by Bruce Baskin
September 30, 2019 - Mexican League (ML)
VALDEZ PITCHES LEONES TO WITHIN GAME OF LMB FLAG
If there was any doubt remaining as to why Cesar Valdez is the odds-on favorite to be named the Mexican League Pitcher of the Year for 2019, the 34-year-old Dominican right-hander should have dispelled them after he pitched a shutout Sunday to lead the Yucatan Leones to a 3-0 win over the visiting Monclova Acereros in Game Five of the Serie del Rey in front of 14,917 fans at Merida's Parque Kukulkan. The triumph gives Yucatan a 3-games-to-2 lead in the series.
Valdez threw 112 pitches (77 of them strikes) in holding the potent Steelers to four hits and a walk, striking out eight batters to run his playoff record to 4-0 after a 15-2 regular season in which he led the LMB in wins, ERA (2.26) and WHIP (1.06) in 23 starts. Art Charles' two-out single in the bottom of the first inning off Monclova starter Adam Quintana drove in Jonathan Jones from third with the first run of the game. It would turn out to be the only tally Valdez would need but (just in case) Jorge Flores opened the third with a triple and scored on a Jones single to make it 2-0 and Alex Liddi's solo homer in the bottom of the eighth added one more insurance run for manager Geronimo Gil's squad. Jones contributed two singles to the Yucatan offense as seven of the other eight Leones batsmen had one hit. Catcher Sebastian Valle had an 0-fer but called a solid game behind the plate for the winners.
Valdez' outstanding Sunday outing was far removed from his work during last Tuesday's Serie del Rey Game One in Monclova. Although he was awarded a 5-4 win over the Acereros, the 2008 California League All-Star Game MVP and future major leaguer let in four runs over seven innings and gave up home runs to Jose Amador, Eric Young Jr. (a two-run shot) and Noah Perio to account for all Steeler scoring. Valdez did strike out 13 of the 27 batters he faced.
Monclova evened the series Wednesday with a 9-3 comeback win over Yoanner Negrin, the 2016 LMB Pitcher of the Year. Negrin was impressive in earlier playoff wins over Oaxaca and Mexico City and had a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh when the Acereros loaded the bases after striking out leadoff batter Bruce Maxwell. At that point, Gil replaced the Cuban righty with Manny Parra, who gave up a two-run Young single up the middle and an RBI safety to Erick Aybar that gave the home team a 4-3 lead. The Acereros scored five more in the eighth, including a Ricky Rodriguez grand slam off Enrique Burgos, to put the game away. Amador singled twice and doubled for three of ten Acereros hits as another sellout crowd of 8,500 watched at Estadio Monclova.
The title set shifted to Merida for Game Three on Friday, when Monclova took a 2-games-to-1 lead with a 6-3 road win. Francisco Peguero went 3-for-4 with a double, scoring one run and driving in another as the Acereros collected 13 hits off Leones starter Jose Samayoa and five relievers. Valle socked a solo homer off Monclova closer Carlos Bustamante in the bottom of the ninth but the contest was all but decided by then. Connor Herber earned his third postseason win by pitching five innings of two-run ball for manager Pat Listach.
Yucatan battled back to tie the series Saturday night with 3-2 victory. Monclova took an early lead in the top of the first when leadoff hitter Perio doubled off Leones starter Dustin Crenshaw and came in one out later on a Peguero two-bagger. The Acereros made it 2-0 one entrada later when Perio's two-out single off Crenshaw brought in Amador from second after the latter had doubled to open the inning. From that point on, Crenshaw went unscathed through the sixth inning and benefitted from a three-run Yucatan fourth keyed by a two-run Charles homer against Monclova opener Geno Encina. That would mark the last run of the game as Crenshaw, who earned the win, and three relievers held the Acereros scoreless over the last seven innings. A Californian who pitched collegiately at South Alabama and spent four years in indy ball before making his 2015 LMB debut with Laguna, the 6'5" Crenshaw has been one of the Liga's best pitchers since when healthy with a 29-14 record and 3.63 ERA in 61 starts.
The Serie del Rey now shifts back to Monclova for Tuesday night's Game Six. All five games have been sellouts and another full house is expected at Estadio Monclova as the Acereros strive for the city's first Mexican League pennant since entering the league in 1974. Negrin is expected to start for Yucatan while Jaime Lugo will take the mound for Monclova.
