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Oct '11 11

Off Base: How to measure European Success at the Baseball World Cup

by Ty Eriksen

The Netherlands advances to Round Two in Panama as one of the favorites, losing just one game, in extra innings, to Canada. Italy, Germany, and Greece are on the plane home, but the story is never that concise.

How should we measure the level of success of our European teams in the BWC?

The simple answer is success, but even that opens a Pandora’s box of rationales for how each team played.

By far, the top story of the tournament is Netherlands success, but we’ll have time to address that in a later story reflecting on the second round. But lets keep their baseball history in focus as we reflect on Italy, Germany, and Greece.

Italy needed one win in their final two games, or help from Germany, to keep their second round hopes alive. Dropping the final game to Venezuela in the 10th inning was a painful way to exit, but along the way they picked up victories over all the teams they were supposed to, and even put a beating on Australia. Losing to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Venezuela is nothing to be ashamed of, and keeping the scores close, despite below-average offensive performance, is a nod to their above average pitching and defensive performances.

Currently ranked 12th in the world, Italy knows they might be deserving of a little more respect. How they end up getting that respect will depend on a few things completely within their control, and a few things no longer in their hands. The world baseball stage is no longer just in the US, but that’s where the lights still shine the brightest. UPDATE: Italy will need to make a statement in the World Baseball Classic qualifying next fall, to put themselves back in front of the big crowds in MLB stadiums. Italy is already qualified for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In the US, sports fans are happy to cheer for their heritage and the underdog, and the promotion of the Italian team in the US isn’t just critical to the strength of European baseball, but MLB’s marketing avenues in Europe. What they can’t control is the success of their minor leaguers. Alex Liddi and his rise to the majors have an impact on the development of youth in Italy. To classify this performance in Panama as a success would be too lenient, but it isn’t a failure. It merely sets the stage for the Classic in a few years time, and Italy cements their position in the mid-tier baseball countries.

With Italy in the middle, describing where Germany and Greece fall is much more difficult.

First, these teams couldn’t be more different. The Greek roster is ‘experienced’ to put it nicely: 17 players are over 30 years old. Most of the key contributors have gained their baseball experience through growing up the US, which doesn’t reflect well on the state of baseball in Greece.

Germany is young, homegrown, and seen as a future baseball prospect land. It is expected that seven Germans will be playing in the US minor and independent leagues next summer. A handful of guys have already played there, and even more are gaining instruction and experience at colleges around the country.

Greece is still on their way up the international rankings, which as we have pointed out rewards participation as much as success. That the team is still on the rise should be used as a spark in development at home. Yet the team will need to move away from their dependence on older players, and quick: just four of the major contributors in Panama were born since 1980. Relying on Greek families in the US for their talent isn’t a strong strategy, and quite frankly isn’t something to be proud of. Step number one should be to integrate Greek players with potential into the framework, and get them experience on an international level. The European Championship next summer would be a good time to get their youth accustomed to the level of play. The trip to Panama was disappointing, of course, but being the 16th best team in the tournament means you’re still in the top 20 in the world. The talent disparity isn’t something they’ll overcome in this decade, so to participate is a success in itself.

Germany’s results didn’t match their effort. They were arguably better than Taiwan and Nicaragua, and still ended up without a win. The narrow losses against Nicaragua and Korea were triggered by errors, but exacerbated by an offense that couldn’t prolong rallies. In contrast to Greece, they were lead by their youth: minor leaguers Kepler and Lutz showed why they are highly prized prospects. The pitching would have done much better with a solid defense behind them, but still gave up the most hits in the first round of any staff. The next wave of German prospects have been touted as pitchers, so it will be interesting to see if the national team can close the gap to Netherlands and Italy in that respect. Losing seven games hurts. No doubt about that. But six competitive games means we’ll see Germany with some success in the near future on that big stage.

The Dutch squad, and their long(er) baseball history, is a legitimate measuring stick of development in Europe as a whole. The country has been playing in international tournaments since the 1970’s, gradually becoming a competitive team among the worlds top ten in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In this age of sports globalization, the Dutch mainland has contributed to much of the teams success, including a seventh place finish at the last World Baseball Classic, arguably the premier tournament in baseball, as MLB/professional players are able to participate with fewer obstacles.

A 20-year plan to becoming an international baseball powerhouse would be ridiculous in today’s baseball environment. Italy has held fairly steady over the last two decades, qualifying for the Olympics, WBC, and World Cup from the 80’s into the millennium. Since 2000, however, they’ve managed just one top 10 finish in the World Cup, two 10th place finishes in the WBC, and a last place finish in one Olympics (missing the other time). Once the most feared team in Europe, Italy doesn’t scare other teams in the world as much as they used to. With two leagues, the IBL and Serie A, there is lots of talent in the country, but speculation over the growth of the game has cast a negative shadow.

Germany is new to the scene, participating in just their fifth World Cup since 1972. Although they have gradually moved up the European rankings, their success has been thanks to the increase in popularity of the sport in recent years. With a broader player base to develop, the team has been able to partake in a few Olympic Qualifiers. Their results against the top-flight teams have improved over the past five years. Where they used to get ten-runned regularly, they now push opponents deep into the game. Baseball in the country has a higher ceiling than most European countries. Its much larger than the Netherlands, even a bit bigger than Italy. The class distinction lies in the facilities, and things have reached a crossroads; where the Dutch and Italian landscapes are dotted with stadiums approaching those of the minors, Germany has just a couple, the gem being Regensburg. If the country is to continue the upward trend, the baseball heads must find ways to promote investment in infrastructure and allow players the chance to improve.

Baseball in Greece came into the picture with their 2003 European Championship silver medal, and support from influential MLB owners got pro players onto the national team in time for the 2004 Olympics in Greece. This is their first World Cup appearance, after qualifying by placing fourth in last years Euro Championship. This success has been heavily reliant on a Greek mandate that athletes with at least one grandparent from Greece can play for the national team. While this has allowed for investment into the Greek baseball league and won major support for the federation, the downside is that few players actually from Greece are yet able to compete for a place on the roster. Far from sustainable, but its hard to debate the results. The team has done remarkably well in a short time. Whether the opportunities resulting from that success is offered to players developed in the Greek league in the future is to be seen.

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