November 10, 2000
By John Philip Wyllie
The common perception is that Major League Baseball players play from April to September and spend the rest of the year spending their vast fortunes. Nothing could be farther from the truth in the case of Anaheim Angels utility infielder Benji Gil. Gil, who was born in Tijuana and raised in Chula Vista, spends each winter sharpening his skills as he returns to his homeland to play in the Mexican League.
"I actually signed to play with a team in Mexico before I was drafted (as the 19th player chosen in the '93 Major League draft). Throughout his five years in the majors, first with the Texas Rangers and currently with the Angels, Gil has headed south for winter ball in the Mexican League. After returning to Chula Vista for a brief weekend visit from his home in Texas, Gil was off to Culiacan Monday morning to begin his "second" season. He headed south with great anticipation.
"I take it (playing in the Mexican League) to heart, so my immediate goal is to win the championship," said Gil. The Mexican League winner competes in the Carribbean Series with the league champions of Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. "This year that series is going to be in Culiacan, so it is important to me to be a part of that, especially since it will be held where I have played for the last seven years." As a star player on one of the top Mexican teams, Gil's dream of winning in a Carribbean series in front of the hometown fans may come to pass.
On the Angels, Gil plays in the shadow of stars such as Mo Vaughn, Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus, but in the Mexican League, Gil is a major star. And that can be good and bad.
"It can be a wonderful thing," says Gil. "The press follows me quite a bit and being that I play in Mexico every winter, I have the whole community supporting me," (both in his hometown of Tijuana and in Culiacan where he plays). "It helps to play on a year round basis and go somewhere where you are accepted and feel like you are important." Sometimes in fact, he feels a little too important.
"I've made the mistake of going to Sunday mass (in Culiacan) at noon and I've been mobbed. I feel like I'm doing more harm than I am good because I'm distracting 20 or 30 people. Instead of paying attention to the mass, they are watching me. So what I'll do now is go to church during the week."
At the conclusion of the Mexican League season, Gil will head north where he hopes to continue his career with the Angels. He likes Anaheim's close proximity to the San Diego -Tijuana area and he is happy with the Angels organization. Gil hopes to build on the strong finish he enjoyed last season.
Always good with his glove, Gil wants to sharpen his hitting skills in Mexico. "I want to continue working on my new batting stance and perfect it so when I head back to spring training, I'm feeling very comfortable. On the defensive end, you can never be good enough, so I'll keep working to improve and refine my skills at second and third base because I may end up once again as the Angels utility man."