LOS MOCHIS, GUASAVE BALLPARKS READYING FOR LMP SEASON
Two of the Mexican Pacific League's ten ballparks are undergoing upgrades in preparation for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
State approval of renovations at Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada in Los Mochis was signed by Sinaloa governor Quirino Ordaz Coppel on October 7, 2017 with hope that the two-stage project would be completed by October 2018 after an initial investment of 50 million pesos for work that winter and 260 million pesos projected as the overall price. Sinaloa Public Works secretary Osbaldo Lopez Angulo envisioned a total remodel of the central portion of the stadium, which now has three seating levels (lower and upper box seats topped by luxury and press boxes), and other safety- and comfort-related amenities. Instead, the facelift will be unveiled a year late with a pricetag of 400 million pesos, or about 20 million US dollars, not an unusual turn of events when it comes to ballparks, new or renovated.
Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada was first opened in 1947 when Los Mochis was admitted to the old Pacific Coast League, precursor to the modern LMP. Initially known as Estadio Mochis, the facility seated 3,000 and had no lights. It has since undergone a number of renovations, the first coming in 1963 when seating was doubled to 6,000 and a lighting system was installed. A second renovation took place in 1972, as seating was nearly doubled again to a capacity of 11,000 while being renamed after Ibarra, who brought pro baseball to Los Mochis in 1947 and helped inaugurate the ballpark that winter. Ten years later, Hurricane Paul damaged the facility so badly that the Caneros were forced to play the first half of the 1982-83 LMP schedule on the road before playing home games without lights during the second half. The updated, modern facility is expected to be ready to host 12,000 spectators when the Caneros play their first home game on Saturday, October 12 against Guasave.
Speaking of Guasave, work at Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon has been hurrying along in advance of the revived Algodoneros' home opener against Los Mochis on October 13, one day after the two teams welcome the season at the Caneros' new digs. Where renovations in Los Mochis have had almost two years to reach completion, Guasave has had less than a year to bring their stadium up to modern standards because the city was only granted re-entry to the Mex Pac last winter after the previous version of the Algodoneros were sold and moved to Guadalajara in 2014.
Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon is a much newer plant than its counterpart in Los Mochis, opening in 1970 with seating for up to 8,000 spectators. However, the ballpark was not upgraded over the years and by the time it was 44 years old in 2014, it was showing its age and falling into disrepair as the undercapitalized team owners couldn't afford to make needed changes and the state government wasn't willing to pick up the tab. Attendance had long been declining in Guasave and the team was eventually sold to a group led by Armando Navarro and Salvador Quirarte and moved inland to Guadalajara, where the renamed Jalisco Charros have become of of Mexican baseball's more recent success stories, hosting several international tournaments and winning last winter's LMP pennant. After a five-year absence, the Mex Pac returned to Guasave when Mexico president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador fulfilled a campaign promise to bring baseball back to the Sinaloa agricultural center.
Mexico City Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helu, who bankrolled a new ballpark of his own in the nation's capital, is paying for renovations at Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon, which will be expanded to 10,000 seats. While there was speculation that Harp might own an LMP along with his Mexican League franchise, he said he had no such interest and another LMB owner, Arturo Aramburo (who owns the Durango Generales but is said to be looking to sell that franchise), officially bought the team over summer.
The ballpark used by the new Algodoneros was in enough disrepair that the facility might not have been ready to host games next month. LMP president Omar Canizales, who toured the stadium with Governor Ordaz last week, was quoted in Puro Beisbol as saying, "I am pleasantly surprised. I had come a couple months ago and I was really a little worried, and when I realize what has happened in the last six weeks, I see a very important breakthrough.
"They will be ready to sing 'Play ball' on October 13."
MEDIUM: 30% OF 2019 LMB PLAYERS WERE MEXICAN-AMERICANS
It's been two years since the Mexican League expanded its definition of what constitutes a "Mexican" player. The issue is one reason the LMB underwent an offseason schism that threatened either a split into two separate leagues or cancellation of the 2017 season altogether. An uneasy truce was eventually brokered and the new policy, in which a player with Mexican heritage who can qualify for a passport is considered "domestic" and does not count against foreign player limits per team, has played out for two years. While it can be argued that making players with peripheral family connections to Mexico eligible has raised the overall level of play in the Liga, homegrown Mexican players are now having a harder time finding work in their own country.
