Mexican Baseball Is Finally Eliminating One of the Worst Unwritten Rules in Sports
For decades, Mexican teams have blacklisted domestic ballplayers who signed their first contracts in the United States instead of in Mexico.
Last month, owners of the 16 Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB) teams agreed to eliminate a rule that didn't exist—or at least a rule that few would talk about.
For decades, a pacto de caballeros (gentlemen's agreement) has existed amongst LMB owners to blacklist Mexican ballplayers who sign with teams from the United States before they sign with teams from the Mexican league.
José Antonio Mansur, president of the Rojos del Águila of Veracruz, told Beisbol Mundial in November that the blacklist was being eliminated, that it was time for the LMB to respect human rights. Mansur did not respond to VICE Sport's request for elaboration, but the consequences of the pacto over the years have been very real.
One man who has felt them is Amadeo Zazueta. When Zazueta was a kid in Culiacan, Mexico, he tried out for several Mexican League teams. None wanted to sign him. So in 2003, when he was 17, he agreed to a deal with the Houston Astros organization.
In 2006, having hit .170 through a couple dozen games for the Astros' Rookie Ball affiliate, in Greenville, Tennessee, Zazueta washed out of the minors.
At the time, he thought that he might catch on in Mexico. What Zazueta didn't know—what many people don't know—was that, as a Mexican-born player who signed with an affiliated Major League Baseball club in the United States without first signing with a Mexican team, he would be punished for bypassing a system that rewards clubs at the expense of players' freedom and agency.
The LMB is the lone non-American baseball league that falls under the umbrella of MLB's minor league system. Though it's not considered to be at an equivalent talent level, it's classified as a Triple-A league. Unlike American Triple-A teams, LMB teams are not affiliated with big league clubs and while the American Triple-A leagues serve as farm systems for the majors, LMB contracts are more likely to stifle a player's professional advancement than foster it.
Mexican kids are often signed to teams in their mid-teens. There's no free agency or players' union. Effectively, these contracts are for life. If a kid shows promise, he's typically signed by a LMB team and sold to the States almost immediately, without ever donning a Mexican uniform. The Diablos Rojos of Mexico City sold pitching prospect Julio Urias to the Dodgers for $450,000 in 2012, when the Sinaloan southpaw, who got a small cut of that money, turned 16. According to numerous sources close to the league, teams make more selling players than they do from ticket sales.
There are dozens of examples of prospects being sold to the big leagues for large sums of money—of which only a small portion actually reaches the player. Luis Heredia was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $2.6 million, of which he pocketed 30 percent. The Blue Jays bought Roberto Osuna in 2011 for $1.5 million; he kept less than half.
Mexican-born players who aren't sold young often stay in the Mexican League for life. Pooky Gomez, who sells MaxBats on both sides of the border and also serves as a consultant for the Toros de Tijuana, says that greedy teams keep players from getting sold to the States later on.
"Their whole thing is, 'It's costing me this,'" Gomez said. "The fans know him. They start doing, 'It cost me this much money to bring him up. We brought him up through the minors. This is what it cost me.'"
As a result, the demands LMB clubs make on their MLB counterparts are often too high, and American clubs decide to pay less for a prospect of similar talent elsewhere.
"If you have no potential to play in the big leagues, then you just surrender to what you are," said Gomez. "'I'm just a Mexican League player. I'm not good enough to be bought out.' It sucks because it seems like a dead end. But there's always one guy that's like, this guy's pretty fucking good."
Vinny Castilla was purchased from the Mexican League after playing there for years, as was Romero Pena. Jorge Campillo started his career in the Mexican Leagues before being sold to the Seattle Mariners.
"I was 25 years old," he said. "Not young, like a regular prospect."
Campillo pitched successfully for the Braves before returning to the LMB as a player and now as an executive for the Toros.
"I think that's an issue of the past," Campillo said of the overly strict contracts. "I think right now every team is open for the opportunity and to give the opportunity to players. I don't know about other teams but on my team, we're open. We're not tagging a price on any players. The scouts tell you the market for the players. Some scouts come and they offer, I don't know, $50,000 for one player. But if there are three or four teams interested in the same player, it becomes like an auction. We say 'Give me more' when we start negotiating that contract."
In an attempt to avoid being trapped into lifetime contracts with LMB, a handful of players signed directly with the U.S. teams. Hence the blacklist.
