Year-round baseball south of the border attracts seasoned U.S. pros

Pitcher Derrick Loop signs autographs for young Tomateros fans prior to a winter league game in Culiacan, Mexico. Tomateros de Culiacan

Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.

MEXICO CITY -- Derrick Loop, a 34-year-old reliever from Corona, California, was in the midst of a formidable stretch in Mexico’s winter league. The Tomateros de Culiacán setup man, who said he thrives in pressure-packed situations in a charged atmosphere that is elevated another notch for the finals, had 12 scoreless appearances since Jan. 1, when he returned from injury in time for the team's playoff run.

That string ended Sunday in Game 7 of the finals, after Loop gave up a solo homer that resulted in the Mayos de Navojoa jumping to a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning. No matter: Cualiacán came back to tie and then win the game in 12 innings for its 11th Liga del Pacífico championship.

“It’s a playoff atmosphere from day one,” Loop said of the 68-game winter league schedule. “If you struggle early, you’re out of it, as opposed to the normal ups and downs in the summer.”

Cualiacán will represent Mexico in the Caribbean Series along with the champions from the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and, for the fourth consecutive year as an invite, Cuba. The series starts Feb. 2 in Jalisco, Mexico.

Loop, who will be participating in his second Caribbean Series, never made it to the big leagues on the mainland, bouncing around the minors on farm teams belonging to the Indians, Red Sox, Phillies and Dodgers. The left-hander's last contract with a Major League Baseball affiliate was in 2012. Then he played for a season in Venezuela's winter league with the Tiburones de La Guaira. Loop later spent four years in the Atlantic League, an independent circuit, before moving to Mexico in 2016.

“I had played in Venezuela before, and I thought the fans were phenomenal. So when I got the offer to play in Mexico, I got excited to play in front of Latin American fans again. They’re the best fans in baseball,” Loop said.

The year-round baseball schedule in Mexico means Loop and others can essentially pitch in the winter league and continue in the summer league. That's what Loop did in October 2016 when he joined Culiacán, then followed with the Piratas de Campeche of the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (LMB), the summer circuit that is Triple-A-level in Minor League Baseball.

In Culiacán, Loop has embraced relative stardom, as he is frequently accosted by fans for selfies and autographs, speaking fluent Spanish and indulging in traditional culinary offerings.

“The late-night tacos are amazing,” he said. “They’re just about the only thing available after games. It’s very difficult not to gain weight here.”

Loop is one of the 110 U.S-born players in the Mexican winter league, making up 28.9 percent of the 381 total players, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Mexicans make up 60.6 percent of players in the Liga del Pacífico, while Dominicans are at 3.9 percent.

Recent big-name foreigners include six-time MLB All-Star and 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada, from the Dominican Republic, who played for summer league Pericos de Puebla in 2015. Carlos Quentin, a two-time All-Star with the Chicago White Sox, played in the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol in 2016 and 2017.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan and long-time reliever Kyle Farnsworth have also played in Mexico recently. For some, it’s their first long-term experience in a country in which English is not the primary language.

“When I arrived in the United States, I learned English slowly and by ear,” said Willy Taveras, who played for the Acereros de Monclova last summer. “It’s easier for Latinos to play in Mexico than for the Americans who maybe don’t speak the language.”

Taveras completed his third season in Mexico’s summer league. The 36-year-old Dominican still possesses the Houston Astros’ record for longest hit streak, and he led the NL with 68 stolen bases in 2008.

“[The summer league] is a great league, plenty of guys with MLB experience. I can definitely say since I got here, the quality has gotten better,” he said.

Last summer, at the Serie del Rey, the championship series for Mexico’s summer league, former big leaguers Jorge Cantu, Alex Liddi and Sergio Mitre squared off for the Toros de Tijuana against a Puebla team managed by former Blue Jays skipper Tim Johnson and former MLB players Josh Roenicke, Julio Borbon and Endy Chavez.

“I didn’t know much about the Mexican league before I came in,” said Chavez, the former New York Mets outfielder. “But I’ve definitely been surprised. It’s tough to do well here.”

Chavez was convinced to take the plunge in Mexico by former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who was hired by Puebla last season as a spring training instructor. “I made a good choice. It’s a very competitive league,” Chavez said.

Despite the praise, Mexico fielded just nine (3.4 percent) of the 259 players born outside the U.S. on MLB Opening Day rosters in 2017, compared to 93 (35.9 percent) from the Dominican Republic.

Recently, two heralded Mexican pitching prospects -- the Red Sox’s Hector Velazquez and Dodgers' Julio Urias -- got their starts in Mexico’s summer and winter circuits. The two pitchers could very well follow in the footsteps of greats Fernando Valenzuela and Teddy Higuera, the former Brewers pitcher who won 20 games in 1986, good for an All-Star selection.

In the winter league, older players intermingle with younger prospects, sent down to hone their skills and arrive in rhythm for spring training. In Culiacan, Loop is on a roster that includes Eric Meza, a 19-year-old first baseman signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016, as well as 21-year-old Jose Medina, a pitcher in the New York Mets’ organization.

At the tail end of his career, without an MLB appearance to his name, Loop understands that his younger teammates have a better chance of reaching the big leagues than he does.

“I have no regrets. I put it all out there. I couldn’t get there, but there’s nothing I couldn’t do differently. If I can help someone else, that’s fantastic,” Loop said. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. Without a doubt, I’d stay here for the rest of my career. I’ve settled into the lifestyle and the type of play. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy Mexico. I know some guys can’t settle in, but that’s not me.

“I’ve played in [Triple-A], in front of big crowds my whole life, but nothing compares to Latin America, to Mexico. They love the sport. They love it year-round.”