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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Israel, South Africa launch Classic qualifiers

What Team South Africa lacks in proven talent at the Major or Minor League level, it makes up for in experience at the World Baseball Classic. And, naturally, what first-time participant Team Israel lacks in experience at the Classic, it makes up for with a wealth of talent.

The two teams are a study in contrasts, and they will officially get the 2013 World Baseball Classic started at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., opening the first of four modified double-elimination qualifying rounds that lead up to the main tournament in March. All of the qualifiers will be streamed live on
The South African team returns 13 players from the 2009 Classic team, six of whom were also on the 2006 roster. South Africa was winless in both of its attempts in the tournament and lost all its games by a combined 45 runs. The team also returns manager Rick Magnante, hitting coach Brian McCarn, bench coach Alan Phillips, first-base coach Neil Adonis and third-base coach Mike Randall.
Brett Willemburg was the team’s leading hitter in 2006 and ’09, but perhaps the most intriguing talent on the South African roster, as well as one of the few playing at the professional level in America, is infielder Mpho Gift Ngoepe, who just finished his season with the Class A Bradenton Marauders, part of the Pirates organization.
Ngoepe posted a .232/.330/.668 batting line in 2012, his first full year in the Florida State League, but he has more than just personal success on his mind in the Classic.
“It’s one of those things that you dream about one day — to play for my national team,” the 22-year-old Ngoepe said. “It would be more than winning a few games in a tournament. It would be winning games for my country.”
Team Israel, meanwhile, is perhaps most notable for its former Major Leaguers, including manager Brad Ausmus and outfielders Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler. Israel has been considered the front-runner in this qualifier thanks to them and the other Jewish-American players added to the team from the Minors.
This qualifying round might be the most difficult step for Team Israel on the way to the Classic. If the Israeli team advances, it could benefit from the addition of big league stars like Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Kevin Youkilis in the main tournament in March, giving them about as much talent as any team could hope to assemble. But first, Ausmus is quick to point out, Team Israel has to survive this week.
“Having bigger names certainly brings more attention to the sport and would help the sport grow, but I’m not looking past our first game. March is a long ways off,” Ausmus said. “If we don’t win here, it means nothing.”
Ausmus spoke several times of promoting the sport back in Israel, trying to get more native Israelis involved. That’s one thing both of these teams, however different their circumstances might be, can share: bringing the game they love back to their home country.
“We hope that it helps grow the sport in Israel. We hope that 25, 30 years from now, Israel will field a team of native Israelis,” Ausmus said. “That’s the ultimate goal: to not have mostly American-Jewish ballplayers, but to have Israeli native citizens.”
“If we win this qualifier, it’s going to be a big deal,” Ngoepe said. “They’ll be able to watch the games over there on their TVs and radios, and there’s going to be big publicity over there for the people. It would say, ‘Hey, baseball is in South Africa.’”