before being cut loose on July 6.  Clark remained out of pro ball until Monclova signed him in early March.  Thus far, he's been a linchpin of the Acereros batting order and has played respectably in right field, with one error on 30 chances over 23 games.  Never a speedstar (with one stolen base this decade), the massive Clark has generally been able to handle himself defensively in the outer garden alongside speedy centerfielder Willy Taveras well enough to keep him there in the lineup.

So what's next for Matt Clark after his three-homer outburst Sunday?  His place in the middle of the Monclova order under manager Wally Backman should be secure enough as one of the Mexican League's top power hitters this season.  On the other hand, he's playing under an owner who has all but mandated that the Acereros win his hometown's first-ever LMB pennant and a manager who's indicated his stay south of the border will only last as long as it has too.  In short, Clark's situation in Mexico is somewhat unsettled, but that's something he's already dealt with over more than a decade of college and pro baseball.  One suspects he's taking his experiences with the Steelers in stride.  In this game (and in this Liga), that's almost a prerequisite.

Monday, May 8, 2017

LMB: Leones lengthen lead, Paquin packing, Robo rolling

While the Mexican League's Northern Division has been a dogfight over the first month of the 2017 regular season, the LMB South has been more or less the sole domain of the Yucatan Leones thus far.  The 21-11 Lions are the hottest team in the Liga right now, winning 11 of their last 13 games to pull into a five-and-a-half game lead over defending champion Puebla and Campeche (both 15-16 on the season as Yucatan is the sole team with a winning record iu the LMB South).

Pitching has always been a mainstay of Yucatan baseball and it remains a team hallmark this year at Merida's Estadio Kukulcan.  The Leones are third in the Liga with a team ERA of 3.67 and tied with Tijuana for second with a 1.34 WHIP (Monterrey leads in both categories at 3.19 and 1.22, respectively) behind the starting pitching of 2016 Pitcher of the Year Yoanner Negrin (5-1 and 2.64) and two-time All-Star Juan Delgadillo (4-1 and 3.41), but it's really the bullpen that's carried the mound staff.  Five relievers have ERAs of 3.00 or less, with former MLBer Jairo Asencio thriving in the closer's role with a 1-0 record, 12 saves and a 2.12 ERA.  Asencio has allowed 13 hits and two walks in 17 innings for an 0.88 WHIP while striking out 19 batsmen.

The Leones offense has been steady if unspectacular, with very few holes in the batting order.  While Yucatan's team batting average of .280 is in the bottom half of that league table, they've benefitted from opportunistic hitting from the likes of LF Jesus "Cacao" Valdez (.360 with 2 homers and 15 RBIs), RF Leo Heras (.345/2/14), 2B Jordany Valdespin (.298/2/18) and SS Esteban Quiroz (.281/3/16).  Former Mariners IF Yuniesky Betancourt (.325/1/9) signed with the Leones in the offseason but wasn't activated until April 26. After starting off 1-for-15 over his first four games, Betancourt has since gone 12-for-25 (.480) while building up a seven-game hitting streak through last weekend's series with Veracruz.  The Leones will never bludgeon opponents offensively like Laguna has been doing as long as they play in pitching-friendly Estadio Kukulcan, but this year's batting order looks to be a death-by-a-thousand-cuts proposition for the pitchers facing them.

Where Yucatan has been able to create some breathing room between themselves and the rest of the division, the Leon Bravos faded badly following a decent start after playing the first two weeks of the season on the road, and that cost manager Francisco "Paquin" Estrada his job.  Estrada had already survived a spring of uncertainty due to his reported virtual kidnapping episode during training camp, which drew international attention, and living out of a suitcase for the first five series of the regular season before Leon hosted its first home game on April 19 (a day after the scheduled opener was postponed due to a power outage at Estadio Domingo Santana).  Although the Bravos blanked Mexico City, 8-0, in their Leon debut, the team then won just two of their next 14 games, marked by three four-game losing streaks before Estrada got the axe prior to last weekend's series at home against Tabasco with the team at 10-20.  Estrada was replaced at the helm by Luis Carlos Rivera (pictured), who then steered the Bravos to a three-game sweep of the Olmecas to bring them up to 13-20 on the season.  Rivera, a former pitcher who had cups of MLB coffee with Atlanta and Baltimore in 2000, spent 11 years in pro ball before retiring in 2010 at age 32.

