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Rest of world plays baseball too; Smalley's appearance fulfills family dream

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1987



After 84 years of playing the World Series, there just aren't many ``firsts'' left. One occurred the other night, though, when two European-born pitchers opposed one another in Game 2. Rik Aalbert (Bert) Blyleven, a native of Zeist, the Netherlands, picked up the win for Minnesota, while Danny Cox, who was born in Northampton, England, was the losing pitcher for St. Louis.

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No one should assume, however, that baseball is beating a path to either the Continent or the British Isles, since Blyleven and Cox both learned the game and grew up in the United States.

Nonetheless, one wonders if the World Series will ever try to live up to its name and quit being just for North American-based major league franchises.

There's little question that these clubs still play the best baseball on the planet, though the United States hardly dominates amateur competition. Cuba is the reigning Pan Am Games and world champion, Japan is the reigning Olympic champion, and teams from Taiwan frequently win the Little League World Series.

The major leagues, of course, have not been blind to baseball's international development, especially south of the US border, where many big-leaguers are found. This World Series provides proof of that. For the Cardinals, catcher Tony Pena is from the Dominican Republic and utility man Jos'e Oquendo from Puerto Rico. And the Twins send Les Straker of Venezuela to the mound tonight.

During the Northern Hemisphere's winter, baseball is played in Central and South America, culminating in a Caribbean version of the World Series.

As for Japan, that other hotbed of pro ball, the caliber of competition is still considered high minor-league level. On any given day, there are teams in various parts of the world that could probably beat a top major league club, just as the US hockey squad managed to beat the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics. But there is little doubt how a best-of-seven series would come out, which means that a truly international World Series probably remains years away. Family ties

It would have been hard to find a happier player in the Twins' locker room after Sunday night's 8-4 Minnesota victory than Roy Smalley. When the reserve infielder stroked a pinch-hit double to left-center field in the eighth inning, he satisfied the longings of generations of family members to play in the World Series.

``To get a hit in my very first World Series at-bat was really special,'' said Smalley, whose father, Roy Sr., played in the majors 11 years without reaching the fall classic. Even Roy's uncle, highly respected California manager Gene Mauch, has never been in a Series despite guiding several teams to the brink of making it.

Smalley was voted MVP on the Twins' in 1978 and '79, but at this stage has relinquished the starting shortstop's job to the up-and-coming Greg Gagne.

Another Minnesota player who has waited many years for this opportunity is pitcher Joe Niekro. He and brother Phil have combined for 45 years of major-league duty, yet this marks the first time either has been on a World Series roster.

The Twins have used a three-man rotation in the postseason, leaving Joe on the bench as the No. 4 starter, but if they are ahead 3-0 in the Series, he is expected to pitch Game 4 Wednesday night. If he does, the 21-year veteran right-hander will break Walter Johnson's record for most years played in the major leagues before appearing in a World Series. The Big Train pitched 18 years for the Washington Senators before making it in 1924. St. Louis blues

Teams have recovered from being down 0-2 in the World Series before, but the Cardinals face an even bigger mental hurdle than that. They have lost their last five Series games, including the final three in 1985 to the Kansas City Royals.

The most critical need is for more offense. During this five-game slump they have been outscored 37-7, and four of their runs came in Sunday night's loss. Don't discount homers

According to manager Whitey Herzog, a main defensive objective of the St. Louis Cardinals during this series is ``to keep [the Twins] in the ballpark.'' The attempt to eliminate the long ball has failed so far, as four Minnesota players hit a like number of home runs in the first two games.

The fact that all were hit in the Metrodome might have cheapened them at one time, but shouldn't anymore. The stadium no longer deserves to be called the Homerdome, as it was after yielding the second most home runs of any major league park in 1982, its first year.

That was without air conditioning, but once the cooling system was installed, atmospheric conditions became more like those outside, and the Metrodome was no longer such a home run paradise.

This past season it ranked seventh in the American League and eighth in the majors in number of homers.