Pool B is a tough one. All four teams involved in it- Taipei, Korea, the Netherlands and Australia- all have the ability to win on any given day, and all four also have professional leagues of their own. While the Asian nations must be considered the favorites, the Dutch and Aussies cannot be counted out.
See the preview after the jump:
About the Venue: The Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium opened in 2006 to host the 2006 Intercontinental Cup. Since then, it has continued to be one of Taiwan’s main stadiums for international play, hosting a Baseball World Cup and an Asian Baseball Championship, and was for years the home of the Sinon Bulls (now EDA Rhinos) of the CPBL, although it now tenant-less as far as CPBL teams go, a casualty of the the corruption and gambling that is rampant in Taiwan’s professional league.
About the Pool:
This pool could be interesting, with no team that truly can be said to be a heavy underdog- every one of these teams could beat any of the other three teams if they have a good day. With the exception of the Netherlands, all of these teams border the Pacific Ocean.
About the country: Like Japan and China, the history of the Korean Peninsula is long, complicated and often violent. It’s current divided state, however, can be traced back to the end of World War Two. Korea had been under occupation by Japan for most of the first half of the twentieth century, and when the dust settled from the war the United States and USSR agreed to administer one half of the peninsula until elections could be done in order for the Korean people to choose their own government. Cold War tensions led to this never happening, and soon two rival governments were formed: the Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the US-supported Republic of Korea in the south. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to a US-led “police action” to save the peninsula from Communist rule. After the arrival of Chinese “volunteers” in late 1950, the two sides entered a stalemate until a truce was made in 1953. There is still no peace treaty, so the two Koreas remain at war. Since then, South Korea has grown into an economic powerhouse with a democratic government, while North Korea has become a dystopian dictatorship that spends more money on weapons than it does feeding it’s own people. Needless to say, the “Korea” that takes part in the WBC is South Korea. Fun fact: Korea is home to Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor theme park.
Baseball history: Baseball came to Korea by way of an American missionary named Philip Loring Gillett, who also introduced basketball to the peninsula. However, baseball didn’t truly popular until the Japanese annexed the Peninsula in 1910. During the Japanese rule of Korea, baseball became both a rare opportunity for conciliation between the two cultures but also a way for Koreans to challenge the Japanese. After WWII and the Korean War, baseball continued to be popular on an amateur level in South Korea, but it was not until the 1980s that a professional league was formed. The foundation of the Korean Baseball Organization was partially politically motivated, a way to give young men an outlet other than rebellious politics. Although Korean baseball has never truly lost it’s popularity, it was in a down period before Korea’s showings at the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, as well as the 2008 Olympics, led to skyrocketing attendance.
Korea’s baseball league: The Korean Baseball Organization, or KBO, contains the highest level of Korean baseball. It is made up of nine teams but will expand to ten in the next few years. The defending champions are the Samsung Lions.
Korean MLB players: 13 MLB players have been born in South Korea, but none of them will be playing for Team Korea in this WBC, most notably Shin-Soo Choo, who skipped in order to get familiarized with his new team, the Cincinnati Reds.
Notable names: Seung-Yeop Lee may be known to some, as during his prime his name was mentioned as a possible import to the USA. Seung-Yeop has had 504 career home runs between KBO and NPB, and although he’s getting up there in years he remains a power threat.
Highest achievers: Dae Ho Lee is the lone player on the Korean team that is playing in Japan, and likely the team’s star. He hit .286 and had 24 HRs for Orix last season, and back during his KBO days he set a world record for consecutive games hitting a home run when he went deep in nine straight games. Yoon Suk-Min and Won-Sam Jang are two best pitchers on the team.
Outlook: Pretty good, but no guarantees. The lack of Choo and the other MLB players hurts, but the team they will have should be enough to get through the first round, although it holds no great unquestionable advantage against any of the other four teams.
