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."