South Africa looks to gain respect
Limited by talent, 2009 Classic figures to present a challenge
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
Yes, this time around South Africa will open against Cuba, the 2006 runner-up, on March 8 in Mexico City. Mexico and Australia are the other teams in Pool B.
"You're playing two teams that are going to be loaded -- Cuba being a world powerhouse and Mexico loaded with professional players from the Mexican League and the big leagues," said South Africa manager Rick Magnante.
Magnante conceded that Australia, an arch rival internationally, has a baseball program that is ahead of South Africa's.
"So we're kind of at the bottom of the totem pole, working our way up," Magnante said. "We'll be the underdog again, no doubt about it. We're the underdog in the entire Classic. Everybody there has had greater success and has a more formidable roster than we have. So [there is] nothing new in that respect."
Magnante, an Oakland A's scout, made progress with the South Africa team three years ago. In fact, his team opened by giving Canada a huge scare before succumbing, 11-8. Then came a 10-4 loss to Mexico and a 17-0 thumping by Team USA, which featured Ken Griffey Jr. and Roger Clemens.
It was three games and out, but Barry Armitage, a pitcher roughed up by the U.S., thought the South Africa team rather unexpectedly made a mark in the tournament.
"There was definitely the motivation. We turned so many heads. We just fell short of beating Canada, which would have been huge. It was definitely a phenomenal experience and I hope in this next one we can show that it wasn't a flash in the pan," he said.
The 2006 Classic was the first taste of the spotlight for many of the young South Africa players, including 17-year-old Jared Elario, who pitched a scoreless inning against the U.S.
"The baseball experience was the experience of a lifetime, especially for those kids coming from Africa to the United States and getting to see, firsthand, Major League players up close and personally," Magnante said.
"And I'm sure it'll be another wonderful experience for them again this time. Because there is a national pride there. They are reared with that international competition, be it cricket or rugby or soccer -- whatever it is."
Possible South Africa Roster
The 2006 game against Team USA drew a record crowd of 11,975 to Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium. Clemens started and pitched most of the five-inning shutout and Griffey belted two home runs and had seven RBIs.
Barry Armitage, then in the Kansas City Royals' organization, came in to pitch in the second inning.
"To say that I pitched against those greats, other than the results, it was fun to be in that situation," Armitage said. "I remember [Derek] Jeter got a hit off me although it wasn't a hard-hit ball. Griffey crushed one, hit a home run. It was a line drive -- it didn't leave the stadium."
Officially, no roster spots have been filled, though some players have made their desires known. Armitage, though out of pro ball now, plans to return. So does another one-time Royals signee, Brett Willemberg, who led the South Africa team in the 2006 Classic with a .500 average (5-for-10). Willemberg might switch from shortstop to first base this time.
The team's big first baseman, Nicholas Dempsey, who gained notice by getting South Africa's lone hit off Clemens, has retired, as has veteran catcher Bles Kemp.
No South Africa-born player ever has reached the Major Leagues but Magnante can count six players who have signed Minor League contracts on his tentative roster. Included are four pitchers -- Alessio Angelucci (San Diego), Justin Erasmus (Boston), Dylan Lindsay (Kansas City) and Hein Robb (Minnesota) -- and infielders Anthony Phillips (Seattle) and Gift Ngoepe (Pittsburgh).
"I'm hoping this is all some sort of reaction from the last WBC," Armitage said. "The WBC was such a huge thing for people to see back home. Hey, if you want to work and make the national team and you can get to that stage and people see you play, that's your ticket."
Magnante hopes the addition of more professionally-signed players will bring luster to his team.
"I don't know if we're going to be better, really, but we have a little more legitimacy because we have five or six kids that have pro contracts and are part of organizations," Magnante said. "Albeit they're 17 and 18 years old and aren't established players, but at least there is growth and there is development and there is a movement forward in South Africa in that they're getting guys signed."
Anthony Phillips displayed good defense at shortstop in the Northwest League this year, although he batted just .187. His brother, Jonathan, is the likely third baseman with Ngoepe at second base.
"Ngoepe is kind of like a Chone Figgins kind of kid. He doesn't quite have the tools that Figgins has but he's got that kind of a physical profile," Magnante said.
The catching should be OK. The outfield, at this point, is a big question mark.
"There's really no power in the lineup whatsoever," Magnante said. "So we really don't bring a specific type of the game to the field. We're just going to have to play the best-skilled baseball that we can in terms of catching it and putting the ball in play because, for lack of a better word, we don't have an out-pitch."
The pitchers, including Armitage, Elario and the four pro signees, again will come under the tutelage of Lee Smith, the great closer who is now a coach in the San Francisco system. The hitting coach is Brian McArn from Oakland's Triple-A club.
The question is: Can they give an underdog some bite in Mexico City?
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.