WBC Qualifiers Expose Game To New Audiences

By Walter Villa

JUPITER, Fla.–France shortstop Max Lefevre, talking to the media during Saturday’s World Baseball Classic rain delay, said few people in his country know anything about baseball. 

France manager Jim Stoeckel hopes this qualifier tournament at Roger Dean Stadium can help change that. "I've been going to Europe coaching and scouting for 30 years," said Steockel, the Reds' global scouting coordinator. "The French guys have never played in a tournament like this. The European championships are not quite like this. It doesn't have the build-up, the publicity.

“I think the greatest benefit for these guys is when they go back to where they’re from and they tell people about this.”

Since this is France’s first time in the WBC, the goal, Stoeckel said, is to build interest and develop players such as Lionel Cespedes, 18, a righthanded pitcher.

On Friday night against South Africa, Cespedes pitched four shutout innings of relief, allowing two hits and two walks, striking out six. The game remains suspended by rain, tied at 2 entering the 10th inning.

“This has been the greatest experience of my life,” said Cespedes, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound native of Cuba who moved to France with his father at age 13. “I’ve never played against such a high level before.”

Aside from building interest and developing young talent such as Cespedes and Lefevre, a 21-year-old who played at Cochise (Ariz.) JC, Stoeckel said there are other benefits to France competing in the WBC.

“For the French federation to get a little revenue out of this is great because they can put it into development,” he said. "The sad thing is that with no Olympic baseball, a lot of countries aren’t able to tap into Olympic funding for baseball."