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Column: Final Thoughts on the 2023 Baseball Champions League

 Leif Skodnick  |    Oct 5th, 2023 11:49am EDT

Parque Kukulkan Alamo in Merida, Mexico, hosted the inaugural Baseball Champions League. (Photo: Leif Skodnick/World Baseball Network)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

The biggest question entering the Baseball Champions League was whether the level of play amongst the four teams would be comparable, or whether one team would run away with the inaugural BCL title.

Fans and organizers were rewarded with what was, largely, a very balanced tournament. The team that finished last, the Alazanes de Granma, defeated the eventual champion, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, in Thursday’s opening game. 

For Fargo-Moorhead and the American Association, the win is meaningful. For years, independent baseball has had to fight tooth-and-nail for respect, and the win at the Baseball Champions League showed that the American Association is on par with the other three leagues that participated – at minimum.

“ I always tell people on an average over 100 game season, it’s a ‘soft Double-A’ league. And I don’t mean that ‘soft’ in a negative term,” American Association deputy commissioner Josh Buchholz told World Baseball Network.

Buccholz noted that pitchers lower on the depth chart of American Association teams may not have the velocity or movement that pitchers at the bottom of a Double-A roster in affiliated ball might have, but on the whole, fans are going to see good pitching matchups.

“It’s going to look like Triple-A baseball out there. And there are teams in our league that would hold their own in a Triple-A schedule,” Buchholz said. “They probably would not win the league, but there’s enough talent there and enough experience that nobody would really be overwhelmed stepping onto a Triple-A field.”

RedHawks manager Chris Coste played four years of independent ball for Fargo-Moorhead from 1996 to 1999 before getting his first shot in affiliated baseball in Cleveland’s minor-league system.

“Baseball around the world is just getting, it’s just growing, and it’s amazing how good it’s gotten,” Coste said following Fargo-Moorhead’s 8-0 win in the final game against the Caimanes de Barranquilla.

“Obviously we were in a Red Hawks uniform, but we’re really representing our league,” Coste continued. Fourteen of the players wearing a RedHawks jersey in the BCL played for Fargo-Moorhead during the regular season, while the rest came from other teams in the American Association, including BCL MVP Roy Morales.  

“That’s what it’s so much about, because me, I was originally a member of this league way back when,” Coste said. “So for me to be the first manager to be able to do this, I think it’s pretty fitting, and I’m pretty ecstatic I get to be the first manager to be a part of this.”

Unsurprisingly, a player from the Alazanes de Granma slipped away from the delegation and remained in Mexico.

Francys Romero of BeisbolFR.com reported that outfielder Yobanys Millan left the team’s hotel in Merida and did not return to Cuba with the team.

Millan debuted in the Serie Nacional in the 2019-20 season with Holguin, playing two seasons there until moving to the Alazanes de Granma for 2021-22. He played for Agricultores in the inaugural season of the Cuban Elite League, winning a championship and accompanying the team to the 2023 Caribbean Series in Caracas, Venezuela. In 154 games in the Serie Nacional with Holguin and Granma, Millan batted .286/.345/.354 with three homers and 27 RBI.

Millan went hitless in two at-bats as a pinch-hitter at the Baseball Champions League, making appearances against the Caimanes de Barranquilla and the Leones de Yucatan.

According to Romero, Millan is the 49th player to walk away from a Cuban team or abandon a contract in 2023.

Attendance at Parque Kukulcan Alamo was good when the Leones de Yucatan were playing. The host team played night games during the round robin portion of the tournament, drawing 3,915 last Thursday against Barranquilla, 3,393 last Friday against Fargo-Moorhead, and 2,422 on Saturday, despite having been eliminated from contention.

The final, which featured Fargo-Moorhead and Barranquilla, drew a respectable 1,509. 

The weekday games, however, drew miniscule crowds, with Thursday afternoon’s game between Granma and Fargo-Moorhead drawing an announced crowd of 400, and the other two weekday games drawing crowds of under 100.

In fairness, the economic situation in Colombia, the political situation in Cuba, and the relatively remote location undoubtedly contributed to the smaller crowds. 

Sources have indicated that Mexico and the LMB will host the next two editions of the Baseball Champions League. If so, Puebla, as 2023 LMB champions, would likely be the host next year. Located about two hours by bus from Mexico City, Puebla’s airport has daily flights from Houston.

It’d be easy to say that having the LMB hold the 2024 Baseball Champions League in say, Monterrey or Mexico City, would help attendance, as both cities have direct flights from multiple cities in the U.S. 

But the BCL also has to accommodate the host team’s fans, and the Leones fans were the vast majority of those who showed up last week. 

Granma’s biggest flaw was a weak pitching staff, which has been a flaw common to Cuban teams of late. At the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Cuba had a team ERA of 5.09, ninth overall in the event. They lost 14-2 in the semifinals to the United States, giving up seven walks and 14 hits, eight of which went for extra bases, four of which were home runs. No pitcher for Cuba lasted more than two innings. 

The Leones de Yucatan surely would have liked a better outcome, given that they were playing at home. Perhaps the momentum would have swung differently for the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol representative had manager Roberto Vizcarra started Cesar Valdez on Thursday evening against Barranquilla. Valdez, who went five innings, allowing two runs on five hits in the Leones finale against Granma Saturday night, is beloved in Yucatan, having starred for the Leones in 2018 and 2019.

Parque Kukulcan Alamo, which opened in 1982, will undergo a major renovation over the offseason. The renovation will add new bathrooms for spectators, new vending spaces, and increase capacity from approximately 12,200 to nearly 17,000, according to Punto.Mx. The renovation is expected to be completed over the offseason.

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Leif Skodnick