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09/02/2006 Archived Entry: "STEPPING STONES"

VIVA BEISBOL Commentary
by Bruce Baskin

I recently learned that Spike Lundberg is returning to play baseball for the Guasave Algodoneros in the Mexican Pacific League this winter, and was heartened by the news. Spike Lundberg? If any baseball fans recognize him at all, itís likey as a journeyman pitcher spending his tenth year in the minors as a Dodgers farmhand this season, going 12-1 for San Antonio in the Class AA Texas League but getting rocked to the tune of four losses in as many starts for Las Vegas in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League (with a 7.17 ERA to show for it). While the PCL is a hitterís league and baseballs tend to fly out of Las Vegasí Cashman Field in the light desert air, a 7.17 ERA is still taking a whacking anyway you look at it.

Lundberg was coming off a ho-hum 2005 campaign as a reliever for the Blue Jaysí AAA farm team in Syracuse, a free agent hoping a good winter season in Mexico could lead to a spring training invitation. What ended up happening was Lundberg standing the MexPac on its collective head by leading the league in wins and ERA during the regular season, then winning three more games (plus a save) in the playoffs for Guasave. He was rewarded when scout Mike Brito took him to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers signed him. It was a happy ending for Lundberg, but not his teammates, who did not expect his return to Guasave.

Itís not unusual for import players to leave Mexican Pacific League teams in the middle of the season, or even down the stretch in a tight race. Somehow, the Obregon Yaquis managed to survive the late-season departures of a .300-hitting outfielder (Doug DeVore) and their best pitcher (Mark DeFelice) to put on a tremendous drive the last week of the regular season towards the sixth and final playoff berth, only to lose in dramatic fashion on the final day of the campaign to Culiacan, the team that nudged them out for the postseason. The Yaquis were not the only team beset by defections, either. A lot of players went home to the USA to avoid risk of injury, while others left their teams claiming they were ďtiredĒ and needed a rest.

The Algodoneros had the second-best record in the MexPac during the regular season and were battling in the league playoff semifinals, in no small part due to Spike Lundberg. However, what were their chances of winning their series with Hermosillo and going on to win the pennant and a berth in the Caribbean Series without Spike? Their chances of winning only the second pennant in the teamís 30-plus season existence without him were almost nil. Happily, Lundberg did the unthinkable and returned to Guasave, showing a loyalty to his Mexican winter team that is rare among North American players. While the Algodoneros did not win the pennant, theirs was a victory of a different sort.

Whatever the motivation for a player to pick up and go home in the middle of the season, itís hard not to think of the fans and teammates they also leave behind. How did fans in Obregon feel when DeVore and DeFelice packed up and left town? How did Lundbergís teammates in Guasave feel when they trailed three games to two in their series and their best pitcher was seemingly gone to Los Angeles for hood before his surprising (and heartwarming) return?

Professional baseball is a tough game, certainly, and players owe it to themselves to do whatís best in their own interest. After all, teams can cut players on a momentís notice, even guys like Mexicaliís Bubba Smith, who was let go by the Aguilas late last winter, even though he was leading the team in homers at the time and was so popular among fans that a ballpark menu item was named after him. I donít begrudge anyone wanting to use the Mexican Pacific League as a stepping stone to better things. Sadly, however, it is not always only stones that get stepped on.

Thatís why Spike Lundbergís story is so heartening. He not only came back to his Mexican team last season, he is returning to Guasave (which is not one of the more glamorous spots in the MexPac) this winter. Here is a guy worth rooting for, no matter which side of the border youíre on.

Replies: 1 Comment

Nice story, Bruce, thanks for sharing.

Posted by Max Blue @ 09/02/2006 08:55 AM EST

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