Already in this World Baseball Classic, the Dutch have beaten Korea and Cuba, and the Italians have come out on top against both Mexico and Canada. Is this a sign of a shift in baseball world power, away from its traditional strongholds?
I think that baseball in Europe has been developing every year.... I think overall now there isn't an easy game throughout the whole world. Once in a game, anybody can beat anybody. That's what we have been telling these guys from day one.
-- Marco Mazzieri, Italian manager,
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when discussing baseball in the Old World. Firstly, Netherlands and Italy are miles ahead of any other European nation in baseball. Combined, they have won the European championships 30 out of 32 times, and the last occasion any other country came out on top was forty-six years ago. Since then, there have only been three occasions in the bi-annual tournament, where the two sides have not gone home with the gold and silver medals (most recently in 2007, when the Great British team won silver behind the Dutch, despite managing to lose to Italy in the qualifying round).
Both teams have distinct advantages in terms of player pools. The Dutch side is not just "The Netherlands", but is officially known as "The Kingdom of the Netherlands," which includes the territories of the Netherlands Antilles, so can draw from Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. The first and last can largely be ignored, though the former did produce Sidney Ponson, who made 278 major-league starts between 1998 and 2009. But there were no less than six players who hailed from Curaçao in the major leagues last year - that's impressive, given its population is about twenty thousand less than that of Tempe. The local little league team also won the LLWS in 2004.
It is a particularly useful resource, given the only "genuine" Dutch player to appear in the majors over the past three seasons was our own Didi Gregorius, who was born in Amsterdam, but raised in Curaçao. That's not too surprising, as it's estimated that only 25,000 people in the Netherlands play baseball or softball. But former team manager Brian Farley was quoted as saying that the country is small enough to allow players from regional teams to practice together frequently - the entire nation is less than one and three-quarters the size of Maricopa County. He believes this gives them a cohesiveness some of their rivals may lack.
The Italians have adopted a different route, putting out a roster with only seven native-born players. Instead, that have taken advantage of the rule which allows them, literally, to "grandfather in" players born elsewhere, even whose parents may not have been born in Italy, or been to the country. There's no shortage of players with proud Italian heritage, the most obvious being Joe DiMaggio, who was the son of Italian immigrants, so would have been qualified to play for them, and Phil Rizzuto is another occupant of Cooperstown who might have donned an Italia shirt, had the WBC been around in his day.
But in manager Mazzieri, they also appear to have a savvy psychologist, for example, who builds team cohesion by addressing the team in English, which has helped build a team that appears genuinely to believe they can compete against sides far more talented on paper. As Mazzeri said after the win over Mexico, "We expect nothing, but we're prepared for everything." What's particularly interesting about their approach from a Diamondbacks perspective, is that I wonder if the success of this Italian team, perhaps exemplifies the "grit" Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson seek to build in Arizona? Certainly seems to be working for Italy so far.
Admittedly, they are perhaps helped by a less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic approach by the other nations. While Italy and the Netherlands scour the globe looking for anyone they can find, participation for the likes of Team USA, Mexico and Canada appears to be along the lines of, "If you don't have anything better to do over the next couple of weeks..." This is absolutely not to deny the motivations of those who do decide to take part. But when the nation where over three-quarters of major-league players are born, has a roster including Willie Bloomquist (career bWAR over eleven seasons: 0.5), It's hard to disagree with tweets from players such as this one.
Is the USA still the premier baseball country in the world? Debatable. Is the WBC an accurate measuring stick to test that? Nope.— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) March 7, 2013
Outside of national pride, it's actually not a bad thing. necessarily. One of the aims of the WBC is to foster the development of baseball outside its strongholds, and there's absolutely no doubt, results like these will do a lot more for the sport in Italy and Holland, than getting mercy-ruled by a true All-Star team. It can be ephemeral [see women's soccer in the US, post-1999], but success breeds a lot more interest than failure. For instance, after the Dutch beat Cuba to win the IBAF World Cup, their Olympic Committee honored them as the "Best Sports Team of the Netherlands of 2011".
If the Italians can knock off Team USA at Chase Field tomorrow night - and after this afternoon's comprehensive demolition of the Canadians, I wouldn't be betting against them - it may even knock the beautiful game off the sports pages of the Italian newspapers. Well, for a day, at least....