The World Baseball Classic starts soon! Well, the qualifiers do, anyway. For the first time ever, there are four qualification pools to decide who reaches the Round of 16. Two of those pools- in Panama and Taipei- will be in November. But first there are two pools that start in about a week. One of them is in Jupiter, Florida (mainly because the teams in it don’t exactly have baseball fields in their countries) and the other is in Regensburg, Germany. The Jupiter pool starts slightly before the Germany pool, so I’ll be covering that one first, covering the baseball heritage (or, in some cases, lack thereof) of the the countries and looking at their teams and chances.
So, go after the jump for my preview of the 2012 WBC Qualifier in Jupiter, Florida. All rosters are from Baseball America.
About the Venue: Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida is the Spring Training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, as well as the regular-season home to four minor league teams (all of them in the low minors). Seating 6,871 spectators, the dimensions of the park slightly favor left-handed hitters. Here’s what it looks look:
About the pool: This pool is a potpourri of countries that are almost entirely lacking in baseball tradition: France, Israel, Spain and South Africa. Although Spain and France have had some success in European competition and South Africa is by far the best African country in baseball, none of these teams has ever finished in the top three of any major baseball tournament, and only South Africa has been in previous WBCs. However, this group could also be surprisingly competitive and interesting due to two things:
- The WBC’s rather lax eligibility rules will allow lots of American Jews to play for Israel (as everybody who is of at least somewhat recent Jewish ancestry is eligible for Israeli citizenship).
- It will be rare opportunity to see the baseball players from South Africa and France, both of whom will be sending teams almost entirely made up of people who are actually from there, as opposed to Israel (which is primarily North American Jews) and Spain (which is made primarily of Caribbean players, especially Cubans, who have claimed Spanish citizenship for various reasons).
About the country: One of the world’s most influential economical, military and cultural powers, France is a country that probably doesn’t need any introduction. Although France has, in one form or another, existed since the 3rd century, it’s republican system of government has existed (with brief interruptions) since 1792. The capital is Paris, and the official language is, obviously, French.
Baseball history: France and baseball aren’t exactly mentioned together much, but French baseball actually has a surprisingly long history. The IBAF’s overview on France’s national baseball federation notes that Albert Spalding and his group of world-touring professional baseball players played in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, and helped form an early French baseball organization. He even apparently had grand plans to make France the “next baseball country”. Those plans were thwarted by WWI and his death, although given Spalding’s love of making grandiose statements, who know what might have happened (or not)? Although baseball has had brief spikes in interest after the World Wars due to the presence of American troops, it remains a niche and primarily amateur sport in France, where soccer, basketball and cycling reign supreme.
France’s Baseball League: France has a semi-professional league called the Division Élite, which was recently written about in the New York Times. The teams are entirely amateur with the exception of some American imports who receive an apartment and some spending money. They play 28 games, primarily in weekend doubleheaders, and the level of play is below that of D1 colleges, primarily due to a lack of depth.
French MLB players: There have been nine MLB players born in France, although most of them, most notably Bruce Bochy, moved to America at a young age. Bochy, for example, was born on an American military base there.
Notable names: There are none on the team itself, not surprisingly, but you may recognize the name of the pitching coach, one of the greatest French-speaking pitchers of all time: Eric Gagne. Vive les Quebecois!
Highest Achievers: There are several players on the French squad who have had some professional experience in North America. Joris Bert, for example, was once a outfielder in the Dodger system, but is now a pitcher. Current professionals on the roster include Andy Paz (a Cuban catcher in the Oakland system who moved to France as a teenager) and two Indy-Leaguers.
Outlook: Bad. While France should be commended for having their team be made primarily of actual Frenchmen and not simply affiliated ringers, they are going to suffer for it, and will probably be the weakest team in the pool. They will win, at most, one game, but more than likely they will lose their first two games and be swiftly eliminated.
