Talking Beisbol: Mexican League mess?

Talking Beisbol: Mexican League mess?

At first glance, the differences between the Major Leagues in the United States of America and the Mexican Leagues in the United States of Mexico are mind-boggling.

But a closer look into baseball on both sides of the borders reveals more than a few similarities.

Baseball is loved and baseball is a business in both countries. Regardless of location, baseball players and baseball owners each feel they know what is best for the game.

The biggest difference, however, is the number of players in the big leagues -- there were 637 Americans playing Major League Baseball on Opening Day.

There were 18 from Mexico.

"I believe there is not a lot of opportunity for players to come from Mexico," said former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, arguably the most successful player to ever come from Mexico. "There is a lot of talent there. That's all that's missing -- opportunity and the chance to come prove whether or not they can play in the big leagues. Right now, the opportunity is not there."

But why, Fernando?

Part of the reason for the low number of players from Mexico is the system in which the 16-team summer Mexican League operates. Unlike in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama and other Latin/foreign countries, excluding Puerto Rico, players from Mexico cannot be signed as free agents and later placed in academies funded by big league teams.

Players in Puerto Rico are subjected to the First-Year Player Draft like players from the United States.

In Mexico's summer league system, a system similar to Japan's, all players are first affiliated with a Mexican League team. If a Major League team is interested in a player, it first must negotiate with a team owner to attain temporary or permanent rights to a player. The price for a Mexican League player can be expensive compared to what it takes to sign a player from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.

Yes, there are working agreements between Major League teams and the summer Mexican League teams, but there are countless tales that show how badly Mexican owners want to win their respective league titles and how they will not give up their best players easily or cheaply -- an act that can be discouraging to Major League teams.

The Mexican summer team owners, like owners in the United States, realize how hard it is to make a profit, and are not apt to give away the cash cow without some form of insurance for the organization and its original Mexican League -- a league that is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

"It's difficult because there is organized baseball in Mexico, but if a big league team is interested in a Mexican League player, the Mexican team will say they need him and won't sell him," said Valenzuela, who was purchased by the Dodgers from a Mexican team. "They want a lot of money."

"A lot of money," in this case, is an estimated price range of $15,000 to $300,000, but it could be more depending on the value of a player to its respective organization. It could also be less. Players, however, receive 15-20 percent of the price paid to the owners for their services.

That's where it gets tricky.

American businessmen want cheap players from Mexico, at least initially, with the hopes of developing great players and expanding the game -- like in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela -- but offer the potential for millions in the future in return. Mexican businessmen/owners in general do not support that notion and are content operating their own league in their own country and fixing their own problems. There is also a silent sentiment among the elite in Mexico that they do not need the United States to rescue them or Mexican baseball. The image of the poor immigrants crossing the border does not represent all of Mexico to all Mexicans.

In the meantime, the Mexican players and their Major League dreams are caught in the middle. Curiously, the Mexican League of summer is a member of the National Association of Professional Leagues -- it is considered Triple-A, although most consider the league at Double-A level -- and is the only league in Mexico that can sell players to Major League teams. The Mexican Winter League, a group of eight teams across the country's Pacific coast, cannot sell players to the Major Leagues despite an affiliation with Major League Baseball's Commissioner's office, the Caribbean Confederation, and the fact several Major League players participate in the winter league.

Without a doubt, Mexico's two leagues are rivals.

"It's complicated and it's hard to explain," said Padres catcher Miguel Ojeda, purchased by San Diego from the Mexico City Diablos Rojos in 2003, "I think it is better to start in Mexico and come here. Things are getting better but we all dream of playing in the Major Leagues."

Part of the solution is Mexico's academy. The Mexican League's Baseball Academy near Monterrey, Mexico, is designed primarily to develop players for the leagues in Mexico. But it is making strides to create a relationship with Major League scouts and teams. Mexico baseball legend Angel Macias, the director of the academy, recognizes the need for more Mexican players in the Major Leagues and is developing a team of scouts to scour the country for prospects. Macias' mission is to improve baseball on both sides of the border.

It won't be easy. And if anyone knows that reality, it is Padres Spanish radio announcer Juan Avila. A native of Mazatlan, Mexico, Avila began his broadcasting career as the play-by-play man for the Mazatlan Venados in the Mexican Winter League in 1992. Avila, who is in his eighth season with the Padres, has broadcast the Caribbean World Series periodically since 1993 and was on the microphone when Mazatlan won the title in February.

"We need to break that barrier and change the system," Avila said. "I understand the Mexican League teams' point of view, but we need to find a way to put more players in the Major Leagues because I see these guys and they dream of playing here. There are 20 Mexicans here and 90 in the Minor Leagues. Compared to the Dominican Republic? Venezuela? They have so many more."

More could be on the way.

There are reports out of Mexico that the Pittsburgh Pirates reached an agreement with Campeche Piratas pitcher Francisco Campos, the Most Valuable Player at the 2005 Caribbean World Series. Additionally, the agreement could allow Campos to play for his Mexican League summer team before reporting to the big league organization.

But Pirates general manager David Littlefield refuted the reports and said there is no agreement in place with Campos.

"That is untrue," Littlefield said. "We have no deal."

Deal or no deal, Campos serves as model of what can happen to Mexican League stars in the Mexican League system. For example, a Campos-like player who is not playing in the United States but is signed by a Major League organization can have the Mexican system work in his favor, financially speaking. A star player like Campos would receive an estimated salary of $15,000 to $20,000 a month to stay, play and win for his owner in Mexico. In the United States, a Mexican star could be headed to the Minor Leagues and be paid considerably less, only a few thousand a month.

A guaranteed twenty grand and fame versus $3,000 a month and long bus rides in Double-A and Triple-A? Some, not all, would take the money if they had the choice. The reality is that Mexican stars don't have a say because Mexican owners determine if players stay in the country or are shipped off to the United States.

"It's a big country with a lot of talent," Valenzuela said. "Players want to come here but also like to have the security of having work all year long. You take a risk by coming here. You think of that and the contract that you have with a Mexican League team."

Indeed. There is a lot to think about. The only certainty is the number of players in the big leagues from Mexico compared to other Spanish-speaking countries. On Opening Day there were 91 players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela was a distant second with 46 and Puerto Rico followed in third with 34.

"Teams in Mexico need to give them a chance," Valenzuela said. "The players want to play here. There has to be more opportunity. They need them more there and won't release them. That's the reason why there are not enough."

That's at least one of the reasons, Fernando. The other ones are pretty familiar.

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.