by Bruce Baskin
August 24, 2020 - Mexican League (ML)
RIELEROS PLAYERS ASK LMB FOR FINANCIAL HELP
Mexican baseball players are waiting out their summer of pandemic-induced inactivity due to the canceled Mexican league season until they're able to suit up for the anticipated Mexican Pacific League season openers in mid-October. A number of them, however, are reaching the financial breaking point while trying to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. While many, if not most, players are still waiting for promised assistance from the LMB franchises, one group has tired of empty promises and are appealing to the Liga office in Mexico City directly for help.
According to PuroBeisbol.com editor Fernando Ballesteros, players and coaches for the Aguascalientes Rieleros have written a letter to LMB president Horacio de la Vega seeking aid from the league office because the Railroaders has failed to do so. When the Liga announced on July 2 that they were cancelling their season for the first time in the loop's 95-year history, players and umpires were promised by de la Vega and the 16 LMB franchises that they would receive financial support throughout the summer. Instead, the only teams that have reportedly followed through are the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros (both owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu), although there may be others helping their players.
At the time of the announcement, the player assistance seemed a tall order for many of the LMB teams that typically operate on a proverbial wing and a prayer. One of the reasons the 2020 schedule was called off was the likelihood that fans would not be allowed inside ballparks to watch games, taking away the primary source of revenue in a circuit lacking large-scale sponsorships that bring in enough money to at least partially fill the monetary void that would be created by empty ballparks. While a handful of Mexican League teams like the Diablos, Monterrey, Monclova and Yucatan might have enough cash reserves to help their players, the majority of franchises like Aguascalientes simply lack the funds to do so.
When calls have been made in the past for LMB contraction, the Rieleros are usually one of the teams mentioned. Ever since Aguascalientes was first awarded a Liga franchise in 1975 (the current team marks the Railroaders' third incarnation), the city of 832,712 residents has only hoisted one pennant (1978) and more often resides near the bottom of both the standings and attendance tables.
Last year was no different, as the Rieleros finished 12 games out of the playoffs, coming in sixth in the eight-team LMB North with a 54-65 record, while drawing 2,001 fans per game in 56 dates at 74-year-old Parque Alberto Romo Chavez for a total attendance of 112,077 on the season, 15th in the league (only Campeche attracted fewer patrons). Aguascalientes has averaged 3,000 or better in attendance twice since making their latest return to the Liga in 2012.
Aguascalientes does have some well-respected veterans on their roster like third baseman Michael Wing, catcher Carlos Rodriguez, 2017 LMB Pitcher of the Year Nestor Molina and future Salon de la Fama slugger Saul Soto, but the club is traditionally one of the most undercapitalized in the Mexican League and low revenues prevent bringing in top talent needed for a contending team.
While expectations the Rieleros were low even before the pandemic crossed the Pacific Ocean and scuttled the season, things are reaching critical mass with the team. Ballesteros quotes the letter, which was leaked to Puro Beisbol, as telling de la Vega "We are aware of the serious situation the world is going through, but we appeal to your support so that in some way we can be creditors of a loan or salary advance in order to be able to financially solve the needs of our families before everything returns to normality."
The letter was signed by all the Aguascalientes players and coaches, including new manager Luis Carlos Rivera, who pitched for both Atlanta and Baltimore in 2000. Rivera managed Leon in 2018, turning in a 53-57 combined record for the LMB's two abbreviated seasons that year and reaching the playoffs in the Spring campaign.
MAYOS HOPING TO BRING BACK TAIWANESE PITCHER
Like every other team in the Mexican Pacific League, the Navojoa Mayos are figuring out who will comprise the three foreign players they're allowed for the upcoming 2020-21 season. Although team owner Victor Cuevas has confirmed that the Mayos will open the schedule with returnees Juan Perez (a ex-reds minor league who hit 23 homers for Saltillo in 2019) and former White Sox first base prospect Keon Barnum joining a newcomer, left-handed pitcher Mitch Lambson, who has been a starter the past four summers with Winnipeg of the independent American Association after being a reliever in the Astros system).
A fourth import listed as a reserve for Lorenzo Bundy's team will be coming the farthest to play for Navojoa if he gets the call. Taiwanese pitcher Hu Chih-Wei impressed the Mayos last winter in a short spell despite losing his only decision, turning in a 1.50 ERA with 13 strikeouts while walking only two batters over 18 innings in three starts. The 26-year-old righty is staying home for the time being after testing positive for the virus but the team has remained in close contact with him.
