Friday, June 30, 2017

Fernando now sole buyer of struggling Tigres franchise

When a small group of investors led by former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Fernando Valenzuela purchased the Quintana Roo Tigres from Carlos Peralta amid great fanfare in February, there was optimism that the one-time Dodgers star would revitalize local interest in the team. Peralta's father, Alejo, built the Mexico City Tigres into one of the Mexican League's legacy franchises after forming the club in 1955, including a rivalry with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos when both teams shared Social Security Park that was nationwide in scope among Mexican baseball fans.

Following Alejo's passing, however, son Carlos first moved the team to Puebla and received a tepid response from fans there despite continued on-field success. The younger Peralta moved the team again, this time to the resort city of Cancun, which had been a tiny fishing village before government studies determined it might become a viable tourist destination in the 1970's. While the government turned out to be prescient about that tourism thing, Carlos Peralta didn't have the same result. Although the Tigres kept on adding pennants to fly at Estadio Roberto “Beto” Avila, fans have responded with a collective yawn, with attendance typically in the 3,000-4,000 range. The team had been heavily subsidized by the Quintana Roo state government up until the time the younger Peralta, never a baseball fan, finally sold the Tigres to Cbtqroo SAPI, SA de CV last winter for a reported 51 million pesos (about $2.8 million in US dollars). The hope among many was that Valenzuela's group would turn the Tigres' fortunes in the box office around and lessen, if not eliminate, the reliance on government subsidies that is common among most of the so-called “Old Guard” franchises.

Instead, according to Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, things have gone horribly wrong for the Tigres and Valenzuela, who along with his wife, Linda Burgos, are now the sole buyers of the team after the other two investors, the Tulum brewery and businessman Jose Luis Guillen, dissolved their partnership with the Valenzuelas on May 25. Tulum attorney Enrique Benet said in an interview that the Orvananos family, who owns the brewery, determined the Tigres are not financially viable and that they are not in a position to lose money. The story did not go into detail about Guillen's reasons for selling his 33 percent of ownership to the Valenzuelas, although Pereyra's piece mentions disagreements within the group and overall uncertainty of the team's financial prospects were the primary reasons for the split.

Another unwelcome development has been the growing public concern that the state subsidies aren't the most appropriate use of taxpayer pesos. According to Proceso, agreements signed from 2006 to 2016 show that former Quintana Roo governor Roberto Borge gave the Tigres a total of 239.7 million pesos in subsidies, an amount that doesn't include grant money provided by the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau or the Mayan Riviera Tourism Promotion Trust in 2015 and 2016. New governor Carlos Joaquin signed an agreement with former owner Peralta before the sale was announced to provide 23 million pesos in 2017, but is said to be less expansive with the public treasury than his predecessor was.

Tulum attorney Benet says that Joaquin had verbally agreed to increase the subsidy to 30 million pesos but that even if that came to pass, it wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the team's operating costs for the season, adding that the team payroll alone is 5 million pesos per month. Attendance this season has been less than 3,000 per game, which doesn't generate nearly enough revenue to fill the gap after subsidies and sponsorship deals are factored in, and players reportedly have had to wait for paychecks at least once this season. A proposal to send the players to a road series in Oaxaca by bus to cut expenses was also met with less than the most enthusiastic response.

As if that wasn't enough, the Proceso story says that Peralta has thus far received just one third of the 51 million peso sale price for the team. The cost was to be covered in three payments of 17 million pesos each but only the initial payment has reportedly been received. Pereyra mentions that thanks to the subsidies, sponsorships and ticket sales, Peralta has only had to invest five to six million pesos (about US$300,000) of his own money per year into the team. For the Valenzuelas' part, wife Linda says, “We're fine with Mr. Peralta. We have no problems with him.”

There's one more Valenzuela to come under increasing scrutiny this year, and that is Fernando Valenzuela, Jr.  After the ownership change, longtime general manager Cuauhtemoc "Chito" Rodriguez (a former LMB Executive of the Year who was named "King of Baseball" by Minor League Baseball in 2011) was replaced by Valenzuela, Jr. The result has been less than satisfactory, as the team has not replaced many well-paid veterans let go during the offseason with similar talent.  This year's offense ranks last in the LMB in batting (.261), homers (395) and runs scored (265, or 3.90 per game).  The pitching has been better, with a 4.13 team ERA that's currently fourth in the Liga, but you still have to outscore your opponents.  Veteran outfielder Freddy Guzman, still speedy at 33 and second in the league with 19 stolen bases in 24 attempts, was released on June 16, a move that effectively took away the Tigres' best baserunner.  Although the Tigres would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today, that's more reflective of the poor overall performance of LMB South teams than anything the Cancun squad has done to qualify for the postseason. SOMEONE has to fill those four berths. Linda Valenzuela says, “The truth is that my son was better as a player.”

Unlike similarly shaky operations in Tabasco and Leon, the Tigres are highly unlikely to face the question of whether to continue operating in 2018. There's simply too much history with the team. However, there will be offseason questions regarding whether the team can survive in Cancun or if the Valenzuela family will continue to own and operate it. It's a sad state of affairs for one of the country's most prominent baseball teams that was once symbolic of national pride by winning pennants with all-Mexican rosters, and certainly hard to watch happen.  The hope here is that the Valenzuela family and the Quintana Roo Tigres get their acts together soon because there may not be much time for "later."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ex-MLB 1B pitches five hitless frames, gets win for Puebla

North American baseball fans who remember Dan Johnson's time in the major leagues will recall a 6'2" first baseman who belted 42 homers and drove in 157 runs for the Oakland A's between 2005 and 2007, hitting .275 with 15 dingers in 2005 and socking 18 longballs with 62 ribbies two years later.

After that three year stretch, the University of Nebraska alum struggled to stay in MLB, putting in stints with Tampa Bay, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore, Toronto and St. Louis over the next eight summers, last appearing in 2015 with the Cardinals.  Johnson was also a respected slugger over his 15 seasons in minor league ball, batting .280 with 254 homers and 944 RBIs while being selected to four postseason All-Star Teams.  He was voted MVP for the Pacific Coast League in 2004 and received similar honors in the International League in 2010.

However, by last summer, Johnson was 36 years old and mostly out of organized baseball.  While he put in seven games for the Dodgers' Tulsa affiliate in the AA Texas League, he split the rest of the season between independent teams in the Atlantic League (Bridgeport and Long Island) and American Association (St. Paul), hitting a combined .236 with 13 homers in indy ball.  It was at this time that the right-handed Johnson was reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher.  Johnson put in four relief appearances with Tulsa and started 11 times in 12 mound appearances with Bridgeport (0-2 with a 7.50 ERA) and St. Paul (4-2/4.50) while not playing first.

This year has been Johnson's first south of the border after he was signed as a free agent by Puebla on May 15 to shore up one of many holes left when Pericos owner shifted most starters from the 2016 Mexican League champions to his Monclova franchise in the offseason, including first baseman Daric Barton. Johnson has since provided the Parrots some stability at the initial hassock, hitting .290 with five homers and 19 RBIs over 30 games, but it was Puebla's game last Saturday at Durango where he really raised eyebrows.

Facing a Generales lineup featuring four .300 hitters, including All-Stars Daniel Mayora (he of the 35-game hitting streak) and Yadir Drake (he of the LMB-leading .385 batting average), Johnson was handed the game ball by manager Tim Johnson and proceded to pitch five innings of near-perfect ball, with Drake the sole Durango batter to reach first base after being plunked by a Johnson pitch in the fifth after the ex-MLBer had retired the first 13 batsmen he faced.  While knuckleballers usually deal with a relatively high ratio of walks as one of the hazards of throwing such a pitch, Johnson gave up no bases on balls while throwing 36 of 57 pitches for strikes.  Although he recorded no strikeouts, Johnson induced eight groundouts, four popups and three flyouts for his 15 outs.

