South Africans begin crash course

World Baseball Classic entry begins workouts

The South African entry in the World Baseball Classic is training at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, spring home of the Athletics. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

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PHOENIX -- They stood under a searing afternoon sun and dug their cleats into grass so green, it could've been painted, not grown.

Carpenters, plumbers, construction workers.

Ballplayers.

As they overran Phoenix Municipal Stadium, in their floppy shorts and black socks pulled up to their knees, Paul Rutgers stood at shortstop and called out in heavily-accented English, "Welcome to the big leagues."

It's as big as anyone playing baseball in South Africa had ever dared dream.

The World Baseball Classic is already a success. The skeptics and cynics can call it a day. Any event that sits a wide-eyed 19-year-old left-hander from Capetown on the same bench once occupied by Reggie Jackson is a smash.

If you listened carefully Monday afternoon through balls popping into mitts and bats cracking pepper choppers, you could hear the Earth shrivel like a ball of wool thrown into the dryer.

They had arrived here, three-dozen strong, over the weekend. Now they began their crash course in uptown baseball at the Oakland A's Spring Training camp, after the regular tenants were done for the day.

Team South Africa stretched and sprinted and went through the dreaded pitchers-cover-first drill under the all-encompassing eyes of manager Rick Magnante.

"Don't wear your new shoes! Old shoes -- we don't want any blisters."

"Run on the balls of your feet, so the ball doesn't look like it's bouncing!"

"We've got a combination of veterans and young kids with limited experience," says Magnante, who spends most of his time scouting for the A's. "They've never played in a venue like this."

Lee Smith is the pitching coach. Yes, that Lee Smith, the one who saved a Major League record 478 games.

"We got some good young kids," Smith says. "Hope they won't be nervous facing some guys they've only seen in video games."

A century-plus of baseball as a club sport, played by as many as 350,000 in a country of 44 million, brought South Africa to this point: On-site as one of 16 participants in the inaugural WBC.

South Africa has had a taste of international baseball fruits. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, its only victory was over a Netherlands team that would later beat Cuba. In October 2003, it was the big fish in the little bowl of the All-Africa Games, flattening Nigeria in the gold medal game, 15-0, on a one-hitter by Barry Armitage.

Well, the fishbowl just got a whole lot bigger.

"It'll be awesome," Jason Cook says. "It'll be bigger than the Olympics, because of the quality of the competition."

Cook is a 30-year-old outfielder. He is South Africa's Rickey Henderson and has played on the national team since 1995. A decade of little victories and big defeats has been worth it, because his perseverance has brought him here.

To the first World Baseball Classic. Pool B. United States, Canada, Mexico? Bad News Bears cracks are permissible. Some might consider it an upset if South Africa scores, nevermind wins.

"I'm glad we're in that pool," Cook insists, "because it means we'll get to play for sure against the U.S. and Canada. This is what everyone dreams of, a chance to play against the best of the best.

"The game has grown by leaps and bounds in South Africa. It's good to see a lot of young guys with this team."

They are young, with guarded enthusiasm. Perhaps they're trying to shroud their naiveté. Maybe they are truly too awed by the surroundings to be chipper. Or maybe they are just too intent on learning.

But Magnante's drills proceed in a hush, his baritone instructions carrying to the warning track and beyond.

His squad, the 37 on the provisional roster which will have to be trimmed to 30 by March 2, appears stocked with lithe, quick players with good hands. Defense looms as a team strength.

It will have to be, reasons Magnante. The hitters, though excelling at bat control, have trouble pulling balls or hitting them with power under normal circumstances, much less Roger Clemens circumstances. And the WBC pitch limits will deter a staff that has a couple of aces -- Armitage and Carl Michaels -- but little depth.

"We'll just try to be fundamentally sound," Magnante says. "Get the pitchers to throw strikes and put the ball in play. Then we'll see if we can make the plays. That'll be our key, to just play catch. Not give up too many outs."

Not giving up too many runs may be too much to wish for. In the seven games of those 2000 Olympics, South Africa was outscored by an aggregate 73-11.

"They're still learning the game," Smith cautions. "I hope that, if they focus, here they can play up to the level of the competition.

"I hope they don't get too excited, and just relax. Easier said than done."

Like the game itself. Acting like a ballplayer is easier than performing like one.

Sunflower seeds clearly translate well. Jonathan Phillips, an outfielder, stands in front of the third base dugout with a handful of the American ballpark snack staple, flicking them creatively at his teammates.

He says something to his buddy, catcher Bles Kemp, in an exotic language. He is speaking in Afrikaans, one of South Africa's five official languages.

"Hey," Magnante says as he walks by, "speak English. I don't know if you're talking about me."

The manager is smiling. The players smile back. Those are the kind of smiles that will light up Hardball Heaven for three weeks in March.

Then Phillips grabs a helmet, takes a walking lead off first base and sprints off as the hitter rips a perfect opposite-field hit-and-run shot out of the batting cage.

Nicely done, in any hemisphere.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.