About the country: Sitting ever perilously at the center of both international politics and the world’s three largest monotheistic religions, the current state of Israel came into existence in 1947.
Although some may joke that Israeli baseball began “in the Big Inning” that can be found when the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read allowed (it’s a lame pun, think about it for a second), Israeli baseball didn’t really begin until some Americans who had moved to Israel played it a bit. However, that was about it until, in 2007, a small professional league was created in Israel by American businessmen. While it folded after one season, it’s level of play was apparently pretty good, although only a small handful of the players in the league were actually Israeli.
Israel’s Baseball League: There is none now, after folding of the IBL after it’s inaugural season. However, there still remain some amateur clubs and competitions.
Israeli MLB Players: None, although it should be noted- and this is basically the only thing that will keep Israel competitive in the WBC- that everyone with at least one Jewish grandparent and/or parent is able to apply for Israeli citizenship. Due to the WBC’s lenient eligibility rules, this means that basically every Jewish ballplayer is eligible for Team Israel. Thankfully for the other three teams in the pool, this game is taking place in September, when all of them are busy.
Notable Names: Several. Brad Ausmus, longtime big-league catcher and somebody who is generally considered a prime candidate for a future MLB managerial spot, is the skipper of Team Israel. Mark Loretta, who isn’t Jewish but who is married to a Jew and, perhaps more importantly, is a friend of Brad Ausmus and fellow member of the San Diego Padres front office, will be the hitting coach for the team. The outfield has Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler coming out of retirement to provide some MLB experience to the lineup.
Highest Achievers: Beyond Kapler and Green, there are plenty of minor league players on the roster- all but three of the players on Israel’s roster are North American (there are three actual Israelis, all pitchers). The most notable among them are Josh Satin (who has had some cups of coffee with the Mets) and Joc Pederson, one of the top prospects for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Outlook: Good. On paper, Israel has- by far- the most accomplished players, thanks to the fact it is not so much an Israeli team so much as it is a Jewish-American team. One possible weakness for the team, though, is the pitching. While they have plenty of hitters, their pitchers don’t have the same pedigree. Only one of them has gone to AAA- Eric Berger- and he was unimpressive this season for Columbus: 2-6 with a 5.50 ERA. Still, Israel has to be considered one of the favorites of this pool.
About the country: Spain, like France, isn’t exactly a country that needs any introduction. The largest nation on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain once was a global empire, spreading it’s influence throughout the world, but especially in the Caribbean. Although it lost what little was left of it’s imperial might after losing the Spanish-American War, to this day Spain remains one of the world’s largest economies, although it, like other areas of Europe, has been caught in an economic crisis in recent years.
Baseball history: Spain’s original interactions with baseball were less than positive. After all, the Cubans who were trying to win independence from the Spanish were becoming increasingly enamored with the game, instead of such traditional Spanish sports such as bull-fighting. In fact, they even tried to ban the game, which of course only made the Cubans want to play it even more, simply to stick it to their Spanish overlords. Ironically, it would be the Cubans who would bring baseball back to Iberia, as immigrants from Cuba brought the sport back to the mother country. The country’s many soccer clubs took notice and began to field baseball teams. The article on Spanish baseball over at “Mop-Up Duty” even has a picture of a uniform used by a baseball team run by noted soccer club Real Madrid. However, by the 1970s the wide availability of soccer on TV doomed baseball to obscurity in Spain, with the exception of certain areas such as the Barcelona suburb of Viladecans, which hosted some of the baseball tournament at the 1992 Olympics. Although Spain is usually competitive in Europe’s baseball competition, this is mainly due to the use of immigrants from Caribbean countries- there aren’t many Spanish-born baseball players of note.
Spain’s Baseball League: Spain’s top baseball competition is the Division De Honor, which Callum Hughson over at “Mop-Up Duty” estimates that the league is about the level of good DII NCAA teams, mainly because the pitching is lacking.