About the country: The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a union of several constituent countries that are all technically one sovereign state. Those countries are the Netherlands (AKA “Holland”) and the Caribbean islands of Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curacao. While “The Netherlands” is usually used to stand simply for the European country and each country has different laws and traditions, the Caribbean countries are also technically part of the Netherlands, and it is not uncommon for Curacaoans, Arubans and St. Maarteners to represent the Netherlands in international sporting events, especially baseball. Fun fact- The Netherlands was the first foreign nation to give a salute to an American warship.
Baseball history: It’s hard to really say when baseball came to the Netherlands… mainly because, as mentioned above, “The Netherlands” is a very broad term. But first let’s talk about the Netherlands itself. The Dutch were first introduced to baseball, at least seriously, by a Dutchman named J.C.G. Grasé, who had fallen in love with the game during a trip to America. It provided the Dutch a sport to play during the summer, when the soccer teams were off. And, in fact, for many decades the big Dutch soccer clubs also ran baseball teams, with some of their players being on both teams. In fact, according to Josh Chetwynd’s Baseball in Europe: A Country by Country History, some of Holland’s greatest footballers played baseball at least recreationally, including Johan Cruyff, who was in 1999 named Europe’s great soccer player of the 20th century. While this is no longer true, the Hoodklasse of Dutch baseball remains in operation and the Dutch National team is one of the strongest in Europe, and indeed the world, having won the 2011 World Cup.
The popularity of baseball in the Caribbean areas of the Netherlands is a bit harder to find information on, but likely has to do with their proximity to Venezuela and the United States, as well as some crossover with Dutch baseball. In the past few decades, the Antilles, especially Curacao, have become hotbeds of baseball activity, and Curacaoian Little League teams have become a frequent sight in Williamsport.
The Netherlands’ baseball league: One of the two premier baseball leagues in Europe, the Honkball Hoofdklasse consists of eight teams, although what teams those are differ from year to year, as the worst teams of one year are relegated to a lower league, while the top team in the lower league is promoted to the Hoofdklasse. The defending champions are Corendon Kinheim.
Dutch MLB players: 10 MLB players in history have been born in the European Netherlands, four MLB players in history have been born in Aruba, and 13 in history have been born in Curacao. The best-known player born in the Netherlands is almost certainly Hall-Of-Famer Bert Blyleven, who moved to America at a young age but still has enough connections to the land of his birth that he often is the pitching coach for the Dutch in World Baseball Classics, including this one.
Notable names: Roger Bernadina of the Nationals, probably the best player from the Kingdom currently active in Major League Baseball, has made the trip, and joins other notable names like Andruw Jones (now playing in Japan) and Andrelton Simmons of the Braves. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, sometimes called “Sir Bam-Bam” due to the fact that he was knighted by Queen Beatrix, will manage the team, and of course Bert Blyleven is back as a pitching coach. Xander Bogaerts, one of the top prospects of the Red Sox, is also on the team.
Highest achievers: Outside of the players who are connected to Major League Baseball and it’s affiliates, the best player is probably Rob Cordesmans. Cordesmans is the all-time leader in wins in the Hoofdklasse, and at one time had a stint pitching in Taiwan. Although the WBC roster PDF lists him as being a member of the Nationals organization, to the best of m knowledge this is isn’t true, although it’s possible they may hold his rights if he were to decide to try and play in North America.
Outlook: Full of possibility. They cannot be considered the favorite, to be sure, and it might even be a stretch to say that they are one of the two teams that can be said to be favored. But they are definitely dangerous, and can beat any of the other teams on a good day, especially if the pitching holds up.
About the country: Long inhabited by an Aboriginal population, Western colonization of Australia began in the 1780s when Great Britain began to ship prisoners there, forming a penal colony in what is now Sydney. Becoming de-facto independent from the UK in 1901 with the adoption of a constitution and then slowly becoming more officially independent as the 20th century went on (finally becoming absolutely and completely independent in 1986 when some remaining technicalities were closed), Australia is best known to outsiders for it’s unique wildlife, such as the kangaroo, koala bear and platypus. Fun fact- Australia is the only country to have had troops fight alongside the United States in every major conflict since 1914.
