Canada Gets Rare Role Of WBC Favorite

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Antoan Richardson was born in the Bahamas, went to high school at American Heritage High in South Florida, played college ball at Vanderbilt and is headed to Germany to play for Great Britain.

Don't you have to love the World Baseball Classic?

For most North American baseball fans, the answer appears to be no. If you read Baseball America, you know we're interested in the international game, and I've taken personal enjoyment in it since covering the Pan American Games in 1999 and then the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

It was tough to watch the 2012 Olympics in London, the first with baseball off the program since 1980. The sport's response to being kicked out of the Olympics was to create the World Baseball Classic, which has had two successful runs in 2006 and 2009.

While the WBC hasn't captured most major league fans' fancy, it has become the world's biggest international tournament. Even the International Baseball Federation, for whatever it's worth, has acknowledged the WBC as crowning the "world's champion," even though the WBC is an event owned and operated by Major League Baseball, not the international governing body.

It's also a success that the WBC is still around, gearing up for a third iteration that is its largest yet. The 28-team 2013 Classic actually starts in September 2012 with two four-team qualifying tournaments, followed by two more qualifiers in November. For more on the qualifiers, click here.

That's where players like Richardson come in. Great Britain—which would have had a team in this year's Olympics had the sport not gotten the boot—qualified for its first WBC this year. Its best international clubs usually feature American expatriates, such as Mets catcher Mike Nickeas, who played for the British in World Cup play in the past.

For Britain to compete with a country like Canada—which also will be in the qualifier in Germany along with the host nation and the Czech Republic—it can't just rely on players born and raised in the country. So it reaches out to players like Richardson. Because his parents technically lived under British rule, Richardson can play for the country as long as he goes through the proper process.

It's common for players and coaches to represent nations other than their home; it happened regularly in the Olympics in many sports and doesn't seem to hurt interest. It also is intended to spark interest in baseball internationally. Fielding players such as Richardson, Phillies minor league infielder Albert Cartwright (also from the Bahamas) and former South Carolina ace Michael Roth for Great Britain also makes the British team much more competitive and interesting than it would be with players who play in Britain's semi-professional domestic league.

Players such as Cartwright, Richardson and Roth (whose mother is British) give England a chance to get a signature victory that would inspire fans and future players the way the Netherlands' 2009 wins against the Dominican Republic in the WBC seemed to spark baseball there. The Dutch have gone on since the WBC to win the 2011 World Cup, becoming the first European team to win the event since the inaugural event in 1938.

Oh, Canada!

The Dutch serve as a terrific example of the potential of international baseball, but the nation to use as an example in international competition is Canada. National team director Greg Hamilton has built a model program in a country where baseball is far from the No. 1 sport, and where weather puts its players at a significant disadvantage.

Sure, Canada has plenty going for it as a baseball nation: a major league team, a first-world economy, proximity to the United States. But it can't draw on former colonial territories for players as many European nations can, and it doesn't have a baseball-mad culture like many Latin American countries do. And it gets cold up there.

Also, Canada does not have a long, storied tradition of success in international competition. So Hamilton has built one in painstaking fashion. By building a core of players who came up through Baseball Canada's youth programs, Hamilton grew the nucleus of teams that achieved international successes, such as a 2004 Olympics trip.

Canada stumbled in the 2009 WBC, going winless in a pool where games were played on its home soil in Toronto. The setback spurred Hamilton, who assembled Canada's most successful teams yet. In 2009, Canada took third in the World Cup, its best showing in that event. Last fall, Canada again earned bronze in the World Cup, then followed up by beating the United States in a thrilling final to win its first senior-level international championship, the Pan American Games.

Despite that success, Canada is in the same qualifying tournament for the WBC as nations such as the Czech Republic and Great Britain. In an expanded WBC hoping to grow interest in the game worldwide and take the place of baseball in the Olympics, Canada will play an unfamiliar role—the favorite.

Like I said . . . don't you have to love the World Baseball Classic?