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Sep '10 29

Gary Kahn on South African Baseball

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Mister-baseball’s Jakub Janda asked Gary Kahn to describe his views on South African baseball.  Following essay stems out of pen of Gary Kahn, American pitcher currently in services of Arrows Ostrava, Czech Extraleague. Kahn played also for Karlskoga Bats in Sweden and in South Africa for Durbanville Villians. He and another American Joe Truesdale (5-year veteran of Czech Extraleague) are joining the Durbanville Villians for the second season.

Gary Kahn

It is quite ironic that as I write this piece on South African Baseball (where in Cape Town, the current forecast is a sunny 24 degrees Celsius), I find myself in SKSB Arrows Ostrava Restaurant where the bitterly cold rain & wind (8 degrees Celsius) remove any hopes of a practice this evening….

Over my time in Sweden and Czech Republic, players (both domestic and foreign) continually brought up the topic of Australian baseball during the European offseason— never really anything on South Africa. It can be reasonable to assume that this is due to the country of Australia itself being known as something of a paradise with its vast expanses of beautiful coastline as well as the success that numerous Australian baseball players have had over in Major League Baseball (guys like Pat Kelly, Grant Balfour, Mark Hutton, Graeme Lloyd, and Peter Moylan). However, the country of South Africa and its premier Major League offers a similar, unparalleled experience (both on and off the field) for talented foreign players.

For all intensive purposes, I would first like to introduce a form of a pseudo-Rorschach response: when the term ‘South Africa’ is introduced by audio or visual means, what would be some of the first words that pop into your mind??? Africa? Poverty? Corruption? Apartheid? I perceive all of these to be amongst a short list of primary idiomatic responses when the term ‘South Africa’ is introduced to one’s cognition. Notice, all of these words mentioned above are negatively connotated—meaning when these words are auditorily transferred through the synapses of your brain to the amygdalae, negative thoughts & emotions are elicited. Purely from the country’s poor reputation alone, it is an easy assumption as to why more foreign players are focusing on getting to Australian baseball. However, after spending 6 months playing in Cape Town last winter, I would like to attempt to dispel this negative obscurity and show the international sporting community  as to why baseball in South Africa is something of a (pardon the cliché) ‘best kept secret.’

Gary Kahn pitching

In terms of logistics, South Africa has several baseball leagues located in all of the country’s provinces. However, the most talented of South Africans are groomed/developed (or otherwise imported) to the Western Province Major League—located around Cape Town. The league is a 10-team wooden bat league that has produced numerous signees for professional baseball in the United States and Europe. Additionally, more than three-quarters of the players from the South African National Team that competed in the recent World Baseball Classic came from the league. Have a look at a small sample size of South African players who have had a major impact in both American and European professional baseball during the past decade:

Glen Buckley—legend in European Baseball, nonetheless the German Bundesliga. Led the Paderborn Untouchables to league championships in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. Played for Great Britain national team during European Championships. Fortunately, my head coach down in Cape Town.

Anthony Phillips—20-year-old middle infielder currently playing in the Seattle Mariners organization. Has been as high as Triple-A since his professional debut at 16 years old. Scouted by Australian legend Pat Kelly.  South African National Team player. Older brother Jonathan played in the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2003. Father, Alan, is the South African National Team manager.

Barry Armitage—pitcher; first South African to make Major League debut in 2005 with the Kansas City Royals. South African National Team player.

All in all, over the past decade there have been more than 25 South African players who have played or are still playing professional baseball in both the United States and Europe. Although this is a good number of players that have come out of one country, it seems strange why only a select few of them “climb the ranks.” Given, the South Africans are blessed with athletic physiques that match other powerhouses such as the United States and Australia—just take a look at some of those rugby players!!! Also, South Africa is currently ranked #2 in the world for cricket. Though the game differs greatly from baseball in terms of rules, many similar mechanics are implemented in both sports. Thus, you see the situation that South African baseball faces—the premiere sports offered and supported in their country receiving the most gifted athletes. Australia has a very similar situation—physically-gifted men that are attracted to their major sports of rugby and cricket. However, with Major League Baseball recently taking a major interest in Australian Baseball and investing money into the new Australian Baseball League (ABL), youth interest in the sport has risen significantly. Combine larger numbers of youth players with more funding (iso facto, better equipment & better training) and it is easy to see why Australia has gained a large separation from South African baseball.

Gary Kahn winding up for a pitch

Looking at the numbers, it is quite simple to conclude that the quality of baseball in South Africa is at a level where its players and national team can compete on the international stage. Alone, this talent present in the country should mobilize more foreign talent to play down there during the winter off-season. I feel that it is the poor reputation associated with the country that has turned away some potential, viable foreign prospects. After spending 6 months in Cape Town, I can tell you that it was the best 6 month experience of my life! Not only was I able to compete every weekend and assist in the development of the sport during the week with various youth programs, but I was also to see and do things not many people around the world have the chance to do—cage diving with Great White Sharks, doing a land tour around the southern tip of Africa, using an ostrich as a mode of transportation for one minute and 15 seconds before it threw me off it’s back, stand on a ledge at the bottom of the world, driving through Africa’s biggest squatter camp, fishing an inland dam for some of the world’s biggest smallmouth bass, attending a make-shift trance festival in the middle of some vineyard, doing a walk-about with cheetahs and bobcats, working at an Afrikaans nightclub, DJing on one of South Africa’s busiest streets.

These experiences listed only scratch the surface of things I was able to come across during my previous 6 month stint and there is so much more that I would like to see when I arrive back in the next few weeks. However, I do not want many to view my experiences as selfish—I have already given back much of my time and resources to the development of South African baseball and I look forward continuing to do so. I am in the works of developing a rotary-style program with one of the South African baseball clubs and one of Europe’s major baseball clubs—not only for senior players but also for youngsters. This would be the first of its kind in both Europe and South Africa—where the goal would not only to give these kids an experience/opportunity of a lifetime, but also spread the influence of baseball on a more global scale. As famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman says, “The world is becoming flat.” He meant this in the field of economics and business—however when you see the number of international scouts around the world coupled with how many foreigners you see nowadays on American, European, and Asian rosters, you are beginning to see the paradigm taking effect in the baseball realm

Thank you for your article.
Jakub Janda

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