Friday, September 15, 2017

Changing of the guard: What is Mexican baseball's future?

This is going to be the longest story ever on either BBM or predecessor Viva Beisbol at over 2,200 words in length, but it's necessary because an awful lot of ground is going to be covered in reviewing the most momentous year in Mexican baseball since the current Mexican League was raised from the ashes in 1955, and there are many more changes in store over the winter.  If you're truly interested in the present state of the sport in Mexico, settle in and keep reading.  If not, We'll see you Monday with the first of our 2017 BBM Summer Award winners as we wrap up our regular coverage of the Mexican League season and start preparing for the upcoming Mexican Pacific League season.

Baseball Mexico is meant to be an English-language information source about the game south of the border for North American baseball fans unable to read Spanish (myself included), so I've tried to stay away from opining about a topic that I frankly have much to learn about.  I take what I write here very seriously because BBM is by default the only site one can regularly follow Mexican baseball en Ingles and I want to be fair to the people I'm writing about, but it's like what Aristotle said centuries ago: The more you know, the more you know you DON'T know.  Still, it's hard to write well over a thousand stories dating back to 2005 and not have observations to share (opinions will be mine alone), so here we go...

Baseball in Mexico has been undergoing a hugely transitional year in 2017 and the changes are only beginning.  People who have read this site over the past year are already aware of the Mexican League's inner turmoil ever since Monterrey Sultanes then-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz expressed outrage over his team losing the LMB North Division finals to a Tijuana side he felt employed far too many Mexican-American players.  The outrage carried through the winter as Maiz, Mexico City Diablos Rojos president Roberto Mansur and others squared off against Toros owner Alberto Uribe, brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano (owners of the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Vaqueros) and others in an "Old Guard vs. New Breed" confrontation that split the loop down the middle.  The schism led to outgoing LMB president Plinio Escalante's ouster in an Old Guard power play and threatened to bring about two eight-team leagues or the cancellation of the 2017 schedule altogether until Minor League President Pat O'Connor convened an emergency meeting in Houston, read the warring factions the Riot Act and forced Escalante's return to the presidency.

There is no way to minimize the effect of that meeting.  Shortly thereafter, Old Guarder Carlos Peralta, whose family had owned the storied Quintana Roo Tigres franchise since its inception in 1955 as a Mexico City team and eventual foil to the Diablos Rojos in Mexican baseball's biggest rivalry, sold the club to former Dodgers All-Star pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Fernando Valenzuela heading a small group of investors.  The same weekend that deal was announced amid great fanfare in Cancun, Maiz quietly sold a majority interest in the Sultanes to the Grupo Multimedios media conglomeration, taking a back seat as a (relatively) silent partner...at least until the recently-concluded playoffs.  Mansur recently announced his retirement as president of the Diablos, citing health reasons.  The void at the top has been filled by Toros owner Uribe, Puebla Pericos and Monclova Acereros owner Gerardo Benavides and incoming league president Javier Salinas, a former marketing maven for the Liga MX soccer league.  The classic explanation may be that while the Old Guard won a January battle that resulted in Escalante's ouster and a brief hegemony over Liga affairs, O'Connor's intervention handed the New Breed victory in the war.

The past seven months have witnessed a changing of the guard, but what exactly does that mean?  Will baseball in Mexico be improved as a result?  On the surface, I would say yes, but there remain many items of concern that make me wonder how much things will really change when the dust finally settles.

First of all, I can see both sides of the past schism:  Part of me understands why Maiz and compatriots wanted to keep the LMB focused on prioritizing Mexican players.  There was money to be made by the Old Guard from selling the rights of homegrown players to major league organizations, something most teams could not do because they lacked funds to sign and develop those players.  More to the point, there is something to be said in favor of the Mexican League being the province of Mexican players.  Personally, I want to see Mexico improve from its current sixth-place standing in the World Baseball Softball Congress' international men's baseball rankings but that won't happen with benchwarmers.  On the other hand, having sixteen teams in the LMB spreads domestic talent too thinly and creates the need to bring in players from outside the country to improve the on-field quality of play, an argument made by New Breed owners.  A little of both philosophies would make for a workable middle ground, but these are not compromise-driven men making those decisions.

In addition, the break from the Old Guard way of doing things represents a break from the practice of relying on largesse from state and local governments to pay bills and even cover payrolls.  It's been a common practice for years among many teams serving as virtual wards of the state to the point that some teams are in effect "owned" by their local governments.   However, the procedure has been in decline in the wake of complicit politicians finding themselves in hot water for handing millions of pesos over to privately-owned minor league baseball teams (among other pecadillos).  The New Breed ostensibly eschews such cozy arrangements in favor of making money the old-fashioned way:  Building winning teams and creating entertaining in-game presentations to draw more paying fans to the ballpark.  Tijuana has been at the vanguard of this movement for some time and Grupo Multimedios has made similar moves since taking over in Monterrey, although the Sultanes still paper the house with free tickets, a two-edged sword that ultimately devalues a franchise among its target demographics.  Given Salinas' background in marketing.  The New Breed philosophy will likely be the order of the day and that can only improve the Mexican League in the long run.

About Salinas.  He announced with little detail over the summer that in 2018, the Mexican League will adopt a similar format to the Liga MX in that the LMB will play two separate seasons between late February and mid-November.  While many purists are screaming bloody murder over what is depicted as an abrogation of baseball's one-year, one-season tradition, that tradition has not helped many teams fill seats in LMB ballparks.  Although Monterrey and Tijuana both averaged over 10,000 fans per game in 2017 while Yucatan, Monclova and Saltillo all averaged more than 5,000 turnstile clicks last season, more than half the Liga's sixteen teams averaged less than 4,000 per game, with six of them clocking in at less than 3,000 (bottoming out with Tabasco's average of 1,437 that included several nights of fewer than a thousand people at games in Villahermosa).

