Monday, November 12, 2018

MEXICAN LEAGUE TO DROP TO 12 TEAMS FOR 2019

Laguna's Estadio Revolucion will sit empty in 2019
When the Mexican League opens its 95th season of play next spring, it’ll be with four fewer teams taking the field.  At a recent Assembly of Presidents meeting in Morelia, Liga leaders agreed to place franchises in Puebla, Laguna, Aguascalientes and Leon on hiatus for at least one year, dropping the number of teams in the loop from 16 to 12. The disastrous two-season format has been partly blamed after attendance dropped precipitously during the Fall campaign, which began only days after Yucatan won the Spring pennant. While a number of Mexican baseball columnists have called for an LMB contraction for some time, the move might’ve been a surprise to some observers if only because of who WASN’T included in the drawback.  

Puebla owner Gerardo Benavides, who also owns the Monclova Acereros, has been trying to sell the Pericos for months but has not been successful in attracting a qualified buyer. As well, brothers Erick and Jose Juan Arellano, who own the Union Laguna Algodoneros, have made it clear that they would prefer to concentrate on the Yucatan Leones team they also co-own but likewise have been unable to find a buyer for their Laguna team, meaning 78-year-old Estadio Revolucion (the LMB's oldest ballpark) will sit empty next season.  Thus, the LMB eliminates two-thirds of its so-called “timeshare” dilemma in which two or more teams have the same owner(s), something not allowed in Major League Baseball since its own syndicate ownership days of the 1890's. In the case of Aguascalientes, the Rieleros have struggled to make a go of it financially in 72-year-old Parque Alberto Romo Chavez since re-entering the LMB in 2012 and the team accepted the Liga's edict without protest. Things were not so clear-cut in Leon, where the troubled Bravos wanted a third season to turn things around and vowed to return in 2020 after their one-year sabbatical.

Still standing for next year, however, are Tabasco, Campeche and Oaxaca. The Olmecas staggered through 2018 under essentially state ownership after the Dagdug brothers were unable to improve an already-moribund situation in Villahermosa (firing manager Houston Jimenez after a Spring season in which Tabasco did better than expected on the field and at the gate couldn't have helped). The Piratas have had their own financial miseries, averaging an embarrassing 855 fans over 27 home games in the Fall, but ownership for the Fort City team are apparently committed to continue the fight for another year.

Things are different in Oaxaca, where the Guerreros have never been one of the LMB's better-supported teams, although the team drew packed houses at home for last month's Serie del Rey title set against eventual champions Monterrey. The club is owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu, who also owns the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. The Liga does not wish to anger their richest owner in its biggest city, even if it means continuing with one timeshare situation. Harp, who is building a new ballpark in Mexico City and a new Salon de la Fama facility in Monterrey, has been at odds with the LMB office over more than one issue and forcing him to shut down his Oaxaca team would not be well-received.

Players from the four contracted teams will go into a pool for a draft held among the remaining 12 clubs next month. With four fewer teams and more domestic veteran talent to build rosters with, the LMB is also expected to lower its limit of foreign players from 7 to 6 or 5 per team next year. The Liga is also planning to scale back its ambitious 2019 schedule that would've seen an expansion to 120 games, Tuesdays joining Mondays as travel days and a season with playoffs stretching into November. While the number of games is expected to remain at 120 per team, the schedule is reportedly going to be redrawn to a more traditional April-to-September format (assuming the second off-day plan is abandoned in the process).


MANAGER ALVAREZ LEAVES MAZATLAN WITH TEAM TIED FOR FIRST


Manager Joe Alvarez before leaving Mazatlan
It's obvious that managers in the Mexican Pacific League are on a shorter leash than usual this winter after three skippers were dismissed by their teams less than a month into the current season.  After Oscar Robles, Luis Sojo and Lorenzo Bundy were fired by Obregon, Mexicali and Culiacan, respectively, in October after slow starts, a fourth MexPac manager has been separated from his squad.  This time, however,  it was while his team was at the top of the standings and the departure was his idea.
Mazatlan helmsman Joe Alvarez, who was hired by the Venados in the offseason to replace Daniel Fernandez as dugout boss, had led the team to an 11-9 record and a share of first place in the LMP with Jalisco heading into a three-game series against the Charros in Guadalajara.  There was no talk of the Cuban-born skipper being replaced.  Instead, it was Alvarez who cut the cord during his first season managing a winterball team in Mexico with 14 games remaining in the Venados' first-half schedule.