Meanwhile, in the Northern Division, Tijuana continued to ride the hot bats of OFs Cyle Hankerd (.351/8/32), Dustin Martin (.307/6/30) and Corey Brown (.291/12/41) to cobble together a six-game winning streak for an LMB-best record of 23-9, but Monterrey sits a half-step behind at 22-9.  As mentioned, the Sultanes have received some very good pitching this spring, particularly from starters Angel Castro (4-0 and 2.33) and Ken Sigman (3-0, 3.41), closer Wirfin Obispo (3-1, 1.11 with 4 saves) and now Alfredo Aceves (3.12 in two starts).  However, you have to go to the top of the Monterrey batting order to put a finger on the catalyst.

Leadoff hitter Chris Roberson, an Oakland native who married a Mexican woman and has achieved dual citizenship, has topped the .300 mark all six years he's patrolled center field for the Sultanes, averaging 19 stolen bases and 12 homers per season along the way.  This year, Robo is outdoing himself early by leading the LMB with a .435 average, 19 points ahead of Saltillo 2B Luis Borges, while his 10 homers are second in the loop.  As befits his leadoff status, Roberson's 31 runs scored are tied for third in the Liga with Laguna 1B Ricky Alvarez, trailing only two other Vaqueros, RF Jonathan Jones (34) and 2B Anderson Hernandez (32).  Tijuana's Brown launched a pair of homers in Aguascalientes last Thursday to bring his roundtripper total to 12 for the season, two ahead of Roberson.  Alvarez' 45 RBIs are tops in the circuit, four more than Brown and Monclova 1B Matt Clark.  Saltillo OF Justin Greene continues to lead in stolen bases with 11 swipes, but has just one steal since April 25.  Tijuana's Martin and Laguna LF Ethan Martin are tied for second with nine steals each.

Among pitchers, nobody broke the six-win barrier but Yucatan's Negrin joined Frankie de la Cruz of Saltillo and Laguna's Edgar Osuna and Dustin Crenshaw in the five-win circle.  Negrin, whose April 13 loss to Mexico City was his first in the regular season since May 1 of last year, is 5-1 thus far in 2017 with a 2.64 ERA that ranks tenth in the LMB.  That category is led by Saltillo's Raul Carrillo, who shows a 1.27 figure after four starts and three relief appearances to go with a 1-1 record. Leon's Walter Silva is second at 1.72 to go with his 3-2 mark.  Irwin Delgado of Oaxaca has passed Monclova's Josh Lowey in the strikeout derby, 43 to 41.  Delgado has one more start and seven more innings than Lowey, whose 1.11 whiffs per inning tops Delgado's .98 rate.  In the saves department, Yucatan's Asencio (12) has overtaken Durango's Brazilian closer Tiago da Silva (11) after converting his last six save opportunities.  Da Silva continues to pitch well for the Generales, with a 1.88 ERA, but the LMB's 2014 Reliever of the Year hasn't had a lead to preserve with Durango in the throes of a 12-game losing streak through last weekend.

On the schedule this week, the top midweek series will be in Monterrey, when the Laguna Vaqueros visit for a meeting of the Liga's top offense versus the league's best pitching staff.  The Vaqueros are third behind Tijuana and Monterrey in the LMB North at 21-12.  Campeche hosts Yucatan for three games between Tuesday and Thursday in an important trio of LMB South games.

