Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dutch Baseball Heroes

To fill out a sixteen-team international baseball tournament you need to send out plenty of invitations. While it's true that the game is an internationally-beloved phenomenon, it falls into a category with rugby, ice hockey and BMX: important in a few countries but far from global in the way that soccer is.

According to baseball's creation myth it was organized and refined by Abner Doubleday, but this explanation falls short of explaining the international popularity of the sport. Ball-and-stick games have appeared in many cultures. The urge to pick up a stick, swing at a small moving object and then take off running is an elemental urge shared by every member of the human family. More concretely, America's peripatetic military has been an ambassador of the game.

This month's World Baseball Classic features ballgame-loving countries like the U.S., Japan and Cuba, but apparently to complete the bracket there are also delegations from Chinese Taipei, Italy and the Netherlands (China is a natural participant because they will certainly field the best team in five or so years, and they're a lock to put on the first baseball game in space).

Of the two European teams, Italy was predictably an early-round elimination, but the Netherlands shocked the world by twice defeating the powerful Dominican Republic. The Dominican squad included as many Major League Baseball stars as the American one, but couldn't summon the hitting to defeat the Dutch.

Eligibility for the Classic demands that at least one parent be born in the nation a player competes for. Hence the Italian team was largely made up of Italian-Americans. As for the Netherlands, the Dutch possessions in the Leeward Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela, have produced more baseball talent than the motherland, although don't repeat this sentiment in any of the dugouts of the Honkbal Hoofdklasse.

Turns out that in spite of widespread continental indifference, the Confederation of European Baseball has played a championship every year for decades. Eurobaseball lags behind the Caribbean, Pacific Rim and of course North America, but this upstart Dutch squad could make their mark on behalf of an overlooked baseball culture.