Print and Go Back ESPN.com: World Classic 2009 [Print without images]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Welcome to South Africa

By Joe Connor
Special to ESPN.com

QUICK FACTS

Most Known For (besides baseball): Home of the "Big 5": lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos and elephants; Nelson Mandela helping the country end apartheid.

Location: Southern Africa, at the southern tip of the continent of Africa

Size: 476,217 square miles, or slightly less than twice the size of Texas

Population: around 49 million

People: Black African, 79%; White; 9.6%; Colored, 8.9%; Indian/Asian, 2.5%

Language: Five official languages: English, Afrikaans, IsiXhosa, Tswana and IsiZulu (also spoken: Sepedi 9.4%, Setswana 8.2%, Sesotho 7.9%, Xitsonga 4.4%, other 7.2%)

Government: Republic with multiparty democracy

Capital: Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria) -- approximate population 2.2 million

Famous National Anthem Verses: "United we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land."

QUICK SOUTH AFRICA BASEBALL HISTORICAL FACTS

Most Known In Baseball For: Getting clobbered in two of three 2006 WBC games as the continent's only representative, but being three outs away from upsetting Canada, which beat the U.S.; 2000 Olympic win over the Netherlands, which beat Cuba in the same tournament.

Baseball's South African Debut: Late 1800s, courtesy of U.S. gold miners working on the Crown Mine and City Deep shafts at the Goldfields Witwatersrand (Gauteng), outside Johannesburg.

First South African-born to play MLB: None, yet.

South Africa's Best Baseball Town: A toss-up between Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

South Africa's Other Baseball Hot Spots: The game is also being played in other parts of the country, including the nation's capital, Tshwane, (formerly known as Pretoria), Natal and many other areas, some rural.

South Africa's Baseball Weather: mostly semi-arid; subtropical along east coast; sunny days, cool nights.

Biggest Sports Competitors: The big three: soccer, cricket and rugby, the latter two remnants of British colonialism; golf is also popular, having produced grand slam winner Gary Player (Johannesburg). Basketball, virtually unknown during the apartheid years, has become more popular, particularly among black youths impressed by infrequent glimpses of U.S. basketball stars on local television. Basketball is now offered as a sport at many schools, and the U.S.-based National Basketball Association has promoted its sport in South Africa in recent years by sending over such players as Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal.

QUICK TEAM SOUTH AFRICA AND PLAYER FACTS

Biggest International Rival: None

Biggest International Success: Beat the Netherlands 3-2 in 10 innings in the 2000 Olympics, the same Dutch team that earlier beat Cuba. South Africa also led Canada 8-7 with three outs left in the 2006 World Baseball Classic before losing 11-8.

2006 WBC Showing: Went 0-3, getting clobbered twice, but also nearly upset Canada.

Back from the 2006 WBC team: Barry Armitage (2002 Single-A Midwest League All-Star who pitched as high as Double-A); Jared Elario; Brett Willemburg.

Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Nick Dempsey, Paul Bell

Now on 2009 WBC team: Six current MLB prospects: 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).

PLAY BALL-- IN SOUTH AFRICA!

Baseball in South Africa is played at club level with teams affiliated with provincial (regional) structures. For example, in Cape Town, clubs are affiliated with the Baseball Association of the Western Province. The South Africa baseball season depends on where you live. In Johannesburg and Durban, the season is played during the winter with the season winding down by the end of September, while Cape Town begins its season in October. Games are mostly played on the weekend and tournaments are very common. Baseball is played in the schools during the week and at the club level on weekends. Most clubs have various age groups, including (Under/Age) U8, U10, U12, U14, U16 and a major league, or "senior" section. Volunteers and fundraising help make baseball in South Africa happen, especially at the club level.

The Games: In the adult leagues, the quality of the game is about what one might see at a bad high school game in the U.S. The pitching is erratic, and errors are common. Batters with .500 averages are not unusual.

The Ball Fields: Under the premise that a sleeping bag under a bridge by a canal is still waterfront property, in South Africa a flat surface is a baseball "diamond." Truth be told, most aren't diamonds at all but former rugby or cricket grounds with little to no dirt infields or pitching mounds. While some are even equipped for night games, the thick grass slows the ball down and hampers development of infielders trying to work on their timing and footwork. The best facility is in Boksburg, a working-class suburb of Johannesburg with a string of ball fields.

The Fan Atmosphere: Similar to a crowd at a Little League or high school game in the U.S. -- mostly parents and friends of the team. Baseball is not up to the level of rugby in South Africa, where hooting, cheering, banging of dustbin lids, trumpeting on cow horns and fireworks reverberate as whistling, cheering fans are decked out in face paint and costumes.

South Africa Baseball Speak: There are 11 languages in South Africa, so naturally, as they attempt to further learn the game, they have their own vernacular, with a particular British air. Here's a sampling of South African baseball speak:

"A Fortnight Ago" could be last year
"Ball" or "Baseballer" is often used to describe the game and a baseball player
"Bloody slider" is, well, a bloody (really good) slider
"Chap" is the guy you're competing against
"Contested" means to be played, as in two rounds will be played to determine a winner
"Matches," often referred to as games
"Fixture," is the schedule, not an appliance
"Frame" is used to describe an inning, a reference used secondarily in North America
"Giants" is any of the 30 MLB organizations, not just the San Francisco Giants "Knockout" is an elimination game of a tournament
"Nightball" is a night game
"Seniors" aren't senior citizens, but a club's oldest, and often most talented players
"Side" is a team, sometimes also referred to as a "fraternity" or a "squad"
"Sportsman" is an athlete; sports is "sport," not "sports"
"Training session" is practice or proper
"Trial" is a tryout

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.