"Kids are essentially being coerced into signing with Mexican League teams just so that Mexican League teams can turn around and send him to a major league team," said baseball consultant Joe Kehoskie, who lives part-time in the Mexican city of Merida, in August. "The kids are getting creamed."
"It's like baseball slavery in Mexico," said journalist and attorney Alejandro Aguerrebere. "It's not a free-market economy, or at least they want to put it in terms that they want or they like, with no opposition to that. They make some expression like, 'They're ballplayers; they don't have college or university.' They treat them like they have a mental weakness. It's so shameful."
Aguerrebere wrote a column for VICE Sports Latin America in September calling for the league to abolish the blacklist.
After washing out with the Astros in 2006, Zazueta caught on in the low-paying American independent leagues. He's had brief stints with the Braves, Padres, and Blue Jays organizations, making Triple A in 2012 but hitting only .183 through 115 at bats. He's posted photos of himself all over the United States: on a steamboat on the Mississippi, at a Van Halen concert in New Jersey, riding a ferry to Long Island.
"Lord I never complain I never ask why," he wrote on Twitter at the end of 2012. "But please don't let my dream run dry."
"I'm not mad at the league at all, they have their rules," Zazueta said in an e-mail in October. "I would just be really happy to play in it, since I'm Mexican and I think I deserve it."
So why has LMB decided to move on from their pacto? In theory, it could be due to the players themselves. This fall, Zazueta asked the LMB for forgiveness, although Rogelio Noris, whose story is similar to Zazueta's, asked for the same thing last year, according to a pre-season article in Imagen de Golfo, and was not reinstated.
A more likely scenario is that team owners were reacting to a recent visit from Major League Baseball Commissioner Rod Manfred, though MLB denied that the visit was specifically about the pacto de caballeros.
"Commissioner Manfred talked about players being more accessible to the majors and the benefits for both leagues," MLB spokesperson John Blundell wrote in an e-mail. "There was never a mention about any blacklists."
Blundell had previously e-mailed stating that the MLB has no jurisdiction over the LMB.
Whatever the cause, numerous Mexican-born players will finally be eligible to play in the LMB next year, meaning Zazueta can finally return home for a summer.
"I'm really happy," he said in an e-mail after the decision. "I will go in to a draft. So I'm hoping for the best in it, and I can't wait to play in the league."
A draft is set to be held in Nashville in December at MLB's annual winter meetings. It will likely include Zazueta, Noris, and other formerly blacklisted players like Marco Camarena and Edgar Osuna
In the meantime, Zazueta has been playing in the other major Mexican baseball league, the Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (LMP), a popular winter league that is not associated with MLB or the LMB. Despite lacking LMB's official association with MLB, the Mexican Pacific League has, arguably, a better relationship with big-league clubs, which often sent their prospects to the LMP for off-season work before the creation of the Arizona Fall League. Minor leaguers still sometimes find themselves on LMP rosters.
Despite their strict contracts, LMB players are currently free to play in the LMP during their off-season, but Aguerrebere fears that freedom may be waning. Earlier this month, LMB announced the creation of winter league of its own, which could be setting the table for Mexican baseball's first big, post-blacklist controversy.
"They're not saying very clearly that they are one against the other," Aguerrebere said, "but those are clearly not good signs, because first they said winter league was for the development of rookies and now they're saying they may hold some of their own players."
In 1946, Danny Gardella, a middling American ballplayer was cut from the New York Giants, according to the New York Times, as rosters began to fill with returning World War II veterans.
At the same time, Jorge Pasquel, an owner of the Azules de Veracruz with a minority interest in several other Mexican teams, was named president of the burgeoning Mexican League. Having, years earlier, successfully enticed Negro league players with big contracts, he set his sights on Major League Baseball, actively poaching American talent.
Gardella went south to Mexico, playing for Veracruz. Later that year, baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler announced a five-year ban for any player who signed Mexican contracts.
In 1947, Gardella sued Major League Baseball and, after a long legal battle, Chandler offered amnesty to the players.
That legal fight is now framed as the first in a series of battles that ultimately led, in 1976, to free agency in the Major Leagues.
Aguerrebere wishes that the LMB, which is currently celebrating its 90th year as an organization, would catch up.
"They are chanting that we have 90 years and all this stuff," he said, "but they're not evolving or getting to a better circumstance."