When the Venados de Mazatlán dramatically won the Serie del Caribe over Venezuela’s Tigres de Aragua on Super Bowl weekend, I immediately popped the cap off a bottle of Pacífico in celebration. This was the third time in four years that a team from Mexico has been crowned in this historic tournament, and it seemed fitting that a journeyman Mexican slugger launched a ninth inning, walk off home run to start the fiesta.
It was pleasing to watch Jorge “Chato” Vasquez, a 33-year-old ex-New York Yankee farmhand, blast the decisive bomb, because he’s one of the most popular guys in the Liga Mexicana. Yeah, it’s been over four years since Vasquez stepped on a major league diamond, largely due to his defensive shortcomings. But Chato could always hit the shit out of the ball, and carries a reputation of clutching up in key moments. The event was also a regional coming out party of sorts for Esteban Quiroz, 23, the hotshot second baseman for Mazatlan. After winning a Gold Glove and Novato del Año for Quintana Roo during the summer, Quiroz compiled a sizzling slash line of .400/.526/.533 in the tourney, while showing strong leadership skills and athletic ability. The youngster is only 5′ 7″ and weighs just 170 pounds, but has “dreamed” of playing in the big leagues since he was a small boy. Certainly, superstar second baseman Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros has shown that little guys can play the game too. So now that the political baseball landscape has loosened up a bit in Mexico, perhaps international scouts should give Quiroz a shot.
Another player on the rise is Sebastian Valle, 25, Mazatlan’s durable catcher. Valle had a lengthy stint in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system early on in his career, and gained some valuable experience. Now that he has matured, the Los Mochis native has received an invite to the Yankee camp this spring. After hitting for a .450 average as a Venado in the series, Valle’s resume will look a lot more impressive.
The political baseball landscape has loosened up a bit in Mexico.
Venezuela’s club had a good mixture of youngsters and veterans, and nobody received more attention in the championship game than 39-year-old hurler Freddy Garcia. The crafty, 15-year major league ace started on the hill and worked a gutsy five-plus innings. Freddy kept the Tigres in the hunt and pitched well enough to win until he ran out of gas. With the game tied, Garcia headed to the dugout to a standing ovation, and even treated the cheering fans to a curtain call. Then, as expected, Freddy would later announce his retirement.
The remainder of the contestants in the round-robin format were clearly outclassed by Mexico and Venezuela. The boys from Puerto Rico battled but were short on depth. The Dominican Republic squad that hosted the festivities were an embarrassment. Frankly, all eyes seemed to be on Cuba, who won this event last year in San Juan despite the fact that two of its players defected. That scenario has become all too common these days, with the mass exodus so extreme that the island regime has lost total control. Even the Gourriel brothers (Yulieski and Lourdes), long faithful to Fidel and Raulito, have decided to flee for a better life. What does this mean? The talent pool is finally drying up in Cuba and the famed Serie Nacional will be no better than a Class A league in the U.S. moving forward.
There’s no question that the Latin American prospect focus is shifting more and more toward Mexico, and scouts understand that the scope goes far beyond winter ball success. The Liga Mexicana teams perform at a high level, and its rising stars are legitimate and worthy of recognition. Such respect is long overdue.