The search for the next Fernando (part 3)
(This is the third of a three-part series from thinkbluela.com)
Why aren’t there more Fernando Valenzuelas coming out of Mexico? As we previously discussed, Fernando was a godsend not only for the Dodgers but for baseball in general bringing in more new fans to the sport than anyone in modern history. So why isn’t there a line of Mexican stars just waiting to make their mark in the major leagues? Why isn’t there a more active MLB presence in Mexico? This is a complex issue but it is solvable if the MLB truly wants that next Mexican star and is willing to invest in his development.
Poverty - This is by far the biggest problem. In the grand scheme of things, playing a sport is a luxury. When a family is trying to make ends meet, playing baseball usually doesn’t solve it. As well, baseball is primarily a rural sport in Mexico. The players who have the most passion and desire to play are in dusty little towns where they play cascarita or pickup games far away from the bright lights of the city.
I have managed travelling teams in the state of Morelos for many years now and poverty is by far the biggest barrier to kids playing long enough to have success. It is not because they lose interest or because they don’t want to play or because they don’t have the skill, but because the minimal expense to play is simply too much for their family budget. To play on our team (which drives 2 hours to Puebla every Saturday morning) there is a fee of $40 USD per month to cover the cost of entering the league with a little bit left over for gas along with an additional fee of $2 USD per game for the umpire and cost of the game ball. While that amount doesn’t come close to covering the actual costs, most families cannot consistently pay even that small amount on a regular basis.
This season our Morelos team won the 9-10 year old division with a record of 11 wins and 2 losses in our first season in “La Liga Ignacio Zaragoza de Puebla.” We were the classic “hicks” invited to play in the big city who everyone wrote off. It took time to learn new rules, overcome the fact that we were always playing on the road, getting to know new umpires, gaining confidence, and by the end of the season we were routinely winning by “knockouts” (more than 10 runs after the 4th inning). While our parents were very happy with the experience and resulting success, I had 5 or 6 mothers approach me to say that they couldn’t continue next season because they felt that they couldn’t pay the minimal cost of participation. I always tell them the same thing which is, “We will find a way. Just keep participating. Good things will happen.” We somehow find a way, but many other teams simply disband. A small and perhaps financially insignificant investment by the MLB in Mexico would keep hundreds or perhaps thousands of kids playing and completing.
Lack of Infrastructure - I travel back to the US on a regular basis and my kids are always impressed at the sheer quantity of baseball fields seen from the plane as we land over any US town. In Mexico, we do not have that sort of investment in infrastructure. There are simply not a lot of dedicated children’s baseball fields in the rural areas where baseball is popular. In our state, we have one children’s field in Cuernavaca, the capitol of Morelos. It is filled with dangerous holes and big rocks and is used as a temporary parking lot for the expansive soccer stadium next door with its manicured green grass. In this part of Mexico, kids mostly play on the corners of dusty soccer fields. We bring our own bases and create makeshift fields as best we can with sweat and ingenuity. The state or local government simply has no interest in creating children’s baseball fields.
Many will argue that soccer pulls away the good athletes in central and southern Mexico making baseball a distant second in popularity but the dynamic of the problem is more complex than that. It is more of an economic issue than anything else. In Mexico, baseball is traditionally a rural sport and these are generally the poorest areas, far away from the scouts, infrastructure, and investment.
Fight between Little League and FEMEBE - When it rains it pours, right? As if things couldn’t get any worse for the development of children’s baseball in Mexico, we have a continuing personal spat played out between the Mexican Baseball Federation and Little League Baseball.
FEMEBE is the governing body that controls baseball in Mexico and Little League is the program that has garnered the most attention because of the success Mexican Little League teams have enjoyed in the Little League World Series. This dispute began with a fight for control of a particular league in Mexico City. The FEMEBE was not pleased with the change of administration. Little League recognized this league and allowed their children to participate in tournaments. In response, the FEMEBE threatened to disaffiliate from the federation all leagues in the central and south of the country that participated in Little League events and tournaments.
The north of Mexico is strong enough to resist the threats of the FEMEBE and continue to participate, but the central and southern regions are not. Many teams and state associations won’t take part in Little League out of fear of reprisal or blacklisting children from the state or national selection teams by the FEMEBE. This sort of fight has a chilling effect on participation in the sport and is unfortunate.