It's a good thing he was lights-out on the mound, as his Puebla teammates were no more successful scoring against Generales hurler Francisley Bueno, a Cuban expat who himself spent parts of four season in MLB pitching for Atlanta and Kansas City.  Bueno gave up seven hits over his five-inning stint but the game was scoreless going into the sixth, when the Pericos exploded for eight runs (including catcher Cesar Tapia's 100th career homer, a three-run bomb) off Durango relievers Erubiel Gonzalez and Sergio Sierra.  Puebla went on to post a 12-2 win, with Johnson getting credit for the victory in front of 5,470 fans at Estadio Francisco Villa.

Johnson had been tinkering with the knuckler since he was a kid growing up in Minnesota before floating them in earnest playing indy ball in 2016.  Last year, he told Marc Tomkin of the Tampa Bay Times during training camp (where he was trying out as a pitcher), "It's not the first time I've tried this out, but this is the first time I feel like I can take it seriously.  This is the time.  I'm 36 and ready to go on this."

The Durango Generales and Tim Johnson are probably taking him seriously, too.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Monclova's Borbon has six hits in 21-9 win over Campeche

Monclova outfielder Julio Borbon
Former major league outfielder Julio Borbon tied a Mexican League record Friday night by stroking six hits during the Monclova Acereros' 21-9 drubbing of the Campeche Piratas in front of 5,860 fans at Estadio Monclova.  The record of six hits in a nine-inning game was set in 1937 by Veracruz Rojos Aguilas Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo and had been tied 41 times before Borbon's outburst.  Saltillo's Bernardo Lopez and Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne of Campeche each had six-hit games in 2013, the last season the record was matched.

The 31-year-old Borbon had five singles and a double to key Monclova's 25-hit attack as the Acereros scored at least one run in each of the eight innings they sent batters to the plate.  Campeche actually led 7-4 until the bottom of the third, when the Steelers pushed five runs across the plate (with Borbon singling, but being called out at home after trying to score from first on Jose Felix' bases-loaded single).  Borbon, who also drove in five runs in the rout, saw his batting average jump from .324 to .345 in his fiftieth game of the campaign.  The former Rangers starter had plenty of help, as Amadeo Zazueta had four hits (including a two-run homer) and Matt Clark belted his 15th homer and singled twice as every Acereros batter except leadoff batter Willy Taveras had at least one hit and one run each.

Campeche didn't fare poorly at the plate themselves, gathering 15 hits on the night (three apiece for Yosmany Guerra, Oscar Williams and Engel Beltre), but Piratas starting pitcher Jorge Castillo coughed up seven runs on seven hits (including three homers) before being yanked with one out in the third and things didn't get much better for relievers.  The marathon lasted 4 hours, 31 minutes as the 7:30PM contest didn't conclude until a minute past midnight.  One night later, venerable hurler Francisco Campos recorded his first win of 2017 as Campeche defeated Monclova, 4-3.  Campos, who started the All-Star Game for the LMB South, gave the Pirates six strong innings by allowing one run and striking out four Acereros batsmen to go to 1-3 on the season and 192-138 for his 23-year Liga career.  His ERA is a solid 3.19 over seven starts bracketed around an injury that kept him off the mound from April 8 to May 24.

The Acereros dropped Sunday's game as well to fall to 41-30 in the LMB North Standings.  Monclova is in third place, looking up at 47-23 Monterrey and 46-25 Tijuana and casting a wary eye on the Aguascalientes Rieleros, sitting a game-and-a-half back in fourth at 40-32.  Union Laguna (38-34) had a tough week, losing home series to both defending champ Puebla and LMB South cellar-dwelling Leon.  Vaqueros fans appear to be reacting to the team's virtual giveaway of MVP candidate Ricky Alvarez to Yucatan by staying away from Estadio Revolucion.  Laguna had been averaging over 5,000 per opening prior to last week's player swap orchestrated by brothers Erick and Juan Jose Arellano (who own both clubs), but attendance totalled 13,660 over their six-game homestand for an average of 2,277.  Perhaps fans in Torreon and Gomez Palacio don't think much of their playoff-contending team being used as a feeder for the LMB South-leading Leones?

Yucatan was doing pretty well before Alvarez arrived, thank you, and their three-game weekend home sweep over Saltillo pushed their record to 44-24, opening their division lead to ten-and-a-half games over 35-36 Puebla.  The Leones have won seven of their past ten games, the only team in the South with a winning record over that same timespan.  Alvarez has been slow to adjust to his new surroundings, going just 5-for-23 (.217) with one RBI for his first six games in Lions' togs.  Quintana Roo (32-33) and Veracruz (31-39) currently hold the final two playoff positions ahead of Oaxaca (30-39) and Campeche (29-40).  The rules state that four LMB South teams will play in the postseason, but that doesn't mean they'll all deserve it.

Yadier Drake of Durango didn't have the most memorable week, going 4-for-16 in four games and seeing his average fall ten points to .385, but he's still the leader in the LMB batting derby ahead of Monterrey's Chris Roberson (.383).  The latter had a three-hit game Saturday against Tabasco en route to a 6-for-24 week over six games after the All-Star Break.  Jesus "Cacao" Valdez of Yucatan is third with a .375 mark.  Tijuana's Corey Brown cracked a two-run homer at Oaxaca last Tuesday to bring his season total to an Liga-leading 18, two more than teammate Alex Liddi's 16.  Monclova's Clark is tied for third with Jesse Castillo of Aguascalientes and Saltillo's Rainel Rosario with 15 apiece.  A ten-year minor league vet (mostly in the Cardinals and Red Sox systems), Rosario has already set a career record for homers and has 60 RBIs in 69 games for the last-place Saraperos.  Alvarez' 76 RBIs are still enough for the lead in that category, with Brown and Monclova's Manny Rodriguez tied for second at 65 apiece.  Saltillo gardener Justin Greene has gone two weeks without a stolen base, but Greene's 34 swipes are comfortably ahead of the 23 of Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa.  At 5'8" and 220 pounds, Figueroa doesn't conjure the classic image of a speedster, but some cronistas in Mexico consider him the LMB's fastest baserunner.

Veracruz starter Nestor Molina's dream season continues after the vet righty beat both Mexico City and Tijuana last week, allowing one run over 16 innings to raise his record to 9-1 (tied with  ) while lowering his ERA to a Liga-best 1.57.  Molina gave up one earned run in Sunday's win over the Toros, the first time he'd allowed one since May 28.  Oaxaca pitcher Irwin Delgado (9-2) is tied with Molina for wins and is second with a 2.16 ERA.  Delgado had won five straight starts before a no-decision against Tijuana last Wednesday, and his 83 strikeouts are second in the league only to Monclova's Josh Lowey's 93 K's.  Lowey has struck out 36 batters in 25 innings over his last four starts, going 2-1 in the process.  With a 3.83 ERA, the former Mercer University hurler hasn't been as dominant as he was in 2016 before going to South Korea, but three of those four outings would be considered quality starts as he appears to be regaining his past form.  Durango's Tiago da Silva continues to lead the LMB with 20 saves to augment his 1.84 ERA, but the Generales were dealt a blow when the Brazilian went down with a shoulder injury after appearing in a June 11 game against Tijuana.  A post last Thursday on the Generales' Facebook page says da Silva (who'd converted 20 of 21 save opportunities) will likely be out a couple more weeks.

Looking ahead to the coming week, there are no compelling midweek series on the Mexican League schedule but there are a couple weekend sets that have possibilities.  Tijuana will be in Aguascalientes, where they'll take on a competitive Rieleros team that shouldn't be overlooked.  The Toros had a six-game win streak (five on the road) snapped in Veracruz Sunday.  In the LMB South, Yucatan will visit Puebla for three games hoping to extend their lead over the Pericos in the standings.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Mayora falls one game short of Liga hit streak record

Durango Generales third baseman Daniel Mayora went 0-for-2 in a Tuesday night home game against Leon to see his hitting streak come to an end at 35 games.  Mayora's skein brought him to within one game of tying the Mexican League record of 36 consecutive games with a hit, set in 2000 by third baseman Luis de los Santos of Saltillo and tied by Quintana Roo second sacker Carlos Gastelum in 2012.