Alvarez (who now resides in Lakeland, Florida) was quoted in a team press release as saying "I am going home to some personal things, besides attending to a health issue with my daughter, so this happens at a good time...I always say that God has a plan for everyone; there is a reason why things happen without you noticing."  The Venados expressed their gratitude to Alvarez, as is the custom in Mexican baseball, and wished him success in his personal and professional life.

Writer Tito Escobar was critical of the move in his En Terreno de Fair "In Fair Territory") column, stating that Alvarez was leaving Mazatlan in part because of a new business he had recently opened with a friend back in the USA.  "The thing about Joe Alvarez, from my point of view," said Escobar in Puro Beisbol, "it's an irresponsibility on his part since he leaves behind a project that was entrusted to him."  Escobar later allowed how Alvarez' departure from the port city is "a shame because, honestly, he is a tremendous manager."  Fellow columnist Juan Alonso Juarez noted that Alvarez, "for one reason or another, has never led a full season in Aztec baseball, summer or winter."

Venados GM Jesus "Chino" Valdez quickly named Juan Jose Pacho to replace Alvarez.  Juarez pointed out that every time Pacho has taken over in Mazatlan, the Venados have come out smelling like roses.  First, the Yucatan product replaced Dan Firova as manager during the 2004-05 season and took the Deer to an LMP pennant and a Caribbean Series title at home in Estadio Teodoro Mariscal.  Then, after succeeding Miguel Olivo during the 2015-16 campaign, the former shortstop did the same thing by winning the MexPac playoffs prior to running the Serie del Caribe table in Santo Domingo.  Pacho, who also copped a title in 2005-06, is one of six managers to win three MexPac pennants in the circuit's history (Francisco "Paquin" Estrada holds the record with seven flags, six with Culiacan).


CHARROS PRESIDENT QUIRARTE WINS NATIONAL SPORTS AWARD


Jalisco Charros team president Salvador Quirarte
Considered by many to literally be the "silent" partner of Armando Navarro in the Jalisco Charros ownership group, board of directors president Salvador Quirarte has garnered enough notice even in the presence of the flamboyant Navarro to earn Mexico's 2018 National Sports Merit Award for Promotion.  The honor was handed out by the National Commission of Physical Culture and Sport, or CONADE.  Quirarte was one of 14 candidates for the prize.

A Guadalajara native who turned 50 last January, Quirarte earned a degree in Public Accounting from the Technological and Higher Studies Institute of the West (ITESO) and has since been an executive in the energy, financial and technical agriculture fields.  He was instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to his hometown of four million people (and considered by many as Mexico's "second city") after a 20-year absence when the Guasave Algodoneros were bought in 2014 by a group led by Navarro and Quirarte and moved to Guadalajara.

Prior to the 2014-15 Mexican Pacific League season, the team also purchased an 11,000-seat ballpark built for US$28 million and used during the 2012 Pan-American Games.  The relocated team was named the Jalisco Charros after Guadalajara's previous Mexican League entry, which won pennants in 1967 and 1971 (Navarro was team VP the latter year) but slunk out of town after going 30-82 and finishing 42.5 games out of first in 1994.  A team ERA of 6.08 will do that, even in a batter's paradise like the Liga.  An earlier Guadalajara team spent three winters in the MexPac during the early 1950's but baseball had never enjoyed a strong presence in the soccer-mad city, home of Chivas, arguably Mexico's most beloved soccer team.  The new ownership was bucking against history when they opened the gates.

The revitalized franchise has since become one of Mexico's strongest pro baseball operations.  The Horsemen are still seeking their first LMP pennant and Caribbean Series appearance, but the team reached the MexPac finals their first season before falling to Culiacan in five games.  Jalisco annually ranks among the league attendance leaders while Estadio Charros has hosted both the 2018 Caribbean Series and 2017 World Baseball Classic D Pool games.  Quirarte, Navarro and company are hoping to host Olympic qualifiers prior to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo while trying to lure a Major League Baseball regular season series to the ballpark, which now seats 16,000 but can be expanded to hold thousands more.  Although Guadalajara is in central Mexico, away from the Pacific coast, the LMP moved their league offices there over the summer and the city is a potential beachhead for making the MexPac a nationwide winter circuit, something nobody would've dreamed of before 2014.