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10/10/2006 Archived Entry: "VIVA BEISBOL: In Mexican baseball, there is no offseason"

LMP winter league set to open 2006-07 season this week

The winter months are usually a time baseball fans in the United States spend waiting for spring and the start of the next season. Popularly called the “Hot Stove League,” the only action for people who follow the game is when they get together to talk about what will happen in the coming weeks and months as they count down the days until Spring Training opens in Florida and Arizona during the month of February. Will the Yankees fire manager Joe Torre? Can Oakland keep winning with such a small player payroll? Will Albert Pujols contend for a Triple Crown in 2007? In the USA, winter is a time for questions and anticipation. Not so in Mexico.

In Mexico, there is no offseason. While the Mexican League dominates baseball between March and August, fans and players do not take the winter off. Instead, attention is focused on the eight-team Mexican Pacific League. The LMP (or MexPac) plays a 66-game schedule of games between October and December, with playoffs scheduled for January. It is a smaller league than the Mexican League, which has 16 teams that each play 110 regular season games before entering its playoffs in July, but the MexPac is no less intense. In fact, many observers say that Mexican baseball turns the heat up a notch during the winter. It’s a good league with Class AAA-quality baseball, and a number of current and former major leaguers dot the rosters as teams prepare to open the new season this week.

Baseball is called “The King of Sports” in Mexico and nowhere is that more apparent than in the LMP. While the game takes a back seat to soccer in most parts of the country, baseball is the undisputed number one pastime among the northwest states that host MexPac teams (Baja California Norte, Sonora and Sinaloa). Many U.S. teams send some of their top prospects south of the border to gain experience before heading back north in February. Many of these young players go to Mexico thinking they will be playing in a Latin version of extended spring training or a fall instructional league, where things are relaxed and they can take it easy while working on parts of their game. Invariably, they are in for the shock of their lives.

Far from relaxing, the Mexican Pacific League is much more intense than what these players have been used to. An outfielder who spent his summer in Fresno or San Antonio playing in front of laid-back crowds who are often more interested in bat-spin races and dancing mascots will find out in a hurry that things are a lot different playing in LMP cities such as Culiacan and Obregon. In the MexPac, teams are not there to give a family an evening of light-hearted entertainment. Unlike the U.S. minor leagues, these guys are on the field to win, and their fans expect nothing less than a total effort on the field. Fans and the press are not interested in watching either bat-spin races or imports playing their way into shape.

So what is all the excitement about?

As stated, the MexPac has eight teams that play a 66-game regular season schedule from early October to the end of December. Seven LMP cities are strung hundreds of miles along Mexico’s Highway 15 from Mazatlan north to Hermosillo, with Mexicali (sitting on the California border) set apart as the most far-flung team in the circuit. Six teams advance to the first round of the playoffs in January. The three teams that win their opening round series advance to the semifinals, as does a so-called “Lucky Loser” team. The Lucky Loser is taken from among the three teams that lost those opening sets, and is awarded to the club that lasted the longest in its series. Thus, for instance, a team that lost its first round series in seven games will move on, while the other teams that might have lost in five or six games are done for the season. After the semis, the top two teams play a series for the LMP pennant and the chance to go to the Caribbean Series, the crown jewel of Latin baseball.

The Caribbean Series involves winners of winter leagues in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. As heated as things get in the MexPac, it’s even more intense in the CS. National pride is on the line, and stands are usually packed with fans making lots of noise all nine innings. Fans who watched World Baseball Classic games last spring played in Puerto Rico got a sample of the atmosphere for these games, but it wasn’t quite the same. One of the great stories in Caribbean Series history occurred two winters ago when Mexico’s Mazatlan Venados lost their first round playoff series in the MexPac, but advanced as the Lucky Loser. The Venados went on to win their semifinal series and the LMP title before moving on to the Caribbean Series (which they happened to be hosting at Teodoro Mariscal Stadium) and winning the whole thing, setting off celebrations that lasted well into the morning hours in the streets of Mazatlan. This year’s CS is scheduled for Puerto Rico, although financial and organizational problems within that country’s baseball federation have led to some rumors that the series might be shifted to another country. That hasn’t happened yet, but the situation may bear watching.

As the new season unfolds, it’s impossible to predict who will win in the Mexican Pacific League this winter, but one thing is certain: It won’t be boring. It never is.

Bruce Baskin
Editor, Viva Beisbol

Replies: 1 Comment

Just what I was looking for, Thanks

Posted by garry @ 10/23/2006 01:33 PM EST

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