Mayora's last hitless game had come on May 5 against Union Laguna during the Generales' first-ever homestand following a month of games on the road to open the season while Estadio Francisco Villa was undergoing renovations needed to host the former Carmen Delfines.  The streak opened one night later when Mayora topped an Enrique Legucha pitch to send a slow roller to third and beat Jaime Pedroza's throw to first for an infield single for his only safety in a 1-for-5 outing.  Not the most auspicious start, perhaps, but from that game forward, Mayora went more than six weeks without being held hitless while seeing his batting average rise from .323 to a .363 mark.  Until Tuesday.

Batting in the cleanup slot, Mayora had no luck against Leon's crafty veteran starter Walter Silva, lining out to right fielder Junior Lake to open the second inning, drawing an inning-opening walk in the fourth and grounding out to third baseman Miguel Torrero to lead off the bottom of the seventh.  Mayora's last chance for a hit came in the ninth with the score tied at 2-2, but had the bat taken out of his hands when Leon reliever Fernando Villalobos intentionally walked him to set up a double play after Henry A. Rodriguez had bunted Daniel Nunez from first to second base.  That strategy became moot two batsmen later when Jairo Perez launched a three-run walkoff homer to give the Generales a 5-2 win.

The versatile Mayora, who can also play second base and shortstop when not manning the hot corner, is in his first Mexican League season but is no rookie.  The 5'11" product of Venezuela, who'll turn 32 next month, is a case study in persistence.  Mayora signed with Colorado as a free agent in 2005 and began his pro career with the Rockies' Casper affiliate in the rookie Pioneer League, hitting .263 with 1 homer.  Mayora spent a total of six season in the Colorado system, reaching as high as AA Tulsa, topping the .300 mark twice while being named to the Northwest League All-Star Team in 2006 and getting a South Atlantic League All-Star Team berth in 2007.

He opted for free agency after the 2010 season and began to bounce around the minors, first by signing on with Tampa Bay and splitting 2011 between Rays affiliates in AA Montgomery and AAA Durham and batting a combined .288 with 9 homers while being tabbed for the Southern League All-Star Game.  Mayora then inked a free agent deal with San Francisco for 2012 and hit .281 at AA Richmond, earning a nod for the Eastern League All-Star Game that year (his fifth such selection in six years).

Even so, the Giants released him the next March and he ended up spending 2013 with Bridgeport of the independent Atlantic League and hit .306 for the Bluefish, earning yet another All-Star Game call. That was enough for the Dodgers to sign him after the season and ship him to AA Chattanooga in 2014, where Mayora posted a .302 average with the Lookouts.  He spent yet another year in AA for the 2015 campaign, this time for the Dodgers' Tulsa farm club, and batted .248 while battling injuries.

Once again, the 5'11" infielder chose free agency after the season but this time signed on with Rimini of the Italian Baseball League for 2016 and hit .311 in 33 games to finish eleventh in the batting race for the Coppa Italia champions.  Mayora has also spent nine seasons with the Caracas of the Venezuelan Winter League, batting .281 for the Leones over that span.  His career average at all levels since 2005 is .294 over 1,523 games with 105 homers and 135 stolen bases.

It's been a long and winding road for Daniel Mayora, who's making the most of his first Mexican League campaign.  He appeared in his seventh All-Star Game in six leagues Sunday in Campeche, grounding out to short in his only plate appearance after replacing Tijuana's Alex Liddi at third base in the fifth inning.  He was batting .364 (eighth in the LMB) after going 2-for-3 in Durango's 4-1 win over Leon Wednesday night.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Alvarez shipped to Yucatan; Vaqueros fans talking boycott

LMB All-Star first baseman Ricky Alvarez
Syndicate baseball.  While ownership of multiple teams in the same league is something not allowed in Major League Baseball since the Robison brothers' transfer of top players from their Cleveland team to their St. Louis franchise led to the disastrous 20-134 Spiders of 1899, the Mexican League has no such problem.  In fact, incoming LMB president Javier Salinas has said he approves of such arrangements, stating that it's better to have one financially capable owner of two teams than an underfinanced owner of one.  Although there's some logic behind that viewpoint, fans in Puebla and now Laguna would be hard-pressed to agree that they're being well-served by owners who consider their local team as the lesser part of their respective equations.

We've already seen the core players of Puebla's 2016 Liga championship team shifted to Monclova prior to this season by owner Gerardo Benavides, whose grandfather founded the Acereros and desperately wants his hometown to fly its first LMB pennant this year.  Although the Pericos have brought in enough decent replacements to hold third place in the South Division standings at the All-Star Break, that is more the result of belonging to a division in which only Yucatan has a winning record.  With their current 32-33 record, the Parrots would be looking up at six teams in the LMB North rather than trail second-place Quintana Roo by just a half-game in the LMB South.  Not so coincidentally, attendance at Puebla's Estadio Hermanos Serdan has dropped from an average of 4,314 in 2016 to 3,241 per opening in 2017, a decline of 25 percent.  Then again, the Pericos were last in the LMB attendance derby in 2015 with a 2,316 per game average so one could say it's all relative, but it's been made clear to people in the colonial city who DO follow baseball that their team is not a priority to their team's owner.

Now let's shift attention to the Union Laguna Vaqueros.  The Mexican League has had a presence in the Torreon-Gomez Palacio area as far back as 1940, with Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo leading the Algodoneros to the region's first pennant in their third season.  Union Laguna won another title in 1950, but it would turn out to be their last.  The Vaqueros were purchased in the offseason by brothers Jose Juan and Erick Arellano, who also own the South-leading Yucatan Leones.  The Arellanos would love to place an LMB team in their own hometown of Mazatlan, but stalled development of a new ballpark there has put that desire on hold for now.  Unlike Benavides in Puebla, the brothers had largely left their Union Laguna team untouched and the Vaqueros have been in the midst of a battle for a playoff berth in the LMB North with a 35-31 record at the All-Star Break, one game out of the fourth and final postseason slot with one of the Liga's more potent offenses.  Until Monday.

That's when the Arellanos decided to ship the Vaqueros' best player, All-Star first baseman Ricky Alvarez, to Yucatan as part of a six-player swap clearly designed to load the Leones up for the playoffs.  Laguna also sent pitchers Edgar Osuna and Maikel Cleto to Merida in exchange for hurlers Tomas Solis, Alejandro Martinez and Leo Rosales, who have 50 innings pitched between them this year.  Alvarez is the main prize, with the 28-year-old Tijuana product having a season bringing him some support in MVP talks with a .330 average, 13 homers and an LMB-best 75 RBIs.  The former Angels minor league has hit 37 homers and driven in 166 runs over 177 games for the Vaqueros since coming to Torreon in a trade with Tabasco prior to last season.

Then there's Osuna, who set the Liga on fire in April by winning his first five starts but hasn't won a game since to see his record level off at 5-4 while his ERA (which had been 1.61 entering May) ballooned to 5.37 with no quality starts in his last eight outings.  Still, the 29-year-old from Mazatlan will give the Leones pitching staff a lefty with 12 years experience, much of it in the Braves and Royals organizations, and a former Texas League All-Star.  As well, Cleto (who previously pitched in MLB for both the Cardinals the White Sox) has had a good half-season in the Laguna bullpen, with a 3.20 ERA and 4 saves in 5 opportunities over 19 appearances, and will likely replace former Leones closer Jairo Asencio, who was released earlier this month despite being among the LMB leaders in saves.  The team also last Friday released Brad Snyder, another ex-MLBer who was batting .268, was second to Alvarez on the team with 12 homers and third with 41 RBIs while playing errorless ball in the outfield.