Baseball history: The first baseball in Australia was played by American expats and their friends in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first organized teams were formed. The sport received more attention during the World Tours of barnstorming MLB players in the 19th and early 20th century and by the time American servicemen arrived in Australia during WWII there was a small but devoted amateur culture of baseball, one that has survived to this day. However, baseball has not yet been able to get permanently get past that amateur status, with two professional leagues (the Australian Baseball league of 1989-99 and the International Baseball League of Australia of 1999-2002) failing and a complete lack of professional baseball until the new Australian Baseball League was formed with MLB help a few years ago.
Australia’s baseball league: The young Australian Baseball League, founded in 2009 and playing during the winter (although it’s summer there). It contains six teams and has a relatively high level of play. The most recent champion of the ABL is the Canberra Cavalry.
Australian MLB players: 28 players who were born in Australia have played in the Majors. A few of them are on the WBC roster, although none are regulars in the big leagues currently.
Notable names: The two names that might be most fresh in the mind of MLB fans would likely be Luke Hughes- who had stints with the Twins and Athletics- and Ryan Rowland-Smith, a former Mariners pitcher who was recently signed to a minor-league deal with the Red Sox.
Of the players from the ABL, some players that have done well include Mitch Dening, who hit .347 in the Australian League this year, and Matthew Williams, who led that league in saves. Players on the team who have made it into the higher levels of the minors include the Kennelly brothers (Matt and Tim) and Twins minor leaguer James Beresford.
Outlook: The worst of the four teams on paper, this is not meant as a criticism of the Australians so much as it is an observation that they are are not to the level of the other three teams. But ignore the Australians at your own peril: they were five outs away from beating Japan in a warm-up game a few days ago.
Chinese Taipei (AKA Taiwan, AKA the Republic of China)
About the country: In the late 1940s, after decades of Civil War (interrupted only for WWII), the Communists drove the Republic of China off the mainland, forcing them to flee to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the two Chinas have nervously eyed each other across the Strait of Taiwan, one of the few flashpoints left from the Cold War. Although the two have become increasingly linked economically, the unique political situation that exists means Taiwan is usually represented internationally under the name “Chinese Taipei”, including in sports competitions.
Baseball history: Baseball first came to Taiwan because of the Japanese, who occupied the island until the end of WWII, and it’s popularity came because it provided the island’s natives one of the few ways of beating their colonial occupiers. It has remained a vital part of Taiwan’s heritage since then, and the success of their Little League World Series teams are so respected that they have at times been depicted on the island’s money. However, baseball has been under siege in recent decades due to gambling scandals and bad management by the sport’s leaders. While it remains by far the most popular sport in Taipei, it’s future, at least financially, is increasingly on unstable ground.
Taiwan’s baseball league: The Chinese Professional Baseball League, or CPBL. It is made up of four teams but has at times had more. The most recent champion is the Lamigo Monkeys.
Notable names: Chien-Ming Wang, although barely a shadow of the near-ace he once was, still is a big celebrity in Taiwan and all eyes will be on him- including the New York Yankees, who reportedly are considering signing him if he does well.
Highest achievers: Besides the players with MLB experience? Well, four players on the roster are in the NPB, but of the players who are in Taiwan’s domestic league, the players to watch include reigning CPBL MVP Szu-Chi Chou and 2012 HR champ (with 24) Chih-Cheng Lin.
Outlook: Pretty good but with no guarantees. They will have home field advantage, and unlike in past WBCs the CPBL is putting more of it’s weight behind the team this time. The question, however, is whether they will be able to do it. In my opinion, it will come down to their game against the Netherlands. The winner of that game will advance.
Korea will likely get out of this pool, but after that it’s less clear. As I said just a few lines ago, it will likely come down to Taipei vs. Netherlands. Unless Australia wins a game, in which case everything gets messed up. Personally, I’m going to predict that Taipei finally gets through the first round.