A September 18 story by Joseph Bien-Kahn for the Medium website delves deeply into the topic. According to Bien-Kahn, "If you had a Mexican ancestor and could qualify for a Mexican passport, you were Mexican in the eyes of the league." Tijuana Toros press officer Armando Esquivel estimates that 30 percent of the Mexican League's 400 players (25 players per team) are Mexican-Americans, many of whom bring Major League Baseball experience south of the border. One such player, Tijuana outfielder Beau Amaral, is a son of former major league infielder Rich and spent seven seasons in the Reds minor league system and part of 2018 with the Mariners' AA Arkansas affiliate before joining the Toros this year. A Californian who played collegiately at UCLA, Amaral had a great-grandmother who was born in Mexico and thus is not considered a foreigner in the eyes of the LMB.
Indeed, Tijuana has come to specialize in finding players with tenuous literal relations to Mexico who still oxymoronically qualify as domestic imports, with Director of International Operations Arturo Marcano heading the effort. "That's one of my areas of work: to look for pochos," Marcano told Bien-Kahn, "It's kind of like detective work." Marcano is a hard-working man, as only six Toros players this season were born in Mexico, including just one pitcher. He says, "It's not like we have a network of spies looking for pochos everywhere. What we're doing is scouting players for the team."
Tijuana won their first LMB pennant in 2017 after embracing the philosophy and earning the enmity of Monterrey owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz, who played on Mexico's 1957 Little League World Series champions as a 12-year-old. Maiz called the team who defeated his Sultanes in the LMB North Championship Series the Pocho Toros, a term that stuck among opposing fans and players who saw the influx of foreign-born players after eligibility rules were relaxed as taking away jobs from homegrown talent. Although the Mexico City Diablos Rojos played the 2017 season without a single foreign player in protest and missed the playoffs. Other teams noticed that Tijuana won a pennant with 22 foreign-born players (including 16 Mexican-Americans) while Monterrey was eliminated in the semis and Mexico City took the postseason off altogether, and the Toros' philosophy was eventually adopted by organizations across the Liga.
The term pocho technically applies to foreign-born ethnic Mexicans (similar to the longer standing term chicano), but it can also be a derogatory one used toward ethnic Mexicans perceived to have "lost their way" culturally. While players like Watkins won't hear it directed towards them, Mexican-Americans like pitcher Manny Barreda are frequently targeted. Born and raised in Arizona, Barreda came to Tijuana in late 2015 after eight years in the Yankees system and one in the Brewers organization. Except for an excellent seven-start stint with the Braves' AAA Gwinnett affiliate in 2017 (3-1 record with a 1.83 ERA), he's played for the Toros every summer since. Barreda memorably tossed a 138-pitch no-hitter for Los Mochis of the Mexican Pacific League on November 28, 2016 and then repeated the feat for Tijuana on July 16, 2017, requiring 135 pitches for that 14-strikeout performance.
Although he and wife Karla have become more comfortable living in Mexico, Barreda's first full year in the LMB resulted in several hostile emails and a sense of isolation in a country where he had much stronger cultural roots than many players with far more tertiary ties. Players of Mexican descent born and raised north of the border often find themselves in a cultural void on both sides of the border. Barreda explains to Bien-Kahn, "In the U.S., you're considered 'Mexican.' And when you come to Mexico, you're an American. You're a pocho. People like us, we don't have a place." Minnesota Twins reliever Sergio Romo, who still pitches winterball for the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros, has voiced similar frustrations in the past.
Perhaps the biggest losers with the new regulations are the Mexican-born players who would have played in the LMB in the years prior to 2017. Previously, Mexican League teams could only carry four foreign-born players, including Mexican-Americans, so only 64 total imports were on the 16 active team rosters. If Marcano's estimate is accurate, that number is now 120 and could be higher. Not being able to play in their national circuit has hurt these players economically because the average pay in the both the Liga and Mex Pac for homegrown players is said to generally be in the $3,000-$5,000 per month range, a lot of money in a nation where the International Monetary Fund estimated the per capita income in 2017 to be equal to 9,377 US dollars per year. Minor league baseball is not a lucrative undertaking north of the border but in Mexico, many players extend their careers as long as possible because few jobs at home pay the kind of money they can earn in the LMB and LMP.
The notion of limiting the number of foreign-born players may be an unfamiliar one outside Major League and Minor League Baseball (where such practices are illegal), but it is a common practice in almost every other country in the world as a means to allow domestic talent a chance to play. With the apparent impending ouster of president Javier Salinas and return to power of the so-called Old Guard owners who opposed relaxing player eligibility rules, a return to the old standards may well be discussed during the offseason.
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