While this swap (which has not been officially announced by the Liga office) doesn't have the seismic effect that last winter's mass exodus from Puebla to Monclova, fans in Laguna have already let their opinions be known.   A group of six aficionados released a public letter posted on the Puro Beisbol site calling on others to boycott attending Vaqueros games, at least temporarily, at 86-year-old Estadio Revolucion, where the club is sixth in LMB attendance at 5,206 per opening.  The Vaqueros drew just 2,000 people in Tuesday night's 10-7 loss to Puebla (irony duly noted).

It's hard to believe this is the sort of syndicate ownership Salinas has envisioned for the troubled league he's taking over after current president Plinio Escalante retires following the season.  Then again, with franchise problems in places like Leon, Tabasco and now Quintana Roo (that's another story for another day), among others, perhaps Salinas has no choice as long as the Arellanos pay the bills and Benavides is heading the Assembly of Presidents who sign his paycheck.

Monday, June 19, 2017

All-Stars: North wins, 4-3; Castillo MVP; Diaz cops HR Derby

2017 LMB All-Star Game MVP Jesse Castillo
The Mexican League held its 2017 All-Star Weekend between Friday and Sunday in Campeche and the Walled City did not disappoint.  Festivities culminated in a 4-3 North Division win Sunday night as a record throng of 10,657 crammed 6,000-seat Parque Nelson Barrera Romellon, capping a three-day event that began with the LMB announcing Friday that they would play two shorter seasons in 2018 and hometown hero Francisco "Frank" Diaz beating Tijuana's Alex Liddi in the final round of Saturday's Home Run Derby.

Sentiment was the rule of the day at Sunday's Juego de Estrellas, with winless Francisco Campos (0-3) taking the mound for the LMB South as cheers rang out from all corners of the ballpark.  The man they call Poncho Ponches (which liberally translates to "Strikeout Man") was making the 15th All-Star appearance of his 23-year Liga career, all spent in Campeche except for a stint of five wins in as many starts on loan to Monterrey in 2006.  To many, Campos IS the Piratas, and he held up his end of the bargain by tossing a scoreless first inning and living up to his nickname by whiffing Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias, older brother of Padres shortstop prospect Luis Urias.

After his South teammates gave Campos a lead in the bottom of the first when Balbino Fuenmayor (Veracruz) doubled in two runners off Octavio Acosta (Mexico City), the North got a run back when Zoilo Almonte doubled off Pablo Ortega (Tigres) in the top of the second.  It became a 3-1 game in the bottom of the entrada when another Campeche All-Star, third baseman C.J. Retherford, socked a solo homer off reliever Arturo Lopez (Mexico City), but the North roared back for three runs in the top of the third.  Yoanner Negrin (Yucatan) took over on the hill for the South and was immediately greeted by singles from Justin Greene (Saltillo) and Urias, followed by a three-run bomb detonated by Jesse Castillo (Aguascalientes) to produce what turned out to be the game-winning runs.

Castillo (pictured) was subsequently selected as the All-Star Game MVP by media members in attendance.  Greene and Urias each had two singles as part of the North's 10-hit attack.  The South's eight safeties were scattered among as many batters, with a double from Ronnier Mustelier (Yucatan) the only extra-base hit.  A total of 19 pitchers saw action for both teams as North manager Pedro Mere (Tijuana) and South skipper Willie Romero (Yucatan) kept to 20-pitch count limits.  Jose Oyervides (Monclova) tossed a scoreless third to pick up the win while Negrin came away with a blown save and the loss.  Tijuana closer Jason Urquidez blanked the South in the bottom of the ninth to earn the save.

On Saturday, a large turnout watched the Home Run Derby, featuring four players representing each division.  Leon's Leandro Castro swatted 10 homers in the opening round to lead all eight batters, advancing to the second round along with Campeche's Frank Diaz (7), Alex Liddi (4) and Issmael Salas (4).  Liddi and Salas moved on after a special tiebreaker with Durango's Yadir Drake and Veracruz' Balbino Fuenmayor, who'd also hit four homers in the opening stage.  Tijuana's Corey Brown (3) and the Rieleros' Castillo (3) finished tied for seventh.  In the second round, defending HR Derby champ Liddi knocked out 14 dingers to reach the final along with Diaz (10), as Castro (7) and Salas (6) fell well short.  Diaz then outhomered Liddi by an 8-6 margin to win the Derby and claim a check for MX$20,000 as Piratas fans in attendance roared their approval during a weekend that gave baseball in the Gulf city a badly-needed shot in the arm, with the help of Pirates' All-Stars Diaz, Retherford and, of course, Poncho Ponches.

However, the biggest news out of the weekend may have been delivered Friday after the LMB's Assembly of Presidents meeting.  While leaders apparently did nothing to address concerns in either Leon (non-payment of franchise fees) or Tabasco (bottoming-out attendance), outgoing president Plinio Escalante announced that 2018 will include two four-month seasons between February and November instead of a traditional six-month regular season plus playoffs, adding that the change came on a unanimous vote.  The format would be similar to Liga MX soccer, which has two annual tournaments (the Apertura and Clausura) in both its Premier and First divisions.  No details were made available by the LMB, but reaction among Mexican cronistas has been almost universally negative.  BBM will have more as details become available on this move, likely the brainchild of incoming LMB president Javier Salinas, a longtime Liga MX exec, and one that may have repercussions throughout baseball and draw challenges from Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales and Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor.

Friday, June 16, 2017

85th LMB All-Star Game slated for this weekend in Campeche

The Mexican League's All-Star Weekend is on tap for this weekend in the port city of Campeche, home of the Piratas.  Things will begin Friday night with a gala dinner honoring the Liga's 2016 award winners.  On Saturday at 6PM EDT, eight players participate in the Home Run Derby at 8,000-seat Estadio Nelson Barrera Romellon.  The 85th All-Star Game is set for Sunday at 8PM EDT.  An unprecedented eleven television channels, including ESPN2 and Azteca, will carry the game.

Tijuana manager Pedro Mere, who led the Toros to last season's Serie del Rey against Puebla, will be running the North Division team while Yucatan skipper Willie Romero, whose Leones posted the best record in the Liga in 2016, will direct the LMB South squad.  Mere will bring his TJ coaching staff to Campeche for the contest while Romero's five coaches will come from three teams, including Piratas manager Lino Rivera and Quintana Roo skipper Roberto Vizcarra.

Here are the respective 32-man rosters, most of whom were voted in on a record 543,827 fan ballots (pitchers were selected by managers and selection committees from each division):

Pitchers (13) - Octavio Acosta (Mexico City), Angel Castro (Monterrey), Frankie de la Cruz (Saltillo), Yohan Flande (Aguascalientes), Chad Gaudin (Monclova), Arturo Lopez (Mexico City), Josh Lowey (Monclova), Wirfin Obispo (Monterrey), Jose Oyervides (Monclova), Danny Rodriguez (Saltillo), Tiago da Silva (Durango), Mark Serrano (Tijuana), Jason Urquidez (Tijuana).
Catchers (2) - Said Gutierrez (Monterrey), Carlos Rodriguez (Aguascalientes).
Infielders (9) - Ricky Alvarez (Union Laguna), Luis Borges (Saltillo), Jesse Castillo (Aguascalientes), Alex Liddi (Tijuana), Daniel Mayora (Durango), Ramon Rios (Monterrey), Saul Soto (Aguascalientes), Ramon Urias (Mexico City), Amadeo Zazueta (Saltillo).
Outfielders (8) - Zoilo Almonte (Monterrey), Corey Brown (Tijuana), Yadir Drake (Durango), Justin Greene (Saltillo), Cyle Hankerd (Tijuana), Luis Juarez (Monterrey), Chris Roberson (Monterrey), Iván Terrazas (Mexico City).