Next weekend's biggest series appears to be the Monclova-Laguna set in Torreon.  The Acereros were predicted to challenge for a pennant in 2017 after most of last year's key players on Puebla's title team were moved north by Gerardo Benavides (who owns both teams) to augment an already-solid Monclova roster, but the team has not performed to expectations thus far, starting this week with an 18-15 record.  The club did win four straight games last week, including a sweep of reeling Durango, but Benavides (whose grandfather founded the team in 1974) is in "win now" mode and while it's no secret that manager Wally Backman would leave Mexico in a heartbeat if a better offer came along, his team needs to do better or his exit may not be in concert with another gig north of the border.  As the saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are" and, Wally, right now you're in Monclova with a very talented team and one of the Liga's most loyal fan bases.  Make the most of it.

Friday, May 5, 2017

LMP 2017-18 schedule out, Caneros to host All-Star Game

The Mexican Pacific League has released its 2017-18 regular season schedule, which includes a midseason All-Star Game in Los Mochis.  Once again, all eight MexPac teams will play 68 games from mid-October through the Christmas holiday season before the playoffs open in January.

As in seasons past, teams will open the schedule with home-and-away single games against a rival side.
The campaign will begin with a single game on Tuesday, October 10 when the Los Mochis Caneros travel to Mexicali to take on the Aguilas in a rematch of last winter's LMP championship series.  Three games on October 11 will kick things off for the remaining six teams while a full slate will close out the inaugurations.  Besides the Mochis-Mexicali set, Obregon will play two against Hermosillo, Mazatlan and Jalisco will lock up for a pair of games and Navojoa and Culiacan do battle twice.  After that, each LMP team will play eleven three-game series at home and a like number on the road, with the final contests of the regular season set for Friday, December 29.

The MexPac All-Star Game has been scheduled for Monday, November 20 in Los Mochis at Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada.  This will be the sixth time the ballpark has hosted an All-Star Game, but only the first since 1993.  Unlike the Mexican League, which has converted its own midseason classic into a three-day All-Star Weekend similar to leagues north of the border, the LMP All-Star Game will merely be shoehorned into a typical open Monday with no extra time off for participating players and coaches.  The game will also serve to mark the end of the first half schedule and the beginning of the second half.

Although such events bring their own degree of importance by bringing the best players in the league together for a single game, there may be additional scrutiny placed on Los Mochis and the Caneros this time around.  It is common knowledge the LMP president Omar Canizales would like to expand the circuit to cities beyond the Pacific Coast and the Gulf of California, with Mexico City and Monterrey the likely preferred destinations.  Rather than expanding to ten teams, however, two existing franchises may end up packing their bags for new destinations and both the Caneros and Navojoa Mayos appear to be the likely candidates due to the smaller markets they represent along with aging ballparks they play in.

In the case of the Caneros, they toil in a 11,000-seat facility that will be celebrating its 70th anniversary next winter, making it the oldest ballpark in the MexPac.  Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada held 3,000 fans when it opened in 1947 and has gradually expanded to its current capacity over the years.  Although the symmetrical field has served adequately over seven decades, it has fallen behind newer ballparks opened since 2013 in Hermosillo, Culiacan and Obregon (as well as a massive renovation in Guadalajara when the Guasave Algodoneros moved there in 2014).  A new US$20 million ballpark on the site of the current Los Mochis stadium has been proposed but does not appear to have been approved and, given the combination of a devalued peso and growing governmental resistence throughout the west to paying for new ballparks, it's anything but a sure thing.

While nobody is saying as much, this game may serve as a referendum of sorts on Los Mochis' future as a member of a Mexican Pacific League that appears to be outgrowing the Sinaloa city of 256,000.  Los Mochis has been represented in the circuit back to its Pacific Coast League days, first by the Pericos between 1947 and 1955 followed by the Caneros from the 1955-56 season to the present.  Although the city has only seen three pennant winners in all that time (the most recent coming in 2002-03), Mochis has done an adequate job of supporting its team.  Last winter, the Caneros finished sixrh in the LMP attendance derby with a total of 228,449 attendees over 34 home dates for an average of 6,719 per opening, which would've ranked in the middle of the pack among Class AAA teams in Minor League Baseball in 2016.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Liga Norte's 2017 season underway

While the Mexican League receives the lion's share of attention of baseball fans during the spring and summer as the nation's top professional loop, Mexico's "second circuit" has quietly gotten its 2017 season underway in the northwest corner of the country.

