Olympic Notebook: |
South Africans encouraged
despite 1-6 showing
By John Manuel
SYDNEYThey won only one game, and four of their six losses were ended by the international mercy rule.
But for South Africa's players and coaches, their first participation in the Olympic baseball tournament was an unqualified success. They went 1-6, with their lone win spoiled the Netherlands' medal hopes. That was the tournament's biggest upset, even eclipsing the Dutch defeat of Cuba two days earlier.
South Africa was outscored 73-11 and gave up more unearned runs (15) than it scored overall. Its anemic .163 team batting average and 9.55 ERA point to the need for plenty of help and room for South African baseball to grow.
That's exactly what 2000 team manager Raymond Tew expects to happen.
"The future looks positive," Tew said. "In 10 or 15 years we want to be in fourth place instead of eighth. Being in the same baseball park as those teams and playing those players is a dream come true."
South Africa qualified for the first time last year by defeating Guam in the Oceania/Africa play-in game. In the past, Australia has dominated the competition for that spot, but with the Aussies getting an automatic Olympic berth as the host, South Africa had a golden opportunity to qualify. It dominated the African qualifying tournament, then swept Guam in three games.
Its reward: an Olympic opener against Cuba. The South Africans lost 16-0 and were no-hit by Cuban aces Norge Vera, Jose Contreras and Maels Rodriguez. If not for an error with two out in the seventh (and final) inning, it would have been a perfect game.
"Hitting has always been a problem," Tew said. "We don't face 90-mph pitchers in South Africa."
The hitting finally came around against the Netherlands in a 3-2, 10-inning victory. Right fielder Ian Holness hit a pair of home runs and drove in all three of South Africa's runs. He hit .360-2-4 for the tournament. The only other regular who had a decent tournament was former Dodgers farmhand Nick Dempsey, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound first baseman who hit .280-1-4.
"When we qualified to play in the Olympics, the whole world was like, 'They actually play baseball in South Africa?' " Holness said. "Now we have South Africa's first international win. That's something I'll take back there with me."
Dempsey, Holness, shortstop Paul Bell (a recent Brewers signee) and righthander Tim Harrell (Dodgers) formed the core of the South African team, and all can be expected to be around four years from now for another Olympic run. Next time, though, the South Africans will have to beat Australia to win the Oceania/Africa spot in the tournament.
Tew, for one, believes that while the some of the players may be the same, South African baseball could look remarkably different.
"We need to showcase to the world that we can play baseball," Tew said. "We need to try to get sponsorships so we can get teams to play over in Europe and internationally. The win against the Dutch shows what kind of talent we have. In 10-15 years we could be a force in baseball."
Thanks to Australia's somewhat disappointing effort, baseball hasn't become the darling of the host nation's fans or its media. Much of that can be traced to Australia's loss to the Netherlands in its Olympic opener, which came as home swimming hero Ian Thorpe was winning the first two of his four medals (three golds). Swimming is already the national pastime, and the baseball team gave no reason for local fans to take their interests away from the pool.
That doesn't mean Homebush Baseball Stadium hasn't been hopping, though. Games at the tournament have had a feel all their own, as East Asian fans and a decidedly American flavor to fan entertainment have made Homebush a hot venue.
Saturday was the best day for fans to come to Homebush, even though the host Aussies were playing at Blacktown 20 miles to the northwest, as a pair of grudge matches lent a college football atmosphere to the proceedings. The Cuba-Team USA rivalry is a good one, but it's nothing compared to Korea versus Japan.
Japan sees Korea as its upstart Asian rival in ways most in the West don't understand. Suffice it to say Japan treats Korea in many ways as its proverbial redheaded stepchild, and baseball is no exception. Fans from both nations were rocking Homebush on Saturday with competing rhythmic chants. Japan's fans would chant, "Ni-ppon!" and clap three times, and while they were clapping, Korea's fans would slip in a shouted "Ko-re-a!" All the while, Japanese fanssome wearing kimonos, many in face paintwere competing with the Koreans for flag-waving space.
"This is as good as it gets for this tournament," said baseball press officer Joe Reaves, a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. "These teams don't like each other, and then you throw in Korea beat Japan in the Asian Games in 1999, and it all makes this is a great rivalry."
Reaves, also a baseball beat writer for the Tribune from 1992-95, is the author of "Warsaw to Wrigley," a book chronicling his move from covering the end of the Cold War to covering the end of Ryne Sandberg's career with the Cubs. His next book will be a history of baseball in Asia, so Saturday's game took on special significance for him.
An American, Reaves was managing the media, but Aussies were manning the public-address both. Still, Homebush has an American flavor, as rock music blares during any stoppage, and the wave makes its way through the stadium at least twice a game. The seventh-inning stretch includes an Australian version of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," but the only differences in the song are a somewhat quicker tempo and when an Aussie comes on in the middle and talks the lyrics over the music. In this section, he says, "So let's root and cheer for the home team," because "root" has a special, shagadelic meaning to Aussies.
The music, though, isn't much different from what you'd find at U.S. ballparks, except that some standards such as "Celebration" and "Dizzy" are done by cover bands. The crowd also seems to enjoy clapping along to one section of "Zorba the Greek," which isn't an American staple. The lack of "YMCA," while a welcome change, is another un-American touch. But James Brown, Aussie natives INXS and Foo Fighters are regulars on the PA. Perhaps the most interesting song is a Tom Jones cover of the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House."
Despite Saturday's hotly contested games, Homebush Baseball Stadium was still standing.
Homebush's ballpark will likely not see much baseball after this tournament ends. The stadium was originally built to house the Royal Easter Showgrounds, which Reaves described as "a county-fair kind of thing, only it's for the whole country. It's still an agricultural society in a lot of ways." Reaves said the field had to be completely redone after the Easter show, which saw all manner of animals roaming the field. Because it wasn't built as a baseball stadium, the ballpark is built differently from many newer ballparks in the United States. It has a symmetrical outfield (321 feet down the lines, 400 to center field) and plenty of foul territory. "It's an adequate facility, better for the players than the fans," Reaves said. "You would like the fans to be closer to the field, but other than that it's more than sufficient." . . . Sunday night's Team USA-Australia matchup drew 14,018, bringing attendance for the round-robin tournament was 189,353, an average of 13,525 per game.
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