Pitchers (13) - Raul Barron (Quintana Roo), Ronald Belisario (Yucatan), Francisco Campos (Campeche), Irwin Delgado (Oaxaca), Manuel Flores (Veracruz), Deunte Heath (Puebla), Derrick Loop (Campeche), Nestor Molina (Veracruz), Yoanner Negrin (Yucatan), Fernando Nieve (Veracruz), Pablo Ortega (Quintana Roo), Josh Roenicke (Puebla), Jose Samayoa (Yucatan).
Catchers (2) - Erick Rodriguez (Oaxaca), Cesar Tapia (Puebla).
Infielders (9) - Jesus Arredondo (Puebla), Balbino Fuenmayor (Veracruz), Carlos Gastelum (Quintana Roo), Paul Leon (Campeche), Carlos Lopez (Veracruz), Sandy Madera (Tabasco), Esteban Quiroz (Yucatan), C.J. Retherford (Campeche), Issmael Salas (Puebla).
Outfielders (8) - Jose Juan Aguilar (Yucatan), Leandro Castro (Leon), Endy Chavez (Puebla), Frank Diaz (Campeche), Leo Heras (Yucatan), Ronnier Mustelier (Yucatan), Jesus Valdez (Yucatan).

Unlike previous All-Star Games in the LMB, this year's edition will not determine home-field advantage in September's Serie del Rey best-of-seven championship set.

Saturday's Home Run Derby, which has been named after former Nuevo Laredo star Alejandro Ortiz (who is third on the Liga's list behind Barrera and Hector Espino with 434 career roundtrippers), will feature four sluggers from each division:  Jesse Castillo of Aguascalientes, Durango's Yadir Drake and Tijuana teammates Alex Liddi and Corey Brown will represent the LMB North while the South will send out Veracruz' Balbino Fuenmayor, Leandro Castro of Leon, Issmael Salas of Puebla and Campeche's Frank Diaz.  All are playing in the All-Star Game one day later.  Liddi won last year's Home Run Derby at Mexico City in a unique setting in which a baseball diamond was laid out at the Zocalo Capitalino, a major plaza in the nation's capital.

The weekend will be important for Liga president Plinio Escalante, who has been concerned about extinguishing one fire after another for various reasons since the 2016 season and it likely won't be three days of relaxation for the outgoing leader.  Escalante is expected to convene a meeting of the LMB Assembly of Presidents in Campeche to discuss, among other things, the status of the Leon Bravos.  The Bravos reportedly yet to pay any franchise fees attached to the purchase of the former Reynosa Broncos last November by Potosinos courier serivce owner Arturo Blanco, leading Escalante to initiate disqualification of the franchise, possibly during the season.  That is expected to be the topic du jour with the Assembly, but it may not be the only pressing issue to be taken up.

The other involves the Tabasco Olmecas, who have long been an also-ran on and off the field.  Tabasco made its LMB debut in 1975, with a 1993 pennant to show for the past four decades and has only qualified for the playoffs once since 2007.  Of greater concern to Escalante and LMB team presidents is that attendance in Villahermosa, never strong in the best years, has plummeted this season.  The Olmecas have played at Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero in front of fewer than 1,000 fans on a number of occasions in 2017, possibly setting a Liga record Wednesday night when only 135 warm bodies were in the stands of the 10,000-seat ballpark to see Tabasco split a doubleheader with division-leading Yucatan one night after a power failure interrupted the series opener in the top of the second inning, leading umpires to postpone the game after three hours of darkness.  Thursday's getaway game was mercifully called due to rain.  The Olmecas are now deep in last place in the LMB attendance derby with an average of 1,592 fans clicking the turnstiles at 33 home games.

The potential expulsion of Leon would cut the league roster to 15 teams, creating a scheduling nightmare for the final two months of the season, so a similar disqualification of Tabasco to stop the bleeding would maintain an even number of teams (although there would be a rescheduling scramble regardless).  In fairness, team owners Juan Luis and Juan Jose Dagdug have reportedly kept their league fees current, kept ticket prices among the lowest in the league to draw fans to their 53-year-old ballpark and otherwise tried to maintain a degree of relevancy with the Olmecas.  The Dagdugs do not necessarily deserve to lose their franchise.  On the other hand, the Mexican League can't afford to have only 135 people at their games.  Something has to give and if it doesn't happen this weekend, the matter will certainly be addressed after the season when incoming LMB president Javier Salinas succeeds the retiring Escalante.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

2018 Caribbean Series moved to Mexico; will Jalisco host?

After weeks of rumors swirling about whether the 2018 Caribbean Series would be moved out of Venezuela due to ongoing political turmoil, the Confederacion de Profesional Beisbol del Caribe (or CPBC) announced Wednesday that next February's event would be shifted from Barquisimeto to Mexico.

The continued death spiral of Venezuela's oil-based economy and measures taken by the government under President Nicolas Maduro have been accompanied by worsening unrest throughout the nation of 32 million bordering the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  One result has been security concerns for both Barquisimeto, a city of 2 million residents, and 20,450-seat Estadio Antonio Hernandez Herrera, leading to CPBC's decision to move the Serie del Caribe.  Historically, the CS has rotated annually between Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  It was held in Culiacan last February and was scheduled for Barquisimeto next year. Instead, the crown jewel of latin baseball will return to a Mexican Pacific League city for the second consecutive year.

The CPBC has not announced where the Caribbean Series will be sited, but Guadalajara may be the eventual pick.  The city hosted the first round of the World Baseball Classic in March. While Pool D play ended in controversy, attendance was strong over the first four four days at the expanded Estadio Charros (an average of 14,058 per game) and though there was much disgust directed toward WBC rules and processes, Jalisco Charros owner Armando Navarro and his organization received high marks as hosts.  Navarro has proven very ambitious since moving the LMP team from Guasave in 2014, and has actively lobbied to have the 2018 CS shifted to his city and ballpark.

This CPBC decision has done nothing to quiet concerns over the long-term viability of the Caribbean Series.  Long a cauldron of pride among Latino baseball fans, the Serie del Caribe has represented a convergence of passion, music and dancing in the stands to create an atmosphere unlike any other baseball tournament in the world.  It's more than a celebration of a sport, it's also a celebration of life.

Venezuela is not the only CS nation in which baseball is struggling.  Puerto Rico has been on shaky ground financially for years, including pro baseball.  The Roberto Clemente League was scheduled to host the CS in 2019, but the Al Bat website says the CPBC instead hopes to return to Venezuela if the political and economic situations there improve.  But what happens with the Dominican Republic, whose next turn was in 2019?  The idea of hosting the CS in Mexico (where the largest crowds attend) every even-numbered year while the other nations would rotate as host every odd-numbered year has been floated by at least one cronista south of the border.

Another problem Caribbean Series organizers and baseball fans alike is that Major League Baseball organizations are sending fewer prospects to play winterball in Latin America, choosing to direct them to training complexes in Arizona or even (in some cases) the Australian Winter League, which has nowhere near the quality or fan interest of the Caribbean leagues.  In addition, MLB Latin stars used to routinely play in the CS, but they're routinely discouraged from participating by their big league club and money does talk.  The result has been a drop in overall quality of winter teams, who rely more heavily on career minor leaguers and the occasional former big leaguer to fill the gap.  You don't see a Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente patrolling the outfield at Caribbean ballparks between October and February anymore.

The Caribbean Series added Cuba on a trial basis as the event's fifth participating nation in 2014, with Villa Clara representing the island nation for the first time since dictator Fidel Castro pulled Cuba out of the CS in 1960.  Pinar del Rio won the CS title in 2015 but the Serie del Caribe itself has yet to return to Havana.  A sixth nation will be added in 2019 when Panama (like Cuba, an original CS participant in 1949 along with Puerto Rico and Venezuela) will join the field.  Panama took part in the first twelve Caribbean Series, with Carta Vieja winning in 1950 and Panama City hosting three times.  Following the 1960 tournament, the CS was dormant through the rest of the 1960's.  Mexico and the Dominican Republic replaced Cuba and Panama to fill out the field in 1970, when the tournament returned.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Generales' Mayora hitting streak reaches 32 games

While the surprising Durango Generales have climbed past Saltillo out of the Mexican League's Northern Division cellar, the team has cooled down a bit by winning 5 of their past 10 games.  One Durango player who remains hot is third baseman Daniel Mayora, who singled in a 4-3 loss at Tijuana Sunday to stretch his current hitting streak to 32 games, putting the Venezuelan four games away from tying the LMB record of 36.

