Benji Gil didn’t hold back. When asked about the World Baseball Classic’s decision to move up Mexico’s quarterfinal game against Puerto Rico to Friday, Mexico’s manager bluntly responded that it was unfair.
The plan had been for the winner of Pool C to play the runner-up from Pool D on Saturday. Mexico won Pool C. Puerto Rico finished second in Pool D. But there was a fine print: Team USA would play the Saturday’s quarterfinal match if he advanced from Group C no matter what, whether the Americans finished first or second. As a result, Team USA will face Venezuela, the winner of Pool D, on Saturday, while Mexico had a rough day after having a cross-country fly snatched from them.
“It’s a handicap,” Gil said a few hours before the first pitch Friday. “100%”.
The obstacle ultimately didn’t matter. Mexico rallied to beat Puerto Rico 5-4 after falling 4-0 in the first inning for the country’s biggest win in international baseball competition. With him, Mexico advanced to the WBC semifinals for the first time to play Japan on Monday.
“We are showing what Mexican players are capable of at the highest level,” Gil said.
Gil is known for his (relatively) unfiltered thoughts on the subjects. One is the future of him. He played eight seasons in the majors, four with the Texas Rangers and Angels, as a utility infielder and nearly two decades in the Mexican winter league. He now wants to become a major league manager. It’s what he’s working for. It’s one reason he took a job on the Angels’ coaching staff before last season and why he chose to coach Mexico in the WBC.
“Anything that keeps you moving toward the finish line,” said Gil, 50. “And the ultimate goal is to manage at the big league level one day and win a world title.”
Gil isn’t the only manager in the tournament who could end up leading a major league bench in the future. Puerto Rico’s manager, Yadier Molina, began his managerial career in the Venezuelan winter league immediately after retiring at the end of last season after a 19-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Team USA manager Mark DeRosa had never managed before this tournament, but has interviewed for several major league managerial positions.
DeRosa, however, said he didn’t take the Team USA job with an eye toward a future opportunity in the majors.
“I felt like it would be a golden opportunity to get back to fighting the best players in the world,” DeRosa said. “That was the motivating factor in this.”
Team USA was the heavy favorite to win Pool C, but Mexico defeated the Americans last Sunday. The result ultimately served as a tiebreaker to win the group. But, as Gil pointed out, Mexico got a bad draw.
Mexico landed in Miami from Phoenix at 7 am Thursday. Instead of working out, Mexico opted to take the day off. Meanwhile, the USA, with an extra day off, worked out at LodDepot Park on Friday. The adjustment also meant that Mexico and Dodgers ace Julio Urías were deprived of a day of rest. Urías allowed four runs in the first inning Friday before pitching three scoreless innings to end his outing. He threw 60 pitches.
“It’s nothing against the US, okay?” Gil said. “If it’s on television, I’m telling you right now, if I’m not here, if I’m not in the tournament, I would be watching the game. And I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not going to watch the US game because it’s Friday and FS1, instead of Saturday on Fox.’”
Gil’s candor is refreshing in an increasingly buttoned-down world. It’s one of the things he’s been known for since his time as a manager in Mexico. That, and win. Gil has gained a lot from the top echelon. He has accumulated four championships in the Mexican winter league with the Tomateros de Culiacán, a team with which he spent 13 seasons as a player. They lost in Game 7 of the championship series another year.
Last season was difficult in Culiacán. So shaky that he was sacked in November after a disappointing start, only to be rehired just hours after players protested the decision.
“For us he is a leader, a leader to follow,” said Mexican catcher Alexis Wilson, who has also played with Gil in Culiacán. “He is a mentor for me and for many, someone who has given us that confidence that you need.”
In his only season in the summer Mexican League, he led the expansion Mariachis de Guadalajara to the best record in the league without an expansion draft to fill the roster. His exploits led to his being named manager of Mexico’s Olympic baseball team in Tokyo and a spot on the country’s WBC 2023 team, the most talented Mexican baseball team ever assembled for international competition.
“He is the best manager in Mexico,” said former Major League Baseball player Edgar González, Mexico’s manager at the WBC 2017. “And he is the best because he is a great motivator. The guys have to be able to motivate the players nowadays”.
This week, Gil led Mexico to an unexpected first place finish in Pool C, buoyed by an upset over Team USA in Phoenix. That’s a small sample size added to a decade of managerial experience. But none of that experience has come in affiliate baseball.
“I want to believe that this helps, and it should,” Gil said. “I think anyone running this should be worth considering. Hopefully this is important and they will really evaluate it. The way I would love it to be is that I am literally being explored.”
Gil was born in Tijuana and grew up on both sides of the border. He went to school on the American side, in National City and Chula Vista, and played all of his baseball in Mexico. He crossed the border, he said, three or four times a week. His father lived in Tijuana, had a business there, and visited days at a time.
Due to the experience, he not only seamlessly jumps between English and Spanish, but also engages with Latinos and Americans alike on a different level. About 30% of the players on the Major League rosters are Latino. Gil’s ability to communicate ticks another box.
“There are a lot of people who are bilingual,” Gil said. “Not many people are bicultural. There is a tremendous difference.”
Gil said he has never interviewed for a major league manager job. He remains hopeful that he will get a shot on the line. For now, he continues to fill out his resume and speak his mind with a team that is making history.