Mexico's Caribbean turnaround no joking matter
Country transforms from laughingstock to Series champ in two of past three years
ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- El Patito Feo. The Ugly Duckling.
For years, the Mexican team was the punch line of the Caribbean Series in three languages -- Spanish, English and baseball. But times have changed, and now, the joke is on the competition.
A team from Mexico has won the Caribbean Series twice in the past three years, including last year in Hermosillo, Mexico. The country also has four titles in the past 11 years.
This year's representative, the Naranjeros de Hermosillo, is 2-2 through round-robin play and has earned a spot in the semifinals.
"I don't think you can dispute the quality of players in Mexico," Orioles pitcher Alfredo Aceves said. "It's improved over the years, and you are seeing what we can do here."
On Saturday, Aceves pitched seven strong innings to lead Mexico to a 9-4 victory over Cuba. Mexico also defeated Puerto Rico, 6-3, on Sunday but lost to Venezuela the following day and to the Dominican Republic on Wednesday.
"Nobody came here talking about Mexico, but they should have been," said Puerto Rico manager Carlos Baerga.
Here's what we know: Mexico is 18-17 in its past 35 Caribbean Series games. That's quite an improvement from its 61-114 record at the tournament from 1971-99. Overall, the country is 99-162 in 44 Caribbean Series appearances.
"The pitching in Mexico has really improved with guys throwing harder, including the imported players, but you also have Mexican pitchers throwing 91-92 mph with a cutter and a sinker," said Mexico starting center fielder Chris Roberson, who reached the Majors with the Phillies in 2006-07. "You still see guys throwing the mess out of a changeup, but there's the split, too. It's a solid Double-A and Triple-A level. You can definitely see how baseball has improved there."
Some of the country's ballparks also have been getting a makeover. There are new stadiums in Hermosillo and Tijuana. Culiacan and Navojoa are among the teams upgrading their facilities.
Participation from players like Marlon Byrd, Jacque Jones, John Lindsey, Oliver Perez, Luis Cruz, Casey McGehee and Aceves in Mexico also has helped improve the overall quality of play.
"Soccer is the favorite sport in Mexico, but baseball is making progress," said Mexico manager Matias Carrillo. "There's a movement going on. We are demonstrating that we are no longer the ugly ducklings of the Caribbean Series anymore."
There is a history of success in Mexico.
Fernando Valenzuela and Vinny Castilla are arguably the most recognizable figures from Mexico's baseball past, but the list of current Mexican players in the Major Leagues includes names like Adrian Gonzalez, Yovani Gallardo, Luis Mendoza, Fernando Salas and Luis Ayala. Overall, there were 14 players from Mexico on Major League rosters on Opening Day last season.
Dodgers pitching prospect Julio Urias, ranked no. 64 on MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list, might be the next great player to come out of the country.
"Down in Mexico, there is a Mexican League and then there's Rookie ball and nothing in between, so you see young pitchers have success against veterans or guys on their way out of the game because they are forced to find a way to get them out," said former Major Leaguer and Mexican League manager Derek Bryant, who works as a liaison with the D-backs in Mexico. "They develop a pitch ability at a young age. I think there has always been talent in Mexico, but it's more famous for pitching than players on the field."
Bryant admits there is no easy path to the Majors for players in Mexico. The contracts of Mexican players and prospects are owned by their teams and must be sold to a Major League team. The negotiations can be lengthy and sometimes fall apart.
"It's been a lot better than in the past, because more Mexican clubs have working agreements with big league clubs and they are letting their players go to the U.S.," Bryant said. "So even if they don't make it there, they come back to Mexico as better players and are able to apply what they learned and make the league better. Everybody wins."
Winning. That's what matters most to Mexico.
"Mexico has gone from being a victim of the Caribbean Series to a hero," said Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales. "Mentally, we know we are equal to the other leagues in the Caribbean."