Mexican Professional Baseball - La Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB) is the most powerful element in the development of Mexican prospects but it restricts the flow of those prospects to the MLB and MiLB. This is done by the implementation of one simple rule: if a Mexican prospect jumps directly to the major or minor leagues without playing for the LMB, that prospect is banished from ever playing in the league.
Why would this restrict the flow of prospects? First of all, Mexican prospects can sign with a LMB team even younger than 16 which is the minimum age for the MLB. These young kids tend to sign lop-sided and unfair contracts to play for LMB teams. Players generally come from poor families having little education or knowledge about how to legally protect themselves. Many go without legal counsel and some allegedly sign blank sheets of paper which the LMB team “fills in” afterwards. These agreements mandate a hefty 75% of any signing bonus be paid to the LMB team to release them from their contract. As well, the LMB has negotiated an exemption for their percentage of the signing bonus as it relates to the MLB’s international signing limit. Mexican teams make a significant amount of money from the signing bonuses, driving up the price for the Mexican prospect, and inevitably reducing the amount of Mexican prospects that make it to the minor leagues.
The LMB banishment rule is quite ingenious. It forces most players identified by scouts to play at least a year in the LMB. Those who have success later negotiate their release, earning the team a significant amount on the signing bonus. Since most of these players are signed before even finishing high school, they have very little education and don’t have anything to fall back on when their baseball career has ended. They play a few years in the MiLB or maybe even reach the MLB level. Their US career ends at some point and they want to come back to Mexico to play in the more lucrative LMB. Older players can play for years after their US baseball career has ended and this is, in effect, their “retirement.” Many players have taken this path – Oscar Robles, Geronimo Gil, Karim Garcia, Jorge Cantu among others. While prospects that make the jump directly to the MiLB can come back and play in the Mexican Winter League in the Pacific (which is not associated with LMB), it is not as lucrative as the powerful LMB, whose owners are some of the wealthiest people in Mexico. With the threat of banishment, very few Mexican prospects go directly to the MLB or MiLB. The only recent notable examples I could find were Sebastian Valle who was at one point a touted catcher prospect for the Phillies and Christian Villanueva, a 3B prospect in the Cubs system.
It is very difficult to predict what prospects will be successful, especially foreign prospects. If you add in a couple million dollars of risk, Mexican prospects become less desirable for an MLB team. Prospect Luis Heredia was signed recently for 2.6 million by the Pirates and 75% of that money was paid to the LMB team that released him. The hefty cost to release players from their contracts unnaturally restricts the flow of Mexican prospects to the minor leagues. The Dominican prospects signed as free agents, as well as the Canadian and US prospects acquired through the amateur draft are usually much less expensive and as a result more are acquired and tested in the minor leagues.
This issue came to the forefront last year in Mexican baseball circles when David Gonzalez (Adrian’s father) who represents Mexican players filed a rather strange suit in California against the MLB to negate a LMB contract signed by a Mexican prospect who wanted to play in the Red Sox system. Apparently Boston balked at the price tag to release Daniel Pesquiera from his Mexican team and Gonzalez unsuccessfully filed suit to release him from his LMB contract. Pesquiera never made it to the Red Sox. Cases like this highlight the problems Mexican prospects face in getting to the minor leagues. Many end up being too expensive to be released from their contracts and as a result stay in the LMB.
Cultural and Social Transition to Playing in the US - Many players have a difficult time making the cultural and social transition to life in the minor leagues and are simply not prepared to succeed. Imagine your 16-year-old being shipped off to a small rural town in a country where he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know the culture, and, in addition, consider that fact that he has practically no education. The current trend is to sign prospects as young as possible, but they are simply not in a good position to succeed. They don’t have the tools. In Mexico, there are baseball academies linked to the Mexican professional teams but in very few instances education is even offered to children as young as 14.
In order to succeed, Mexican players need to be educated, not only in baseball but in life. They need to learn English. They need to have exposure to the US prior to being sent to a small minor league town. They need to expand their cultural horizons. They need to have a reasonable option to dropping out of school and immediately entering Mexican professional baseball at 14 or 15 years old. They need to have a reason to become educated and a developmental option with a strong life/educational component is a long-term solution that will generate productive players.
These issues are difficult, but not impossible to overcome. If MLB truly wants the next Fernando to energize its fan base and create multi-generational followers, they will need to invest in Mexico. There is no way around it. Not only will an investment in underprivileged Mexican children resonate with the large and growing Mexican-American communities in the US but it will create a whole new generation of fans and in the process potentially develop the Fernando Valenzuela of a new generation.