Friday, June 9, 2017

Octet of fortysomethings still playing, producing in Liga

Of the literally hundreds of baseball books I've read over the years, "Some Are Called Clowns" remains one of my all-time favorites.  Written by pitcher-manager Bill Heward, who is now a professor at Ohio State University, the book is a diary of the 1973 season with the Indianapolis Clowns, the last of the great barnstorming teams before finally folding in 1989. The Clowns, whose alumni includes one Henry Aaron, had integrated by 1973.  A player who came and went that year called himself Jim King, and one chapter was devoted to King's travails in baseball, including his experience in Mexico.  It was my first exposure to the Mexican League beyond The Sporting News Baseball Guides of the era and that chapter sparked an interest in Mexican baseball that obviously has continued to this day.

One quote from Heward struck me as a 15-year-old and has stayed with me.  King was using an assumed name and shaved years off his age to make himself look more attractive to MLB scouts, but Heward said about King's time in Mexico, "Jim wasn't worried about anyone checking his age. Mexican style baseball bears only slight resemblance to U.S. big league operations.  They didn't care, for instance, how old anyone was, so long as they could do the job."  Which makes total sense if you think about it. Minnie Minoso (pictured) extended his playing career nine summers in the Mexican League with Jalisco and Union Laguna.  The Vaqueros were less concerned about the 50 years he had reportedly spent on this earth than they were about the 12 homers and 83 RBIs that Minoso (who belongs in Cooperstown) brought them in 1973, his final season.  The bottom line in Mexico: If you can still play, why shouldn't you?

Fast forward to 2017, and it's apparent that philosophy is still alive and well in the LMB, where no fewer than eight players age 40 and over are not only still in uniform, but in most cases are contributing to their team's fortunes.  Reference was made to this octet of active fortysomethings (six of them pitchers) in a recent Puro Beisbol column written by editor Fernando Ballesteros, so why not take a look in BBM at how they're doing thus far during the current season?

RAFAEL DIAZ (Age 46), Tijuana Toros pitcher
A 5'11" right-hander, Diaz is the only pitcher in Liga history to top the 100 mark in both wins (107) and saves (105) for his career.  He's gone back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen over the years, serving Pedro Mere's Toros as a starter in 2017.  Diaz is currently 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA over 46 innings pitched this year, his 20th in the LMB, striking out 33 while walking just 10 batsmen.  He saw his ERA go up from 3.14 to 3.91 after being touched for five runs in seven innings last Saturday in Durango, but the wily veteran has more than held his own as the league's oldest player.

GAUDENCIO AGUIRRE (44), Durango Generales pitcher
Currently in his 23rd Liga campaign, Aguirre has never been a star so much as an effective middleman over the past several years after being both a starter and closer earlier in his career.  The Veracruz native has not started a game since 2002, making his 12-1 record for Monterrey in 2007 all the more remarkable.  His career record in the LMB is 82-61 with 97 saves.  This year, Aguirre's numbers are so-so with an 0-1 record and 4.64 ERA in 26 trips from the bullpen, but his ERA ranks fifth on manager Joe Alvarez' pitching staff.  It's been a season of surprises in Durango, but Aguirre is pretty much doing what he's always done.

FRANCISCO CAMPOS (44), Campeche Piratas pitcher
The man they call "Pancho Ponches" keeps rolling along, although he did miss six weeks to injury in April and May.  A product of Guaymas, Campos (like Aguirre) is in his 23rd LMB season, all with Campeche except for five starts (all wins) while on loan to Monterrey in 2007.  He's 0-2 in five starts this year, but his 4.01 ERA is competitive in the Liga and with 16 strikeouts in 24.2 innings, Campos can still get those ponches and he held Veracruz to one run in six innings with five K's last Tuesday. With career marks of 190-132 and 2,098 strikeouts, Salon de la Fama membership for Campos is almost certain.

RUBEN RIVERA (43), Monclova Acereros rightfielder
Yes, THAT Ruben Rivera.  After spending time in MLB with five teams (including the Yanks and Padres) between 1995 and 2003, hitting .216 with 64 homers and 50 steals in 662 games, the Panamanian is in his 13th Mexican League season.  Rivera had some great years with Campeche and was a starter for last year's LMB pennant winners in Puebla before joining the mass exodus of players from the Pericos to Monclova.  He's only batting .234 with three homers in 41 games for the Acereros, but has gone 5-for-7 in stolen bases and has hit .333 over his last ten games.  Rivera was at .198 on May 19 but is apparently not done yet.

MARIO IVAN SANTANA (41), Monclova Acereros catcher
Just two weeks past his 41st birthday, Santana has carved a niche in the LMB as a solid catcher who's been a starter in the past but more typically a backup, a guy who can hit a little (.273 over his first 22 seasons) with some gap power while being hard to strike out.  The Chihuahua-born receiver, who's played in three All-Star Games and was a member of last year's Puebla title team (for whom he played 31 games of errorless ball in the regular season and hit .295), can also handle a pitching staff.  Santana is only batting .192 in 13 games for Monclova this year, however, and appears to be approaching the end of the line.

PABLO ORTEGA (40), Quintana Roo Tigres pitcher
While there's been some housecleaning going on in Cancun in the early stages of the Valenzuela Era, one longtime vet who's stayed with the Tigres is Pablo Ortega.  And why not?  The 19th-year vet, 14 with the Tigres, is tied for fourth in the LMB in wins (with a 6-2 record, winning his last two starts), fourth in ERA at 2.69 and is second to Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin with a 1.16 WHIP.  Pablo is obviously still a good pitcher and a durable one, averaging 6.7 innings over ten starts.  He can still throw strikes, with 36 K's and just 12 walks over 67 innings. The best move Fernando Jr. may have made was NOT releasing this guy.

OSCAR ROBLES (40), Tijuana Toros third baseman
MLB fans who remember Robles from his short time as a starter at both shortstop and third base with the Dodgers in 2005, hitting .272 with 5 homers in 110 games that year, might be surprised that he's considered one of Mexico's best-hitting infielders in modern times.  Heading into the current season with Tijuana, Robles had a career .336 average with 72 homers over 14 LMB seasons, including eleven .300+ campaigns.  While the hometown product, who'll be retiring after the season, is "only" hitting .274 with no homers and 8 ribbies in 24 games, he's got a .384 OBP with 13 walks and 4 strikeouts in 86 plate appearances.  He's still useful.

WALTER SILVA (40), Leon Bravos pitcher
Despite all the problems experienced in Leon both on and off the field in 2017 (as chronicled in Wednesday's BBM post), Silva has not let it bother his pitching.  His record is a deceiving 3-6, as evinced by a 2.86 ERA that ranks fifth in the Liga while his 1.29 WHIP is tied for 12th.  Silva is in his 15th LMB season, 11 of those with Monterrey, and while some years have been better than others, he entered the season with a career 85-76 record and three past All-Star selections. Started for the Padres in the first game at New York's Citi Field in 2009, the only year since 2002 Silva has NOT pitched in the Mexican League.

While I won't say that 40 is the new 30, most of the eight above players have remained productive Mexican League ballplayers into their fifth decade of life (and most in their third decade in pro ball).  Returning to the question, "If you can still play, why shouldn't you?"  In Mexico, you can and these guys still do.  More power to 'em.