Spanish MLB players: There have been four MLB players born in Spain, although all of them moved away from the country at a young age.
Notable Names: Thanks to the lenient eligibility rules, as well as the fact that Spain is home to many immigrants from baseball-playing countries, the Spanish roster is almost entirely foreign-born (there is only one Spain-born player- Indy Leaguer Eric Gonzalez). Most notable on the roster is Barbaro Canizares, a Cuban defector who had a cup of coffee with the Braves in 2009. He took up Spanish citizenship upon his defection (a relatively common practice amongst Cuban defectors, as they usually have ancestors from Spain), and is currently in the Mexican League.
Highest Achievers: Other than Canizares, there are many other players who play professionally or have played professionally, either in North America or overseas in places like Venezuela, Italy and, yes, Spain. Baseball America notes especially the presence of Engel Beltre, a Dominican-born outfielder who was in AA with the Rangers this season.
Outlook: Good. Much like Israel, the presence of “passport players” because of the lenient eligibility rules have greatly helped Spain, and they definitely have a chance of getting through the qualifier. They should easily handle France in their opening game, but how they will do against the American-filled Israeli squad and the youthful South African team is a more open question, one that, when answered, will probably decide who is going to the round of 16.
About the country: The largest economy in Africa and the home of a multi-ethnic society that has emerged in the decades after the end of Apartheid, the Republic of South Africa has eleven official languages and three capitals (one for each branch of the government). Due to the fact that some of the oldest hominid fossils on record have been found in South Africa, it has sometimes been dubbed the “cradle of humankind.”
South Africa’s baseball history: Americans brought baseball to South Africa in the final years of the 19th century, when some miners looking for gold brought their favorite game to South Africa’s shores. Although there was some early success, including a small league, it has always remained an extremely niche sport, played on the local level but never being able to get much attention in a land obsessed with rugby, soccer and cricket. Some success was had (in 1966, for example, a South African was invited to Spring Training by the Minnesota Twins), and some tours were done by American amateurs. South African teams even began to play against European competition in the sixties. However, any progress South African baseball had made internationally was brought to a screeching halt when the nation was all-but-exiled by the international community beginning in the seventies over it’s shameful Apartheid policies. After the end of Apartheid, South Africa reemerged onto the international baseball stage, participating in the 2000 Olympics and the first two WBCs. During the 2006 WBC, in fact, they even led Canada going into the ninth inning of a game before a Canadian rally ended what would have been one of the biggest upsets in history.
South Africa’s Baseball League: There is no South African “league”, but instead many local leagues (covering certain areas or cities), all of which are under the national umbrella of the South African Baseball Union.
South African MLB players: None.
Notable names: Gift Ngoepe, the first Black South African signed to a professional contract and the subject of a Sports Illustrated article a few years ago, is on the roster. He spent the last season in High-A ball for the Pirates’ Florida League affiliate in Bradenton, where he’s hit growing pains, hitting only .232 in 456 ABs.
Highest Achievers: Besides Ngoepe, there are several other players with professional experience, including eight (including Ngoepe) who are under contract in affiliated baseball right now. The entire pitching staff has professional experience, although mainly in the lower levels of the minors.
Outlook: Good but not great. Had Israel, France and Spain been only using Israelis, Spaniards and Frenchmen, South Africa would likely have won this pool easily, as they have more native-born professionals than the other three do combined. However, the passport players make it a real possibility that the South Africans will not qualify for the round of 16. Their opening game, against Israel, will be extremely important. If they can win that, they should be in pretty good shape to at the very least make it to the pool finals. If not, they will be in trouble.
This is a hard pool to predict, as only France can be said to have no chance. However, I find myself leaning towards Israel. For one, they will likely be the crowd favorite, thanks to Florida’s large Jewish population. For another, they have some of the best passport players, including two former MLB veterans and plenty of prospects. That said, this really is a pool where it is wide open, and it should be interesting to see what happens.