South Africa takes to a new diamond

The 20,000 to 1 underdog is actually paying to play in the first World Baseball Classic.

Everybody else may view these guys as classic underdogs. But this beefy team of hurlers and hitters from South Africa - entered in the first World Baseball Classic - see themselves as sitting on top of the world.

These young men are not only from a very different continent half a world away, where baseball is a distant fourth to rugby, soccer, and cricket. But they're from another universe than those like Derek Jeter or Roger Clemens, who play for multimillion-dollar contracts.

The South Africans are not paid to play professional baseball. In fact, they have to pay in order to play. That's right.

Each of these young men, who work up through their country's nascent junior system to senior baseball, must pony up $80 to $100 each month to support their professional organization.

Still, there's not a squad happier to take the field here nor more delighted to be playing at the level they are this week. "It is an awesome experience for each and every one of us," says Sean Campbell, who can't seem to erase the broad smile from his face. The lead South African coach has 30 years of experience playing and coaching on South African teams. "It's the pinnacle of our careers for the coaches and players alike to come here and live life like big leaguers for three weeks."

That sentiment reverberates throughout this team as clearly as the crack of bat on ball in private interviews, team practices, and its first World Baseball Classic (WBC) game against Canada Tuesday night. Canada won 11-8, but the South Africans took the lead early and held it close until the 9th inning.

For them, that is disappointing, but still a huge success. Pitching coach Lee Smith, a former major league reliever, couldn't be prouder of the way this team has come together.

"You're talking about guys here who play 25 to 30 games a season compared with 160 in our major leagues," Smith says. "They don't have facilities like we have here. You should have seen them when they got here - they were taking pictures of the grass on the fields."

Baseball did not take off in South Africa until the late 1990s, when Major League Baseball (MLB) expanded its development program to generate interest there. (The game was first introduced in 1898 by American gold miners.) Rugby, cricket, and soccer remain much more popular, however, mainly because of European colonization of Africa.

But today, between 10,000 and 12,000 youngsters play ball in school programs in nine regions of the country and 18 adult teams compete at the amateur level. The national team, created in 1995, plays in international competitions, such as the Olympics.

"To keep the game going and expand the venue, MLB is trying to create a greater global interest and places to develop big leaguers," says Rick Magnante, a scout for the Oakland Athletics who is managing this South African team.

Magnante traveled to South Africa in January, where the "nucleus" of a national team had formed. He evaluated other players and put together the squad that's playing here.

Magnante is impressed with the team's willingness to learn and their competitive nature. In a practice on Monday, at a field on the fringes of the 1,200-acre Papago Park here, amid towering red sandstone buttes, he ran players through various drills. One is picking off runners at second base. The catcher scoops up the ball and in one quick swoop stands and fires to second base. But the ball moves so swiftly that it rolls between the legs of the second baseman and into the outfield. "One more time, please," Magnante calls.

And on it goes in this very collegial way for nearly three hours. Barry Armitage, one of the top pitchers and one of only two players on this team who has played in the American minor leagues beams as he walks off the field. "My fast ball is pretty good; I'm throwing between 88 and 93 miles per hour," he says.

Armitage is the probable starter Friday, when South Africa takes on Team USA. "It will be great," he says. "Not only pitching against Roger Clemens, but to a lineup like that. Derek Jeter has been my idol since I was quite young. I always wanted to meet him, and now I'm getting to throw to him. It will be the highlight for the week for me."

As it will be for most of these players. They are realistic about being underdogs, but they have a competitive spirit, and know they could end up playing spoiler. A team must win two out of three in this round to advance to the next round. "Nobody wants to be beaten by South Africa," Magnante says. "It's embarrassing. Las Vegas odds on South Africa winning it all are 20,000 to 1."

So they practice, and talk more about how to win. Coach Smith says he tells the guys to keep it in perspective. "I tell them that you've got to respect these great players," he says, "but I tell them, hey, the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time. You've got to keep that in mind."

Catcher Willem (Bless) Kemp hears that but can't help being a little awestruck by this experience. By day, this stocky young man is part-owner and salesman for an electrical supply company. In his spare time, or on his vacation, like now, he is South Africa's starting catcher. His role model, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, is playing in the WBC for Italy. But he can't wait to play the US team Friday.

"I've always wanted to play the best in the world and now we are going to get that opportunity. Years from now, I can say I faced Roger Clemens, the best."

They had one game to play before then, though, against Mexico Wednesday night (no score available at press time). They were determined to win one of those two games. "We will give it our best shot," says Coach Campbell with a huge smile. "We are looking for some type of victory party."

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