World Baseball Classic Qualifier Preview: Sydney (Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa)

The first qualifier for the World Baseball Classic will feature an eclectic group of three “Commonwealth” nations in addition to the Philippines, and while it’s likely that the host Australians will come out on top, it will be interesting to see how the others do, especially New Zealand, which arguably has the fastest-growing baseball program in the world.

Go below the jump for the more:

About the Venue: Blacktown International Sportspark’s Baseball Stadium was built for the 2000 Olympics and was used as the secondary stadium of the baseball event, with early-round games and practices taking place there. It has since become one of the main fields of Australian baseball and the home of the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League.

About the Pool: As mentioned this is a group made up of three “Commonwealth” nations that once were part of the British Empire, as well as the Philippines. Of the four, only Australia has a true professional league and also is the only one that has produced born-and-bred MLB players, although the other countries have each produced minor leaguers and will have some “passport players” who have lived or have fairly recent relatives from those countries. Still, Australia will have a definite advantage in this, both due to their (relative) depth and talent and their homefield advantage.

Australia

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 in 2009.

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 champions of the ABL are the Brisbane Bandits.

Australian MLB Players: There are several players with MLB experience on Team Australia: Travis Blackley, Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Brad Harman, Luke Hughes and Trent Oeltjen. Blackley has also played in Korea and Japan.

Notable Names: The most notable name on the team is actually a last name: Nilsson. Mitch Nilsson, to be exact, who is the nephew of Dave Nilsson, the first Australian to be named an MLB All-Star.

Highest Achievers:  Besides the Major Leaguers, the highest achievers on Team Australia include James Beresford (a AAA All-Star last season in the Twins system), catcher Allan De San Miguel (who has also made it as high as AAA and was one of the Australian League leaders in HR this past season), and Warwick Saupold, a spot-starter in the Tigers system.

Outlook: Very good. Jon Deeble (a scout for the Red Sox when he’s not managing) has a good squad that easily outpaces the others in this qualifier. Their only worry will be the the winner-takes-all game, where baseball’s weird hops may allow the Baseballeroos to be upset.

 

New Zealand

About the Country: Just east of Australia, New Zealand is perhaps now best known to Americans for being the filming location of the Lord of the Rings movies. However, this overshadows more notable achievements, such as the fact that it was the first nation to give the right to vote to women, as well as the bravery exhibited by New Zealander troops in the World Wars, often fighting alongside their Australian neighbors. The capital of New Zealand is Wellington.

Baseball History: Introduced to baseball by Albert Spalding, the Kiwis have only played it “sporadically” since then, although softball has been rather popular.  However, it has seen a big rise in participation this decade, most notably from the period of 2010 to 2012, when the number of people playing baseball in New Zealand went from 900 to 6000, making it the fastest growing sport in that country. And it’s even touched the highest level of Kiwi political power: in 2012, the Prime Minister of New Zealand visited the USA to watch his son play in the Senior League World Series.

New Zealand’s Baseball League: No professional league- although there is some talk that they may one day have a team in Australia’s league. Instead, there are smaller amateur club teams dotting the landscape.

New Zealander MLB Players: No native born-and-raised New Zealander has ever made a MLB roster. Nick Maronde, a Kiwi-descended American LHP, has had a few brief stints in the majors with the Angels and is now in the Indians organization. John Holdzkom, a New Zealander-American who had a stint with the 2014 Pirates, is unavailable as he prepares to fight for a MLB spot.

Notable Names: The most notable name is probably that of the team’s manager, Chris Woodward, who played parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues and is now part of the Dodgers coaching staff.

Highest Achievers: Infielder Scott Campbell was born and raised in Auckland and has come out of retirement to play for the Kiwis- he made it as high as AAA before retiring. The Moanaroa brothers of Boss and Moko spent time in the Red Sox system, as has catcher Beau Bishop. Max Brown is an outfielder in the low Diamondbacks system.

Outlook: Iffy. The “Diamondblacks” have some talent and will be competitive with the other two non-Australian teams in the group, but I doubt they will be able to beat Australia.

 

Philippines

About the Country: The 12th most populous country in the world, the Philippines became completely independent in 1946, having been ruled to various degrees by (in order) the Spanish, the USA, Japan and then (briefly) the USA again.

Baseball History: Not surprisingly, the Filipinos were first exposed to baseball because of America, which gained control of the archipelago after the Spanish-American War. The Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium, built in 1934, is one of the oldest baseball stadiums in the world that is still standing, and was visited by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in December of that year. The Philippines has seemingly always been on the radar of baseball, but has never really been a “baseball country”.

The Philippines’ Baseball League: Baseball Philippines, formed in 2007, is the top organized circuit of Filipino Baseball. Almost all games are played in the aforementioned Rizal Stadium. Note that I can’t find much information on it after 2012, so it may be defunct, or it simply could be a lack of people running the website part of things. If anyone has more info, let me know.

Filipino MLB Players: The Philippines perhaps most benefit from the lax passport rules of the WBC in this qualifier, getting three players of some Filipino descent with MLB experience on their team: Clay Rapada (who has said he will retire after this), Chris Aguila, and Eric Farris.

Notable Names: While there’s nobody else particularly “notable” playing, their manager is Tim Hulett, who played for the White Sox and Orioles in the 80s and 90s and who now manages the Rangers’ short-season A-ball affiliate in Spokane.

Highest Achievers: Angelo Songco, Kevin Vance, Brad Haynal and Taylro Garrison play or have played in the minor leagues. In addition, the native-born Alfredo Olivares had a stint in the Japanese minor leagues.

Outlook: Maybe better than we think. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to beat Australia, but their passport players and minor leaguers mean they cannot be overlooked amongst the non-Australian teams.

 

South Africa

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.”

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. The South Africans failed to make it out of qualifiers for the 2013 WBC.

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: There are no South African MLB players.

Notable Names:  The most notable name on Team South Africa is almost certainly Gift Ngoepe, a good-fielding infielder who is on the Pirates’ 40-man roster and probably has a shot at being the first African born-and-raised baseball player in MLB history, especially if he works on his hitting. He’s made it as high as AAA.

Highest Achievers: Aside from Gift, there are a bunch of other players with MiLB experience and aside from Australia this is probably the highest-achieving group in this qualifier pool as far as players actually from the country they are representing. Callan Pearce, Dylan Unsworth and Rowan Ebersohn are all now currently in affiliated baseball, while Anthony Phillips got as high as AA before leaving affiliated ball after 2014. 2B Brett Willemburg has minor league experience and now runs an academy in South Africa. Overall, there are 9 player with minor league experience on the team, according to MLB.com.

Outlook: Good but not great. On paper, the South Africans probably are the second-best team in the pool aside from Australia. However, the gap between Australia and them is vast and the gap between them and the other two teams is small. I’m still predicting they will be the ones facing Australia in the championship game, but it’s not guaranteed.

 

Prediction:

  1. Australia
  2. South Africa
  3. New Zealand
  4. Philippines

Now, the only thing above that I am sure of is Australia. The other three could be in god-knows what order.

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