Brazil’s Win Big For World Baseball Classic And Baseball

The expanded World Baseball Classic, with its four four-team qualifiers in September and November, played out in reality the way they looked on paper.

Two qualifiers had obvious favorites. In September, Canada was sent to Germany to face the host Germans, the Czech Republic and Great Britain, and won its three games by a combined 38-9 score. In November, Taiwan played host to a qualifier with noted baseball powers New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand. Not surprisingly, Taiwan cruised to victory with three straight shutouts, by a combined score of 35-0.

But the other two qualifiers looked wide-open on paper, with no obvious favorite with the kind of baseball history of Canada and Taiwan. And they produced drama and the kind of thrilling finishes Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation would like for the game’s biggest international showcase.

In September, Spain rallied to beat Israel 9-7 in an upset considering Israel’s roster of American minor leaguers of Jewish heritage.

Brazil, however, produced more drama in November, winning the qualifier that included Colombia, Nicaragua and host Panama. All three of those nations have more baseball heritage than Brazil, which produced its first big leaguer in 2012 in Yan Gomes.

Gomes had the lone RBI in the November title game, an RBI single in the third inning. Brazil’s pitchers, handled ably by manager and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, then made it hold up. Starter Raul Fernandes turned in the best start of the WBC. The 26-year-old righthander pitches for Yakult in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, with 13 innings at the NPB level. He showed big league poise in the WBC, though, tossing six shutout innings against a Panamanian roster featuring current big leaguers Ruben Tejada (Mets), Carlos Ruiz (Phillies) and Carlos Lee (Marlins), plus ex-big leaguers such as Ruben Rivera.

Then Astros righthander Maulio Gouvea came on for the second time in the tournament and dealt. Reaching 93 mph, Gouvea—who spent 2012 at low Class A Lexington—threw two shutout innings before giving up a walk, sacrifice bunt and base hit to Ruiz in the ninth. With runners at the corners and one out, Larkin turned to his hardest thrower, Mariners farmhand Thyago Vieira. The 19-year-old went 3-5, 6.05 in the Venezuela Summer League in 2012, but he has hit 96-97 mph, and with the game on the line, he challenged Lee and Rivera with low-90s fastballs. Both veteran hitters expanded their strike zones, and Vieira struck both out swinging to send Brazil to the WBC.

Growing The Game

Getting Spain to the WBC proper was a fun story, but Spain’s team had one player from Spain itself; 11 players and coaches were of Cuban heritage. Brazil has a Cuban ex-pat in Juan Carlos Muniz, but it also has homegrown players such as Gomes, Fernandes, Gouvea, Vieira and third baseman Leonardo Reginatto, a 22-year-old Rays farmhand.

Also, Brazil is a rising economic power with nearly 200 million people. Soccer will always be king in Brazil, and the nation has basketball success as well internationally. But its large Japanese immigrant community contributes some baseball tradition, and the athleticism and racial diversity on Brazil’s team was striking. MLB has to be happy to see Brazil qualify, and growing the game is the whole point of the WBC. Brazil’s success should help the sport grow there.

The same could happen in New Zealand, which was runner-up to Taiwan with is team nicknamed the Diamondblacks. Could it happen in Thailand, which got Johnny Damon, whose mother is Thai, to play for a country with little baseball tradition? Thailand won the baseball tournament at the Southeast Asia Games in 2007 and finished third in 2011, and has a domestic league. Its top players in the WBC were Damon and Nathan Lorentz, a 19-year-old outfielder from the American School in Tokyo by way of Seattle.

Lorentz graduated from the American School in the spring, but took the fall off to do charity work and play for Thailand. His father Doug is from Seattle and played at Princeton; he works for MasterCard and has spent most of his career working in Asia, and his wife, Nathan’s mother, is Thai. Nathan has dual U.S. and Thai citizenship but has spent the last two summers playing for the Seattle Elite 18U travel team, coached by Kevin Ticen. Players such as Lorentz are needed to grow the game abroad and make Damon’s contribution a lasting one. Success also would help, but Thailand went 0-2 in Taiwan.

Brazil had the kind of success that can grow the game. If you’re my age, you remember repeated Peter Gammons columns in BA about Jose Pett, the Brazilian righty who signed with the Blue Jays for $750,000 back in 1993. If you read BA, you’ve heard about lefthander Luiz Gozhara, whom the Mariners signed for a larger bonus than Pett, close to $900,000.

Brazil showed by beating Panama twice that it has put itself on the baseball map, and with young talent such as Vieira and Gozhara, the nation has a future in baseball.

Thailand Surprise

Johnny Damon was the big story of Thailand’s World Baseball Classic entry.

The 39-year-old big league vet, he of the 2,769 career hits and 408 stolen bases, earned the WBC qualifier’s biggest headlines when he agreed to play for Thailand, his mother’s native country. Damon, who was released by the Indians in August, ranks as one of America’s most famous Thai-Americans, eclipsed perhaps only by Tiger Woods.

Steve Meinke hasn’t made Wikipedia’s entry of famous Thai-Americans, but he has some camera time, as a hand model. He also worked for MTV’s “Road Rules” in the casting department, among other occupations.

Meinke also played baseball in high school and briefly at Division III Westminster (Mo.) in 1998. He went 1-for-2, he said, and didn’t play much baseball—and none in an organized manner—for more than a decade.

Like Damon, Meinke has an American dad and a Thai mother, and when his friends in the casting world told him that “Moneyball” was being made into a move, he got himself into shape and tried out for the chance to play Damon. In the process, he lost 25 pounds and enjoyed playing the game again.

He didn’t make it into the movie, but he did get the baseball bug a bit, and tried to get in touch with Thailand’s baseball federation when he heard the nation was going to be included in the expanded WBC. Through a series of emails, he earned himself a tryout with the national team (at his own expense). He lived and trained with them for five weeks in August and September, earning a spot on the team as a pitcher.

“I had to deal with the language barrier, chickens, oldness, no medical training, more oldness, blown hamstring, water and food poisoning, more injuries, the whole cultural aspect of society there, and of course their approach to baseball, which many times drove me crazy,” Meinke said. “And I loved every minute of it.”

For his trouble, Meinke got to make a WBC-paid trip to Taiwan as a member of the Thai national team, where Damon was his teammate. “Johnny was always awesome and considerate to his teammates,” Meinke said, “and always warmed up with the non-Americans and even had the players sign his jersey.”

Meinke never got into a game, though. He was warming up in one game that Thailand lost by mercy rule, and was set to pinch-hit in another game that also ended early by mercy rule.

But he has something in common with guys from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz to Derek Jeter, Miguel Cabrera and David Price.

He was Johnny Damon’s teammate.