Mayora (pictured) is a 31-year-old in his 13th season of pro ball, making his LMB debut this year after toiling in the Rockies, Rays, Giants and Dodgers system since 2005.  He's played in five All-Star Games and been a postseason all-leaguer twice (Northwest League in 2006, South Atlantic League in 2007), reaching as high as AAA Durham in 2011.  He spent last summer batting .311 with Rimini in the Italian League.  Like the rest of his Generales teammates, not much was expected of Mayora in 2017 before he began his run by singling in a game at Laguna on May 6.  Since then, he's gone 49-for-125 (.392) at the plate to raise his season batting average from .328 to 360, good for eighth in the Liga table.  

Mayora hasn't necessarily overwhelmed LMB pitchers, collecting one hit in 19 contests during his 32-game skein, but he has homered six times since the streak began.  The current Mexican League single-season record hitting streak of 36 was set by Saltillo's Luis de los Santos in 2000 and tied by Carlos Gastelum of Quintana Roo in 2012.  Puebla first baseman Willis Otanez hit safely in 37 consecutive games, but that was spread over two seasons: The former MLBer ended the 2009 season with a 15-game hitting streak and began the 2010 campaign with a 22-game run en route to winning BBM's Summer MVP Award that year.

By sweeping Durango in their weekend home series (attended by 39,688 fans over three games), Tijuana extended their winning streak to five games and closed the gap on LMB North-leading Monterrey, who dropped two of three to Aguascalientes at Estadio Monterrey.  The Sultanes still hold the Liga's best record at 41-20, but the Toros are now just two-and-a-half games back at 39-23 while Monclova scored 32 runs in their three-game sweep of Saltillo to solidify their hold on third with a 37-25 mark.  Aguascalientes and Union Laguna are tied for fourth at 34-29, one game ahead of 33-30 Mexico City.  Durango and Saltillo are six and seven games behind the Diablos, respectively.

There's little drama to report from the LMB South, where Yucatan is running away with things at 39-21, ten games ahead of second-place Puebla (30-32).  The defending champion Pericos added to what's become a season of intrigue for Gerardo Benadives' two LMB teams by firing manager Von Hayes last Monday and replacing him with another ex-MLBer Tim Johnson, who'd been managing Benavides' Northern Mexican League team in San Luis Rio Colorado.  Johnson, who managed the Toronto Blue Jays to an 88-74 record in 1998, was rumored to be the eventual skipper in Monclova (Benavides' other LMB team) after Wally Backman was fired last month, but Jorge Loredo led the Acereros to eight wins in his first nine games as interim helmsman to make another change unnecessary.  As for Backman?  He was brought to Puebla as a bench coach under Hayes and presumably holds the same role for Johnson.  However, the Pericos website still lists Hayes as manager with no mention of the former Mets infielder.

Quintana Roo is in a virtual tie with Puebla at 28-30, ahead of Veracruz (28-33), Oaxaca (27-33) and Campeche (26-35) as four games separate five teams between second and sixth place.  Four teams will reach the postseason in the LMB South and at this point, three will be there by default.  Mexico City, whose ownership fought to remain in the North (relegating Leon to the South even though Leon sits farther north than the capital city), would have been two-and-a-half games ahead of Puebla and the Tigres in second if geography had won the alignment debate.  Instead, the Diablos sit in sixth place in the LMB North.

Yadir Drake of Durango continues to lead the league in batting with an even .400 average, but Monterrey centerfielder Chris Roberson has gone an incredible 19-for-36 (.528) over his last nine games to lift his average up to .398.  Roberson, a 37-year-old Oakland native who became a naturalized Mexican citizen over the past year, is having an MVP-worthy season thus far.  He's the first Liga player in 2017 to reach double figures in both homers (12) and stolen bases (11).  Tijuana teammates Corey Brown and Alex Liddi are tied for the lead in homers with 15 each, one ahead of Durango's Drake.  Laguna first baseman Ricky Alvarez continues his productive campaign with 66 RBIs in 63 games, eight more than Brown.  One player who probably deserves to join Roberson and others in the MVP conversation at the midway point of the season is Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene (pictured).  The South Carolinian had a pair of 4-hit games last week en route to raising his batting average to .361 with 9 homers and he continues to terrorize opposing pitchers and catchers alike with 33 steals to easily top the circuit in that category.  He's also been caught stealing 12 times, tying Laguna's Welington Dotel for the LMB lead.  For his part, Dotel is terrorizing his third base coach by going 11-of-23 in steals attempts, which says something (most likely "STAY!").

Mexican League pitchers haven't had the easiest time of it in 2017, with three teams hitting .300 or better and another four in the .290's.  Conversely, three teams have ERAs below 4.00 while another five clubs are above 5.00.  Leon's Mitch Lively is back in the starting rotation after working his way back from an apparent injury suffered in May and leads the circuit with a 1.82 average.  A closer last year when the team labored in Reynosa, Lively has walked just 9 hitters in 49 innings while building a 6-1 record.  Oaxaca lefty Irwin Delgado beat Campeche Sunday to win his fifth consecutive start and take the Liga lead with 9 wins on the season.  Delgado struck out only two Piratas batsmen over seven frames and has been overtaken by Monclova's Josh Lowey, 77 to 76, in the LMB whiff wars.  Lowey has struck out 10 batters in each of his last two starts, including a loss at Aguascalientes last Wednesday during which he allowed one run in seven innings.  Durango's Tiago da Silva continues to excel for the Liga's worst-pitching team, topping the loop with 20 saves in 21 opportunities to go with a 1.89 ERA.  The Generales team ERA is 5.85, which tells you how much the Brazilian has meant to them.  In a curious roster move last week, Yucatan released closer Jairo Asencio (who spent time in MLB with four teams between 2009 and 2013) even though he was second with 16 saves and had a 2.42 ERA.  The 34-year-old Dominican hadn't allowed an earned run since May 14.

With the All-Star Game in Campeche scheduled for next weekend, this will be a short week for regular season games.  The biggest midweek series looks to be in Tijuana, where the Toros will host Monclova in a battle of teams that many preseason prognosticators had going 1-2 in the LMB North.  The top series in the South may be when Oaxaca visits Puebla.  The Guerreros swept a Sunday home doubleheader against Campeche to pull within a half-game of fourth place.  Raymundo Torres' two-run walkoff homer won the opener for Delgado's ninth victory while Samar Leyva's walkoff two-run single capped a Oaxaca comeback win in the nightcap.

North Division: Monterrey 41-20, Tijuana 39-23, Monclova 37-25, Aguascalientes 34-29, Union Laguna 34-29, Mexico City 33-30, Durango 27-36, Saltillo 25-36.
South Division: Yucatan 39-21, Puebla 30-32, Quintana Roo 28-30, Veracruz 28-33, Oaxaca 27-33, Campeche 26-35, Tabasco 23-38, Leon 20-41.

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.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Leon Bravos in danger of being DQ'd by Mexican League

If Plinio Escalante is counting the days until he officially retires as president of the Mexican League, it's pretty hard to blame him.  Ever since the end of last season, the Merida native has had to put out more fires than a San Francisco fireman in 1906.  The latest involves one of the Liga's two new franchises, and it isn't the Durango Generales.  After an unbelievably shaky start since the former Carmen Delfines moved to Durango last November, the Generales have settled down to play decent, even inspired, ball while larger than expected crowds have been showing up at Estadio Francisco Villa.  Durango is hardly problem-free, but this fire comes courtesy of the Leon Bravos.