Simply put, this can't continue and Salinas is betting that cutting seasons back from 112 to 66 games will lead to less ennui among fans who've been disinterested by teams out of postseason contention with weeks and even months to go in the schedule.  Speaking for myself, I'm intrigued how this will work out, but it's proven to be a successful format in a Liga MX that is drawing nearly 24,000 per match in the month-old Apertura tournament, which will run between August and December.  Whether or not Salinas' gamble works, it will put a strain on the winter Mexican Pacific League whose own October-to-January schedule will be a month old by the time the LMB's second season concludes next November, which brings us back to the talent dilution question:  If 16 teams are having a hard time finding quality players, how will 24 teams in two leagues playing simultaneously do it?  The MexPac recently raised its limit of foreign players from six to eight per team, but that won't do much in the face of so many players who've performed in both leagues being locked up in LMB playoff competition.

Then there is the question of those 16 Liga teams, an estimated half of which are either in bankruptcy or a hare's breath away from it.  Tabasco has been an unqualified disaster, Valenzuela's partners bailed out on him and wife Linda Burgos in midseason, both Veracruz and Puebla teams are looking north for potential moves to cities along the Texas border (not the wisest choice of destination, given how the same drug cartels that helped drive the Broncos out of Reynosa in 2016 are alive and well in both Nuevo Laredo and Juarez), both Durango and Leon teams had difficulty paying players and league assessments during the season, Saltillo's ownership is in turmoil despite operating in one of Mexico's best baseball cities and the list goes on.  In short, there is not enough support in enough places for the Mexican League to operate with 16 teams.  Rather than letting franchises set up in other cities with no assurance they'll do any better in Ciudad B than they have in Ciudad A, there desperately needs to be a contraction to 12 teams at the most.  Which four teams should disappear?  It's a tough call because there are so many basket-case operations in the LMB, but I'd go with Tabasco, Leon, Campeche and Veracruz (the latter reluctantly, because there's so much baseball history in the port city).  The Oaxaca franchise should probably also close shop because they've never been well-supported but the team is owned by Alfredo Harp Helu, who also owns the Diablos, is the richest owner in the Liga and is very unlikely to allow the Guerreros to fade into history.  To me, contraction would do far more to solidify the LMB than extending the schedule will, but we're not hearing anything about it from the league, only columnists.

The question of people owning multiple teams should also be addressed, but it won't.  Salinas has said he'd rather have owners with solid financial credentials operating two franchise than unstable owners operating one apiece.  While Salinas' view makes perfect sense from a fiscal standpoint, try selling it to fans in Puebla who saw more than twenty players from their 2016 championship teams transferred to Monclova after Gerardo Benavides bought his hometown Acereros last winter.  The Pericos earned a moral victory by advancing to the Serie del Rey this year while the Steelers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, but Puebla fans largely stayed away from Estadio Hermanos Serdan in 2017 until the LMB South championship series against Yucatan and whatever trust might've existed between team and fan base there has been obliterated as a result of Benavides' machinations.  Multiple team owners like Benavides, Harp and the Arellano brothers may have the wherewithal to pay bills in more than one city, but they'll never shed the impression among fans in one city that their team is secondary to the team they own in another location.  Major League Baseball wisely outlawed syndicate ownership after the disastrous 1899 Cleveland Spiders season, but it's full steam ahead with Salinas and the LMB.

Finally, what is to become of the Mexican Pacific League if, indeed, the LMB schedule stretches a month into the MexPac season while players previously allowed to play winterball out west are kept out of the LMP for rest?  There will be a meeting between Salinas and MexPac president Omar Canizales on September 18 in Miami that one hopes will lead to a compromise that works for everyone, but Salinas has not shown any indication that compromise is in his makeup while Canizales has wisely refrained from making any comment on the scheduling overlap's potential effect on his league.  It's hard for me to envision any solution coming out of Miami that will work for teams in both circuits, but it's also hard to envision Canizales quietly accepting a move that will harm the LMP's future.

Like Salinas, Canizales entered the presidency of the MexPac in 2009 with a media background light on baseball experience (Salinas has none in the sport).  However, Canizales took over a league that was already well-supported with eight teams in the baseball-mad states of Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California Norte and he has overseen a circuit that has grown in popularity to the point that an average of nearly 10,000 fans attended LMP games leaguewide.  While MLB has reaffirmed its support of the Mexican League as the country's go-to source for all things baseball, Canizales and the LMP are dealing from a position of strength because they enjoy better support, better ballparks and passable to solid ownership in all eight cities from Mexicali to Mazatlan.  While it'll be business as usual for the MexPac this winter, they face a potentially severe player-pool shortage for 2018-19 if the LMB does extend their schedule two months as stated by Salinas.  A solution?  How about no limits on players due to their foreign or Mexican-American status?  Fans out west have been used to seeing extraneros form the core of their teams for decades, so an open policy on player recruitment may not be a problem if it means the standard of play is maintained (if not actually improved).

It's been a long year in Mexican baseball, on and off the field, and the intrigue begun last fall is not going to abate anytime soon.  If anything, it may accelerate over the months ahead.  With the changing of the guard in the Mexican League, the sport itself will change south of the border and I hope and pray it'll be for the better.  I love baseball, I love writing about it and (thanks in no small part to Carl Franz' The People's Guide to Mexico) I love Mexico and its people.  It's selfish of me, perhaps, but I don't want to see any of that screwed up.

Thanks for staying awake long enough to read this.  We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming, with Baseball Mexico's 2017 Summer Award winners to be announced next week.