01/07/2004 12:35 PM ET
Academy schools future stars
EL CARMEN, Mexico -- Less than 20 minutes outside of downtown Monterrey, in the middle of hundreds of pine trees and at the foot of one of the city's numerous mountain ranges, resides the future of professional baseball in the country of Mexico.
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
La Academia de la Liga Mexicana, the baseball academy of the Mexican League, is the place where the Mexican League and Major League dreams of 100 Mexican players a year develop into reality or die trying.
All 16 teams in the Mexican League share the funding for the academy.
"The academy is an important part of our development because if a player wants to be a professional player, he will have to go through the academy," said Raul Gonzalez, president of the Mexican League. "They teach them how to play baseball, but there are other programs available to help the players."
The academy consists of 56 dorm rooms, a computer room, a classroom and a study area. There are four baseball fields, four batting cages, a weight room, an infirmary and a plaza where the players can meet.
The curriculum runs from June to December, with approximately 100 players in attendance. Angel Macias, 59, the former professional player and current national hero, who first gained fame by throwing a perfect game in the championship game for Monterrey in the Little League World Series at Williamsport in 1957, is the director of the academy.
Patricia Rodriguez, the head of the math department in the mechanical engineering school at National Autonomous University in Monterrey, is the cultural director at the academy in charge of continuing the education of the players in and outside of the academy.
"What we offer is technical studies or the opportunity to continue their studies at a local university," she said. "We can't force them to continue their studies, but it is our obligation to give them the opportunity if they choose to. They have the option, and they must realize there is life outside of baseball."
Macias wrongly assumed his professional baseball days were over when he hung his cleats up for good in 1974. He immediately went to work for Grupo Alfa, the steel and petrochemical exporter, and spent close to 30 years as a director of human resources before being convinced to take the academy job in 2001. Macias said he turned the job at the academy down several times before finally giving in.
"It was a very drastic change," he said. "To be in the city, to be inside a corporation, and to be able to interact with people in an office atmosphere, and then go to something totally different in a secluded area was a big change.
"But what convinced me was that although I was away from baseball, I saw that the academy was being neglected and it needed to be given a better image in order to sell the product -- the product of the academy the way it should be. That caught my attention so I said, 'Well, OK I'll give it a shot.'"
So the job of improving the academy rested almost solely in the hands of Macias, and he knew exactly where to begin. It all starts with taking care of the players, he said.
"For Mexican baseball to prosper, the young men need better facilities in order for them to get the most out of their abilities," he said. "They need a better place to rest so they can be comfortable and feel like they are in a good environment. The benefits are two-fold. We are very much interested in having the United States market come here and use our facilities if they want to. We only use the facilities half of the year, and if a United States organization wants to come use it the rest of the year, we are open to that idea. Who better to offer it to than the United States?"
The academy is in the process of renovating each dorm room and adding an air conditioner and heater along with installing private bathrooms and showers, compared to the communal facilities the academy has been using. Macias hopes those additions, as well as an automatic sprinkler system and improved fields, will not only improve the overall academy and the performance of the players, but also garner attention from the United States.
"Mexican baseball is ready to take off again because, believe it or not, we were in a down period," he said. "What happened? We let it happen and time caught up to us. Now, we are trying to rebuild again. Why? Because the Mexican League has taken an interest in the development of players and the academy. If you invest in the development of a product, you will have a better product. It's as simple as that."
Here's how the old system worked. The teams from the Mexican Leagues would send their players to the academy to be trained, and then if ready or capable, the players would be sent back to the teams. Players who did not perform well enough to play for its respective team were cut.
With Macias' new focus, the academy, not the teams, is responsible for the recruitment and the scouting of the ballplayers. Scouts who do not meet Macias' standards of professionalism will not be considered. Instructors at the academy must also meet a high standard of performance.
"What this means is that we will have to be more selective and more realistic in the players we bring here," he said. "What we are looking for is the best prospects for the Mexican League and the leagues in the U.S. We need to work hard to develop the players because we have fallen behind. We are the closest country to the United States and everybody has more players in MLB than us. From the Dominican, to Puerto Rico and even Japan. We want our players to be more attractive to Major League Baseball and all that starts here at the academy."
Macias' plan is to offer the best players in the academy to teams from Major League Baseball. The remaining players will be made available to the Mexican League teams via draft with the teams with worst records selecting first.
"We are not just working for the academy or the Monterrey Sultanes or the Mexico City Diablos Rojos," Macias said. "We are working for Mexican baseball in the country. What are we looking for? To be more competitive throughout the league and globally. We want more balance where one team does not always dominate or the same teams are not always in the playoffs. It's our focus and our vision, but we know this is not going to be easy.
"But I am convinced this will help Mexican baseball."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.