While the situation in Durango may have received more attention leading up to the start of the season, there were problems in Leon as well after the former Reynosa Broncos moved west to the Guanajuato city of 1.6 million inhabitants.  Veteran manager Francisco "Paquin" Estrada, who managed the original version of the Bravos to three winning seasons earlier in his 30-year career as an LMB skipper, was the victim of a so-called "virtual kidnapping" during training camp, going missing for two days in a story that gained international attention.  Estadio Domingo Santana, like Durango's ballpark, was behind in needed renovations, causing the Bravos to play their first five series on the road (going 7-8 during that stretch) before finally playing their home opener more than two weeks into the schedule.

Even then, the April 18 opener versus Mexico City was cancelled after complaints from Diablos Rojos players and management about poor lighting, stirring up bad blood between the two organizations after Leon team president Mauricio Martinez called the Red Devils "delicate."  As the opener was finally being played a day later, the game was delayed in the fifth inning after winds blew a metal structure near the centerfield fence onto the playing field, injuring two videographers and striking players from both teams in their respective bullpens.  Play wasn't resumed until more than two hours after the incident and the game was eventually ended by umpires after the seventh inning with Leon winning, 8-0, to even their record at 8-8.  That may have been the high point of the season for the Bravos, who then lost 12 of their next 14 games before Estrada was fired with the team at 10-20 and replaced by Luis Rivera.  The team has since gone 9-17 under Rivera.

With all that going on, news has recently broken that Escalante has begun the process of expelling the Bravos from the Liga.  According to Beatriz Pereyra in Proceso, owner Arturo Blanco Diaz has yet to pay the LMB an undisclosed price to buy the Reynosa franchise, an amount agreed upon during last November's Assembly of Presidents meeting.  Pereyra states that Escalante has informed the Bravos' board of directors that he's initiated the process of expulsion of the team and that the matter will be taken up on June 16, when the Assembly meets during All-Star Weekend in Campeche.

None of this can be a welcome development for Blanco Diaz, who owns the Laredo-based Potosinos courier company, a season sponsor for the Mexican Pacific League the past two winters.  Pereyra reports that Blanco Diaz supposedly made required payments to the LMB two days before the March 31 season opener, but that was apparently untrue and that even Bravos players were late in receiving their paychecks at one point.  Ironically, Pereyra adds, the Broncos closed shop after the 2016 season due to financial problems and lack of liquidity.

The semi-educated guess here at BBM is that Escalante and the team presidents will agree to at least a partial payment of the amount owed by the Bravos and allow the team (which is next to last in LMB attendance at 2,404 per opening after 21 home dates) to finish the season.  Logic at least suggests that while Leon may end up being a season-long headache for the Liga, it's nothing like the scheduling nightmare that would result if the circuit went down to an odd number of teams for the rest of the 111-game schedule.

As for Plinio Escalante, each day will be one day closer to September 13, when the Serie del Rey for the LMB championship is scheduled for a Game Seven, if needed.  Then again, he probably already knows that.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Rieleros take 2 of 3 from Sultanes in weekend home series

Baseball in Aguascalientes has never been an easy sell.  The central Mexico city of about a million metropolitan area residents first fielded a Mexican League franchise in 1975 and local fans were rewarded with a pennant three years later when the Rieleros defeated Union Laguna in five games to win the LMB championship, but the game itself has always held a somewhat peripheral existence there.  The original Rieleros lasted 25 seasons before moving to Puebla after the 1999 campaign to become the current incarnation of the Pericos.  The Cordoba Cafeteros moved to Aguascalientes in 2004 and the Rieleros II put in four seasons before the team was moved to Nuevo Laredo and became the reconstituted Tecolotes following the 2007 season.

The third iteration of the Rieleros appeared in 2012 as an expansion team and are in the midst of their sixth LMB season.  That 2012 team surprised everyone by finishing second in the North Division with a 59-49 record and advancing to the title series before losing to Veracruz in seven games.  Since then, however, Aguascalientes has failed to qualify for the playoffs the past four season while annually finishing in the bottom half of the attendance tables with crowds usually in the 3,000 range.  Then you have curious decisions such as the one in which reigning Liga RBI champion Diory Hernandez was released by the team last month despite a .300 batting average after 23 games before getting hurt in late April.  Hernandez was signed Saturday by Union Laguna and had five hits (including a homer) over the weekend for the Vaqueros.  Oops!

Even so, this year's edition of the Rieleros has been more competitive than in recent seasons and if their recent home series against Monterrey (holders of the best record in the league) is any indication, Aguascalientes may host its first playoff game in five years when the postseason opens in ten weeks.  The Rieleros won their first two games against the Sultanes to briefly pass Mexico City for fifth place in the LMB North before dropping Sunday's finale, but their 30-27 record is good enough for a fifth-place tie with the Diablos, two games behind Laguna for the fourth and final playoff berth.

The set opened Friday with a 7-3 Rieleros win as Monterrey starter Javier Solano was chased after allowing six runs on eight hits over five innings.  Ags catcher Carlos Rodriguez, who's hitting .316, launched a three-run homer off Solano in the third to open a 5-1 lead and the Railroaders never looked back.  Saturday's game resulted in another 7-3 win for the Rieleros, this time off LMB wins leader Angel Castro, who was pulled with one out in the sixth after allowing six runs on seven hits and four walks after allowing a three-run bomb by third baseman Jose Vargas that broke a 3-3 tie.  Aguascalientes came back to Earth Sunday in a 10-5 loss to the Sultanes as Luis Juarez' two-run homer keyed a four-run Monterrey seventh, but the point was made that the Rieleros can't be overlooked this year.  Attendance was up at 9,000-seat Estadio Alberto Romo Chavez, too, with more than 13,000 attending the series and more than 4,000 on hand for each game.  Although the Sultanes are one of the Liga's better road draws, overall turnstile numbers are up in Aguascalientes this year.

The Rieleros have an interesting roster with veterans like Rodriguez, 1B Jesse Castillo (who's having an MVP-type season), ageless DH Carlos Soto and recent acquisition OF Dave Sappelt, batting .355 since signing as a free agent a month ago.  Pitching is not a team strength, with Merritt the top pitcher in a mediocre rotation, but the addition of Jose Valverde (who has 288 career saves in MLB) has definitely bolstered the bullpen.  Valverde (pictured) has a pair of wins and eight saves to go with a 2.43 ERA.  No other reliever in the Liga boasts his credentials.  It's a little premature to start printing playoff tickets, but to write off Aguascalientes as an also-ran for a fifth straight year would come at one's own peril.  This is not a bad team.

Even with the series loss, Monterrey still leads the MB North at 38-17, four and a half games ahead of 34-22 Tijuana in second.  The Toros are starting to feel a little heat from 33-23 Monclova and 32-25 Union Laguna, while Aguascalientes and Mexico City are on the playoff position periphery.  Among the North's eight teams, only Durango and Saltillo are below .500 and the Generales are playing well enough to make some teams ahead of them nervous.

Conversely, the LMB South is a trainwreck once you get past division leaders Yucatan.  The Leones are cruising along at 34-20, which would put them second in the North, but nobody else is even break-even.  Quintana Roo is second at 26-27, a half-game ahead of 27-29 Puebla and two games up on surprising Veracruz, who hold fourth at 25-30.  At present, five LMB South teams are in contention for three remaining playoff berths behind Yucatan, with only Tabasco and Leon out of the picture for now.  The Olmecas and Bravos have had their respective shares of off-field miseries as well, with the Bravos facing a possible in-season expulsion over their apparent failure to pay league fees this year after the franchise moved there from Reynosa (which was a basket-case franchise last year as well).  More on that later this week.

Durango's Yadir Drake (.397) has seen his batting average drop below .400, but is still leading LMB hitters, eight points ahead of Chris Roberson of Monterrey.  Drake is part of a three-way logjam for the home run lead with Tijuana teammates Alex Liddi and Corey Brown, all showing 14 roundtrippers.  Drake has hit five homers since May 26.  Ricky Alvarez productive year for Laguna continues, with the first sacker topping the circuit in RBIs (62) to augment his .339 average and 11 homers.  Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene stole three bases over the weekend to reach 30 swipes for the campaign, twelve steals ahead of Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa.  Figueroa, a Diablos outfielder, carries 220 pounds on his 5'8" frame, conjuring an image that doesn't invoke a typical speedster, but he's only been caught three times in 21 attempts.

