WBC Intrigues Without MLB Talent
Spain's sporting landscape is crowded. The men's soccer team won the Euro Championship in 2008 and 2012, sandwiched around a World Cup win in South Africa in 2010. And its men's basketball team challenges the United States for world hoops hegemony, having claimed silver at the last two Olympiads behind the towering Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau.
Baseball isn't as big a deal in Spain. Mauro Mazzotti, its national team's coach, is an Italian who scouted for more than 15 years for the Astros before being let go. His team's starting catcher, Adrian Nieto, whose family left Cuba for the United States in 1995, posted a photo on his Twitter account of the team's "Cuban mafia," as he termed it. The picture included a dozen players, coaches and trainers, including 2000 Cuban Olympian outfielder Yasser Gomez and 2011 Mexican League batting champ Barbaro Canizares.
That motley crew achieved Spain's biggest baseball moment yet, a thrilling 9-7, 10-inning victory against Israel's team of Jewish-Americans to win the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament played in Jupiter, Fla. The victory earned Spain a berth in the 2013 WBC proper, where it will have to play baseball-centric countries such as Japan, the U.S., or maybe the actual Cuban team, rather than its competition in Jupiter: Israel, France and South Africa.
The March WBC will feature major leaguers and major league-caliber players from around the world. The tournament is far from perfect—can you think of any other event that has pitch counts for professionals?—but it's a major international stage.
Judging by my e-mail and Twitter traffic, many fans resent the WBC for ruining their spring training plans every four years. How dare Major League Baseball interrupt exhibition games with meaningful competition!
If you can't tell, I'm a WBC fan, and a fan of international baseball in general. And the qualifier that Spain won in Jupiter was proof that international baseball doesn't need big leaguers to be compelling and entertaining.
Canizares was Spain's link to the big leagues, having played plenty of Triple-A baseball and earned a cup of coffee with the Braves in 2009 that covered 21 at-bats. But Spain's hero was Yunesky Sanchez, who plays in the independent Atlantic League and picked up Canizares with a go-ahead RBI in the eighth and the game-winning hit in the 10th.
The finale had plenty of twists and turns as the Spaniards held back an Israel lineup backed with experienced minor leaguers, such as Padres farmhands Cody Decker and Nate Freiman and Tigers outfielder Ben Guez, plus retired big leaguer Shawn Green.
Spain countered with righthander Eduardo Morlan, a past Futures Gamer, a Cuban emigre and now an indy leaguer. Morlan, 26, got 10 outs in the middle of the finale to hold Israel in check and give Spain a chance to come back, and probably earned himself a shot at getting back into Organized Baseball.
"He threw 94 mph in the Euros, so I can believe the TV would say that (95)," said Mazzotti, who's hoping he earned himself another shot at a scouting gig as well. "We called him in the bullpen a little earlier than he thought. He is used to working the seventh, eighth or ninth. We got him up to keep us in it and he did a good job."
Are You Not Entertained?
Even France and South Africa, with no one on either roster who has reached Double-A, played an epic game, a 5-2, 11-inning marathon that thanks to three rain delays ended more than 21 hours after it began. The game and the tournament's overall atmosphere provided a unique competitive experience for players such as France's Leonel Cespedes, an 18-year-old righthander whose family left Cuba (of course!) for France five years ago.
"This has been the greatest experience of my life," Cespedes told BA. "I've never played such a high level before."
The atmosphere was better in many ways in Regensburg, Germany, for the qualifier that Canada won handily, thanks to German fans who showed up even when the host nation didn't play. Witness the 3,704 fans on hand for the tournament opener between Canada and Great Britain. Regensburg also hosted a successful World Cup round in 2009.
So Germans get it—international baseball doesn't need major leaguers to be compelling. Next spring training will be another chance to see if Americans will grasp international baseball, with first-round games in Phoenix, second-round games in Miami and the WBC's semifinals and finals in San Francisco.
Would Americans pay more attention if the games weren't in spring training? I think it's worth trying. There's no perfect time for the WBC, but I'd like to see the first two rounds in spring training, with the semis and final played during the all-star break. Once every four years, you'd sub in a world championship played with major leaguers in midseason form for an anachronistic all-star exhibition.
If American baseball fans wouldn't watch that, then I'd guess they would never pay attention to international baseball. But I'm hoping more of them tune in to our little secret in the spring.