by Ty Eriksen
The national teams from Italy, Greece, Holland, and Germany are converging on Panama to compete in the Baseball World Cup, and European baseball fans will have a chance to see how their teams stack up against the rest of the world. Nobody will confuse them for favorites, but just as with the World Baseball Classic two years ago, the Old World will unite to support the four flags representing the continent.
The IBAF makes the groups based on world ranking. The IBAF world rankings are calculated by a team’s performance in international competition over the last four years, weighted for the level of competition each tournament features. The more top teams in a tournament, the more positive it will impact each participating teams ranking.
In Group 1, we will see Greece and the Netherlands playing against the United States and Japan, but also taking on the lowest qualifying North American teams in Canada and Puerto Rico. Greece started off the tournament on day one against hosts Panama, and took a three run lead before the local team left them in the dust by a final of 8-3. In analyzing how the score reflects the level of baseball by both team, its difficult to come to any serious conclusions after one game. Greece finished fourth in Europe, while Panama qualified as the host nation and didn’t take part in the 2009 edition of the Baseball World Cup. Additionally, the Greek team had one of the longer connections to Panama of all teams participating, so if they are able to rebound with a stronger performances against Holland and Canada on Monday and Tuesday, they’ll earn some respect.
As MLB teams can keep their players from travelling to the tournament, this could either help or hurt our European teams. The Netherlands features many minor league players and a few MLB caliber ones as well, but manager Brian Farley will be without Greg Halman, Jair Jurrjens and quite a few more. While the BWC isn’t the premier baseball tournament in international competition, it is a key event in which baseball talent from regions are compared. The success of Latin American teams in international play helped establish the region as a focus for baseball development. Without the success of the Dutch and Italian teams in international play, Europe would continue to lag behind in terms of prospects, as few teams would bother investing in European baseball. Game one has the Dutch facing Chinese Taipei, and their opponents will be missing four major leaguers, but what with their players participation in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, there is a deep talent pool to select from. Fifteen of Holland’s players are from the domestic league, the Hoofdklasse, although a few of them have already taken their shot at the minors. A total of 10 current players from the minors will bring their experience from the worlds top development system, a nod to teams taking a chance on European talent.
Germany will be boosted by the presence of some minor leaguers, with their top prospects Kai Gronauer and Donald Lutz (and others) along for the trip. The Germans start against Nicaragua, which was the lowest qualifying Pan-American team. Despite flight delays the team was able to arrive with some time to settle in, and hopes to earn a statement victory right off the bat. In the European Championship last year they played Italy and the Netherlands close, but ultimately came up short. If they can maximize the impact of players coming off successful seasons in the US, then they’ll take home a victory or two and will be rewarded with a higher world ranking at the end of the year. We’ll get a true feel for whether baseball in Germany has improved over the last few years, as coach Greg Frady has put in lots of work to develop this team. Expectations may not be high, but a disappointing showing would still sting and likely cause some backlash.
The Italians, who last year reclaimed the pole position in Europe, will be without big leaguer Alex Liddi, who had a nice start to his MLB career this fall, but head coach Marco Mazzieri has big league support in his coaching staff once again with Mike Piazza on board. The team used a tune-up in Florida to prepare for the tournament, picking up some wins against MLB instructional league teams in the area. With due respect to Holland, Italy might be the best chance for Europe to be represented towards the end of the tournament. Group two appears a bit weaker on paper, so Italy wouldn’t see perennial world baseball powers USA, Japan, Puerto Rico, and Canada until after the group phase.
Most important, however, is that our teams represent us well. We can be satisfied with some close losses as long as these men make their flag proud of their effort.
Mid-week we’ll have more thoughts on the first few games, and feel out the chances for the teams to advance.