World Cup Previews Reworked International Baseball Landscape
Days before the latest—and possibly last—baseball World Cup was scheduled to begin in Panama, Greece released its final roster for the 16-team tournament.
It's the first time Greece has qualified for the event, and the late release of the roster was due to a snafu in which several Greek players had passport issues. That makes sense because most of the Greek players are Americans of Greek heritage, such as former California catcher Mike Tonis, who reached the big leagues briefly with the Royals. On the Greek roster, he's Michalis Koutsanotonakis.
The Greek roster also includes the team's general manager, 56-year-old Tom Mazarakis, and 45-year-old ex-big leaguer Erik Pappas, who also played for the 2004 Olympic team in Athens. They were part of the Greek roster that surprisingly finished fourth in the 2010 European Cup, the qualifying event for this tournament.
The Netherlands won the Euro tournament and has the top baseball program on the Continent, and will send an interesting, young roster to Panama. The Dutch team will feature two of the best prospects in the event. infielders Jonathan Schoop (Orioles) and Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), who are both written about in this issue as Top 10 Prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic leagues.
The Dutch roster also includes prospects such as shortstop DiDi Gregorius (Reds) and righthanders J.C. Sulbaran (Reds) and Tim Stuifbergen (Twins), who both have extensive international experience. Sulbaran pitched seven one-hit innings against Cuba in 2008, in his first year out of high school, while Stuifbergen pitched four scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic's big leaguers in a 2009 World Baseball Classic victory.
Italy long has challenged the Netherlands for European baseball supremacy and has just produced its first homegrown big leaguer in Mariners infielder Alex Liddi. He won't play in the World Cup, though, and the Italian team will be challenged by Europe's rising baseball power, Germany.
Eight years ago, the Germans turned their baseball program over to Greg Frady, the head coach at Georgia State. Frady has helped to spur significant growth in the country's baseball program, and Germany was a successful first-round host for the last World Cup in 2009.
Germany also has some intriguing young prospects, one of whom could be, if not baseball's answer to Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA's German start, then at least baseball's Detlef Schrempf, who was the first significant German in the NBA back in the early 1990s.
Mets catcher Kai Gronauer has reached Double-A, and Frady compares him to Twins catcher Drew Butera, whom he coached at Central Florida as an assistant. Joining Gronauer on the Cup roster are Twins outfielder Max Kepler, famous for his $800,000 bonus and the best candidate to fill the Schrempf role, and slugging first baseman Donald Lutz (Reds), who hit .301/.358/.492 with 20 home runs as a 22-year-old at low Class A Dayton this season.
"We don't have a 'passport' team, but we have some good young German kids, and we should be able to compete," Frady said prior to leaving for Panama. "It's still Germany. We've had some issues with funding now that baseball isn't an Olympic sport, so we can't really get together and work out together before the tournament. We'll show up and have a day together and then start the tournament, and that's pretty much international baseball."
International baseball's landscape has transformed significantly in the last decade. The 2012 Olympics are less than a year away, but for the first time since 1980 in Moscow, there will be no baseball tournament at the Games. The International Olympic Committee kicked baseball out of the Games in 2005, and the soonest baseball could return to the Olympic programme (to use the European term in this Euro-centric column) is 2020.
In the vacuum, Major League Baseball has stepped in and taken control of international baseball. The World Baseball Classic, begun in 2006, has yet to be perfected, but the Classic expands for 2013, with a first-round of competition in 2012 with an expanded 24-team field being whittled down to 16. MLB, which essentially took over USA Baseball's financial responsibilities after Olympic funding was lost, now also is subsidizing the International Baseball Federation. So the baseball World Cup and other IBAF competitions such as the Intercontinental Cup are headed for the dustbin of history.
In Japan and Cuba, this is seen as a negative, which is understandable, since they have had plenty of success in the old setup. Japan especially has financial issues with MLB that would require another column. But MLB's greater involvement should bring some needed order to international baseball, where tournament schedules often get revamped at the last minute when teams don't show up. For example, BaseballdeCuba.com is reporting the Dominican may pull out of this World Cup; maybe they want to watch the playoffs. After all, it makes little sense to schedule an international competition at the same time as pro playoffs in the U.S. and Japan if you want fans in those countries to pay any attention to said international competition.
I'll pay attention, with an ulterior motivation. As a Greek-American, I'm excited that Greece is in the World Cup; in fact, I've tried to help the Greek federation find more Greek-Americans for future tournaments, hoping Greece can get a spot in the next WBC. But the real goal should be fewer passport teams and more nations following the German model—getting local populations exposed to the game, turned on to baseball and hopefully playing the game and developing their own young players.
My heart will be pulling for Greece's veterans like Chris Lemonis, the 38-year-old former Citadel player and current Louisville assistant coach. My head is hoping that Kepler and Lutz can pull an upset or two and give Germany, an international soccer powerhouse, a reason to pay attention to a different World Cup.