The Liga Norte de Mexico (or Northern Mexico League) serves as a de facto Class AA league for the LMB, with each of the LNM's six teams sharing affiliations with two Liga teams.  Although the league has only been around in its present form since 2012, it dates back to the 1940's under the name of Liga Norte de Sonora, from which current LNM teams broke away five years ago.  The San Quintin Freseros (Campeche, Quintana Roo) are the defending Liga Norte titlists after defeating the San Luis Algodoneros (Monclova, Puebla) in seven games in last year's championship series.  After the Tecate Toritos dropped out following the 2016 season, the LNM roster includes the following teams for the current campaign:

Caborca Rojos
LMB affiliates: Laguna, Yucatan
President: Jesus Leon Garcia
Manager: Leo Arauz
2016 record: 24-50 (no playoffs)
Pennants: 1966, 1975, 2004, 2011
Ballpark: Estadio Heroes de Caborca (5,000)

Ensenada Marineros
LMB Affiliates: Mexico City, Oaxaca
President: Juan Manuel Arellano
Manager: Victor Bojorquez
2016 record: 42-32 (lost to Tecate in first round)
Pennants: 2010, 2012
Ballpark: Estadio Deportivo Antonio Palacios (5,000)

Mexicali Centinelas
LMB Affiliates: Aguascalientes, Monterrey
President: Jose Luis Rodriguez
Manager: Ruben Estrada
2016 record: 42-32 (lost to San Quintin in semifinals)
Pennants: 2015
Ballpark: Estadio B'Air (17,000)
Website: none

Puerto Penasco Tiburones
LMB Affiliates: Saltillo, Tijuana
President: Alcalde Kiki Munro
Manager:  Alejandro Lizarraga
2016 record: 34-40 (lost to San Quintin in first round)
Pennants: 1974, 1978, 2013
Ballpark: Estadio Francisco Leon Garcia (3,500)

San Luis Algodoneros
LMB Affiliates: Monclova, Puebla
President: Francisco Ochoa
Manager: Tim Johnson
2016 record: 39-35 (lost to San Quintin in championship series)
Pennants: 1998, 2000, 22002, 2003
Ballpark: Estadio Andres Mena Montijo (2,500)

San Quintin Freseros
LMB Affiliates: Campeche, Quintana Roo
President: Vicente Garcia
Manager: Benito Camacho
2016 record: 42-32 (defeated San Luis for league championship)
Pennants: 2016
Ballpark: Estadio Dr. Miguel Valdez Salazar (2,200)

Undoubtedly the most-recognizable name on the above directory is San Luis manager Tim Johnson, a former major league shortstop who managed the Toronto Blue Jays to a third-place finish in the American League with an 88-74 record in 1998.  However, after Johnson admitted that stories he'd told Toronto players about his Vietnam War battle experience (when he'd really been a reservist who never left the country) led to his dismissal in the offseason.  He has since managed teams in the Mexican and Mexican Pacific leagues as well as a number of independent clubs in the States, the apparent victim of a blackball in organized baseball north of the border.

The Liga Norte's 84-game regular season opened April 4 and will conclude July 13, with an LNM All-Star Weekend slated for June 9-11 in Puerto Penasco.  Heading into the current midweek series, defending champs San Quintin sits atop the standings with a 15-9 record, one game ahead of 14-10 Ensenada and three up on 12-12 Ensenada and Puerto Penasco.  Jeremy Acey of Puerto Penasco leads the batting tables with a .393 average, San Quintin's Osniel Maderas has five homers while Juan Carlos Torres of San Luis
is tops with 21 RBIs.  Yeiper de Jesus Castillo of San Luis has the most wins among LNM pitchers with four victories, Castillo's Algondoneros staff mate Miguel Ruiz has a league-leading 34 strikeouts and Ensenada hurler Wanel Vazquez' 1.01 ERA is the lowest among starters.