Among pitchers, Oaxaca's Irwin Delgado held Yucatan to one run over seven innings Sunday to earn his eighth win of the year.  The 8-2 Delgado has won his last four starts to tie Monterrey's Angel Castro for most triumphs in 2017.  Delgado's 2.29 ERA is second only to Veracruz' Nestor Molina's 2.09 figure in that category while his 74 strikeouts are seven up on Monclova's Josh Lowey in the K Derby.  After a workmanlike but unheralded eight years of pitching in the LMB, Delgado (a 5'9" lefty) is in the driver's seat for Pitcher of the Year honors.

The top two upcoming midweek series are both in the North, with Monclova visiting Aguascalientes for three games while Laguna hosts Tijuana in Torreon.  Next weekend will feature defending champion Puebla traveling to Cancun for a set with the Tigres with second place in the South on the line.  Another series that might not have raised an eyebrow weeks ago will be in Tijuana starting Friday when the Toros welcome Durango.  TJ was a preseason favorite among some while Durango was a candidate to not even reach the starting gate, but the Generales have won 7 of their past 10 games and are 19-20 away from home.  In short, Toros skipper Pedro Mere has a couple of tough series ahead this week.

LMB NORTH: Monterrey 38-17, Tijuana 34-22, Monclova 33-23, Laguna 32-25, Aguascalientes 30-27, Mexico City 30-27, Durango 25-32, Saltillo 24-31.
LMB SOUTH: Yucatan 34-20, Quintana Roo 26-27, Puebla 27-29, Veracruz 25-30, Oaxaca 24-31, Campeche 24-32, Tabasco 20-35, Leon 19-37.

NOTE: For unknown reasons, I'm not being allowed to post anything in the comments section below articles on BBM. I'm not ignoring anyone but I can't reply either. If you've got a question or comment you'd like a response to, just contact me directly at BaseballMexico @ I really do answer. -Bruce

Friday, June 2, 2017

Durango wins two in Mexico City, fewer than 2K attend series

There may not be two more different franchises in Mexican League baseball than the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and the Durango Generales.  The Diablos have existed in the nation's capital since 1940, they've won 16 pennants since they broke through for their first title in 1956, they're owned by Alfredo Harp Helu (Mexico's version of Paul Allen, a billionaire who likes to dabble in sports) and they'll move into a brand-new ballpark in 2018. South of the border, the Red Devils are baseball royalty.  After a halting beginning to the 2017 season, the Diablos won 8 of 10 games in early May to pull into contention for a playoff berth.

Then there are the Generales, who moved from Carmen during the winter, had an abbreviated training camp because there was nobody to run it for the first few weeks (manager Joe Alvarez wasn't hired until February), had to play their first month in the LMB on the road because renovation on Estadio Francisco Villa was delayed until well after the first of the year and have had to endure at least rumors of missing paychecks for players because owner Virgilio Ruiz is undercapitalized.  After a surprising start during which the Generales went 11-10 away from home, never being swept in a series while actually winning sets against LMB North powers Tijuana and Monterrey, the team hit the proverbial wall by being swept in Monterrey and Laguna before finally playing their first home game.  That came on May 2 against Monclova, who went on to sweep Durango and extend the new team's losing string to nine games while dropping their record to 11-19.

That was the background of the two franchises when the last-place Generales took a 20-31 record into Mexico City for their first-ever meeting against the 28-23 Diablos Rojos, who were hoping to pick up at least a couple wins and perhaps a sweep against the upstarts.  Instead, Durango left Estadio Fray Nano Thursday night after winning two of three games against one of the Liga's flagship franchises, leaving the Diablos wondering both what happened and where their fans were.

Durango pulled out a 5-3 win in Tuesday's opener when a two-out Daniel Hinojosa single brought in Jesus Loya and Javier Salazar to break a 3-all tie in the top of the ninth inning, followed by closer Tiago da Silva's scoreless frame (with two strikeouts) for his LMB-leading 19th save.  To their credit, the Diablos fought back Wednesday with a 13-8 slugout win keyed by a six-run sixth inning.  Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias continued his career year by going 2-for-4 with four RBIs, including a three-run homer (his 10th) in the bottom of the first while leadoff man Carlos Figueroa had three of the Diablos' 17 hits on the night.

It was Thursday's rubber match, however, that left the home team scratching their collective heads as the visitors won by a 6-0 score.  Generales starting pitcher Amilcar Gaxiola, a former Braves farmhand who went 10-7 with Tabasco in 2014 but has struggled since (going 0-8 last year), tossed seven innings of six-hit shutout ball to earn his third consecutive win since May 20.  Durango rightfielder Yadir Drake, having a career year himself, belted a three-run homer in the top of the first off former LMB Rookie of the Year Juan Pablo Oramas to set the tone and the Diablos never came close to catching up.

The 27-year-old Drake (pictured), who defected from Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula on a boat in 2011, is leading the Liga with a .406 average after bouncing around the minors since arriving on the mainland six years ago.  He actually spent time with a Diablos affiliate before signing with the Dodgers, who released him early last year.  Drake's career was floundering until last winter, when he hooked on with Los Mochis and hit .232 with 6 homers in 39 games for the Mayos.  Not eye-popping numbers, true, but enough to earn an invite from the fledgling Generales, who return home Friday night to open a weekend series against Tijuana.

While the Generales have earned respect around the LMB for showing fight under difficult circumstances, even by Liga standards, and winning 11 of their last 15 games, the Diablos are left wondering what's next. Since their May run (capped by a five-game win streak), Mexico City has gone 4-8 heading into a weekend home set against Union Laguna.  While they are a long way from being out of the race for a postseason berth at 28-26, good for a fifth-place tie with Aguascalientes and three games behind fourth-place Laguna, the Diablos are back to looking to regain some mojo.

The Diablos are one of two in the Liga (Harp's Oaxaca Guerreros being the other) who've decided to field all-Mexican rosters this year in reaction to MiLB president Pat O'Connor's edict last winter that there will be no limit to the number of Mexican-American players in the Liga.  Both teams, to their credit, have played credibly thus far (Oaxaca is one game out of fourth in the LMB South), but going all-domestic with one of the circuit's most potent offenses, including a .303 team batting average, has not translated to support at home for the Diablos.

A number of Mexican League teams have struggled at the gate in 2017, but nobody expected a legacy team in a city of more than 20 million people to draw fewer than 2,000 fans TOTAL for their series against Durango.  None of the three contests against the Generales drew as many as 700 aficionados at Estadio Fray Nano and a number of writers have noted that both Mexico City and Tabasco are now routinely drawing fewer than 1,000 onlookers per game, whether or not the announced attendance figures reflect that. reality.  The Diablos are officially averaging 2,805 fans per opening after 27 home games, ranking 12th in the 16-team loop, but it's clear that Mexico City residents are not coming to a ballpark that was never more than a stopgap after the team moved there from Foro Sol in 2014.  Perhaps people are waiting for the unnamed 12,000-seat (expandable to 16,000) facility to open.  It's been speculated that the new ballpark will be ready for play next month, making the decision by Diablos management to delay their first game until April 2018 a curious one, since Fray Nano has obviously never worked out for the team.  Ironically, a Durango team that was perilously close to not even playing this year is seventh in the LMB with an average of 3,604 fans after 15 home dates.

With the midway point of the season on the horizon, it's still too early to make any long-term predictions, dire or otherwise.  But even though a look at both Durango and Mexico City LMB franchises would give all the advantages to the latter at first glance, the two clubs appear to be heading in opposite directions.  Although there is certainly no chance of the Diablos folding or leaving Mexico City (the Yankees will leave New York first), the team needs some positive things to start happening soon to keep 2017 from becoming a proverbial “lost season.”