Although he is a native of Taichung, home of the Chinese Professional Baseball League's Chinatrust Brothers, Hu has never pitched professionally in his homeland (although he did help Taiwan to a Silver medal at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. By then, he was already pitching in the Twins system after signing with Minnesota in August 2012 as an international free agent at age 18.
Midway through the 2015 season, Hu was dealt to Tampa Bay and he went on to represent the Rays as the only Asian product on the World roster at the 2016 All-Star Futures Game in San Diego. That year, he went on to lead the AA Southern League with a 2.59 ERA pitching for Montgomery and was named a postseason All-Star.
Hu made his MLB debut with Tampa Bay on April 24, 2017 by tossing a perfect eighth inning during a 6-3 loss at Baltimore. He went on to finish with six appearances for the Rays, all in relief, and won his first big league game on the road over the Yankees on September 28, hurling a frame in the Ray's 9-6 triumph as Tampa Bay scored seven times in the fifth inning. The 6'0" 243-pounder finished 2017 with a 1-1 record and a 2.70 ERA in ten MLB innings, spending most of the year with AAA Durham.
After a 2018 campaign in which he was primarily a starter at Durham (although he did pitch five more times for the Rays, going 0-0 and 4.15 while striking out 12 over 13 innings), Hu was traded to Cleveland for second baseman Gionti Turner. His experience with Tampa Bay personified the capricious nature of baseball, as Hu was recalled to the Rays no fewer than eleven times in 2017 and 2018 while being optioned back to AAA an equal number of times before he was shipped to the Tribe.
That began another odyssey of sorts for Hu, who spent time in both the Indians and Cubs organizations last summer (going 3-7 with a 7.74 ERA for four teams at the AAA and AA levels) prior to signing a free agent contract last December with San Diego, who assigned him to AAA El Paso with a slot at the Padres' training camp as a non-roster invitee. Hu returned to Taiwan when he wasn't named to the Padres' taxi squad after training camp was halted, the minor league season suspended and MLB schedule delayed due to the virus.
PROSPECT LEAGUE OPENS SECOND SEASON
As we saw last month in a translated Proceso article, it's been a trying couple of years for Mexico's Probeis and director Edgar Gonzales. The former MLB and NPB infielder was building a successful post-playing career as a Mexican Pacific League manager and team executive before getting tabbed by Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to head the federally-funded Probeis program to build baseball from the grass-roots level up. However, as Gonzalez told Proceso's Beatriz Pereyra, much of the funding has not been made available due to Mexico's legendary bureaucracy and the San Diego native (who grew up in Tijuana) been forced to fly by the seat of his pants ever since.
Which has to make the opening of a second season for the Mexican Prospect League (or LPM) that much sweeter for Gonzalez, who's seen enough go wrong since last year to have a heightened appreciation for when things go RIGHT.
The four-team LPM kicked off its 30-day schedule last Thursday with a doubleheader at Estadio Charros in Guadalajara, where the loop will play all games in 2020. The teams are named after four contemporary Mexican baseball figures: Juan Gabriel Castro, Jorge Cantu, Oliver Perez and Joakim Soria.
The LPM is designed to attract the attention of talent-seekers from colleges, MLB and other baseball organizations, dozens of whom were on hand last week. Organizers held a Showcase last Wednesday, a day before the one-month season began. It put 120 players between the ages of 14 and 18 from across Mexico on the field displaying their physical skills through on-field testing and drills.
Play opened the next day as the Cantus topped the Castros, 8-6, in the first game behind the two hits, two RBIs and one run scored by Heber Villalobos. Tadeo Alejandro Osuna, younger brother of Houston Astros closer Roberto, had three hits for the Castros, scoring one run and driving in another. In the nightcap, the Sorias shut out the Perezes, 9-0, with starter Roque Gutierrez earning the win in the two-hitter.
Teams will play 15-game regular season schedules through Saturday, September 12, with daily doubleheaders Thursdays through Sundays followed by instruction sessions Mondays through Wednesdays. After an All-Star Game on Sunday, September 13, the LPM will hold three days of playoff semifinal doubleheaders from Tuesday, September 15 through Thursday, September 17. A two-day Final will be held Friday, September 18 and Saturday, September 19, followed by closing ceremonies on Sunday, September 20.
All LPM games will be streamed live and archived free of charge through the World Baseball Softball Confederation's channel on the GameTime website.
According to a story on SeptimaEntrada.com, the LPM "intends to build a successful platform for young baseball players with professional prospects to represent Mexico with dignity. The aim is for this development system to be the most effective in Mexican baseball and to become a benchmark model at the national and international level.
"The mission is to produce a summer league with a professional environment, which brings together the best prospects in the country to transmit academic-sports knowledge that decisively contributes to their personal and professional development."
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