WALLY BACKMAN FIRED IN MONCLOVA; WILL TIM JOHNSON TAKE OVER?

by Bruce Baskin
May 23, 2017 - Mexican League (ML)

When Wally Backman was hired last winter to manage the Monclova Acereros, all that was missing was a betting line from Las Vegas oddsmakers on how long the former Mets infielder would stay. Speculation was that Backman, who's had success managing teams (including Vegas) in both affiliated and independent minor leagues, was viewing Monclova as little more than a placeholder until he got another offer from a team in the States.

USA Today writer Bob Klapisch quoted Backman at the time as saying, "I would take it in a minute. What I'm worried about is being out of sight, out of mind. If I go to Mexico, I'll be out of sight from the people I'm trying to connect with." After new Acereros owner Gerardo Benavides transferred several key players to Monclova from his 2016 champions in Puebla, the Steelers were considered a favorite to win the Mexican League's North Division title and contend for the city's first LMB championship. As manager, Backman was obviously a major component of Benavides' win-now philosophy.

Backman has indeed left Monclova, but not the way a lot of people (including himself) expected after he was fired last Friday with the Acereros holding a 22-20 record and fifth place in the LMB North. In his defense, the team was not playing all that badly in what has been a very competitive division over the first eight weeks of the season, neither winning more than three consecutive games once nor suffering longer than one three-game skid either while averaging about six runs per contest with a team ERA of 4.43.

However, there were two problems the fiery Oregonian couldn't overcome. One was his inability to speak Spanish, something that can be a detriment to effectively managing a baseball team in Mexico (let alone writing about Mexican baseball, believe me). Another is that while Benavides has spared little expense in collecting enough talent to elicit title talk among Liga observers, he is also a native of Monclova who now owns the team his grandfather, Harold Pape, formed in 1974 and keenly aware that no pennant flag has ever flown atop Estadio Monclova. Managers in Mexico typically face much more pressure than their counterparts in other Class AAA leagues because the latter group are less concerned with winning than player development, but Backman worked under less margin for error than the 15 other Liga skippers who opened the season.

Although Backman has been replaced at the helm in Monclova by Jorge Luis Loredo, who hit .247 with 24 homers as an infielder for five LMB teams between 1987 and 2000 before embarking on a coaching career, at least one Puro Beisbol columnist has speculated that another former big league infielder, Tim Johnson, may end up with the Acereros job. It's far from a far-fetched notion. Benavides has shown a proclivity for hiring ex-MLBers to manage his teams (Cory Snyder and Von Hayes in Puebla, Backman in Monclova), Johnson has had success managing Toronto to an 88-74 record in 1998 after copping two winterball titles for Hermosillo in the early Nineties, and he's currently managing in the Northern Mexican League's San Luis Algodoneros, who are currently 22-19 in the LNM and conveniently a farm team for both Benavides LMB clubs. Johnson has effectively been blackballed from organized baseball after stories he told Blue Jays players about his exploits during the Vietnam War were proven false, but both his MLB playing and managing experience plus his track record in Mexico may be attractive to Benavides, who didn't hesitate to hire another controversial manager in Backman. Time will tell.

The Acereros will have to pick up the pace soon, no matter who their helmsman is. Monterrey has won three straight game (and 8 of their last 10) to run their LMB-best record to 30-11 under yet another former big league infielder, Felix Fermin. Tijuana has stumbled a bit by losing four of their last ten contests to fall three-and-a-half games behind the Sultanes at 28-15. After a halting start to their season, the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (with an all-Mexican roster) have won eight eleven games to pull into third place with a 25-20 mark. There are a number of reasons, but the season shortstop Ramon Urias is having may the the biggest. Although he won't turn 23 until June 3, Urias is in his fourth season with the Diablos after spending two summers in the Rangers organization as a teen. After an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, the 150-pound Sonora product is hitting .331 with nine homers in 43 games. The Red Devils are battling Monclova, Union Laguna and Aguascalientes (who released last year's RBI champ and BBM Summer Batter of the Year Diory Hernandez last week without explanation and no more notice than a line on the Transactions list) in the middle of the pack. Saltillo and Durango are both more than 14 games out of first in the LMB North.

Yucatan has leveled off a bit, winning five of their last ten, but that early cushion they build has come in handy as the Leones still have a five-game lead in the LMB South over Puebla with a 27-16 mark. The 23-22 Pericos have gone 7-3 over their past ten tilts to take over second place from Quintana Roo (20-21). The defending champs are 16-11 away from home (including a three-game sweep in Tijuana last week in a rematch of last year's Mexico Series) but only 7-11 in Estadio Hermanos Serdan. Steadily-improving Veracruz, Campeche and Oaxaca are all within eight games of Yucatan with Leon and Tabasco bringing up the rear.

Saltillo's six-time All-Star second baseman Luis Borges leads the Liga with an even .400 average, ten points ahead of Monterrey centerfielder Chris Roberson (himself a four-time LMB All-Star and the 2014 Caribbean Series MVP). Tijuana outfielder Corey Brown has homered just once since his two-dinger game at Aguascalientes on May 4, but his total of 13 roundtrippers is still tops in the loop by two over the Rieleros' Jesus Castillo and Toros teammate Alex Liddi. Castillo's 49 RBIs top that category, with Laguna's Ricky Alvarez in second at 47. Justin Greene of Saltillo has 19 stolen bases, five more than Quintana Roo's Freddy Guzman. Guzman's 14 swipes have come in 25 games since signing with the Tigres as a free agent on April 23.

Monterrey pitcher Angel Castro survived a so-so start (4 earned runs, 11 hits over 7 innings) on Saturday at home against the Tigres to lift his perfect record to 7-0, becoming the first hurler to reach seven victories. Dustin Crenshaw of Laguna tossed five shutout frames at Oaxaca last Tuesday to go to 6-1 for the season. Durango won four of six games last week, all saved by Tiago Da Silva (as he has for every Generales victory in 2017). Da Silva's 16 saves leads the LMB, four up on Monclova's Chad Gaudin and Jairo Asencio of Yucatan. Mitch Lively and Walter Silva continue to do well for hapless Leon. The Bravos' 16-18 record hasn't prevented the pair from posting the top two ERAs in the Liga, with Lively at 1.98 and Silva registering a 2.15 on the scale. The tandem has gone 7-4 for the newcomer team, who continue to struggle at the gate with an average attendance of 2,300 through 13 openings (15th in the 16-team circuit). Conversely, Durango has overcome a myriad of problems, including a delayed home opener of their own, to draw an average of 3,616 to place eighth on the turnout table.

There'll be a pair of matchups highlighting upcoming midweek series when Monterrey visits Puebla and Tijuana travels to Yucatan Tuesday through Thursday. Attention will be maintained on Puebla next weekend when the ascendant Pericos play host to Monclova in a duel between the two Benavides-owned ballclubs.

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