Most US sports fans appear to have paid only passing interest in the World Baseball Classic, but for some baseball fans, it is the equivalent of the World Cup. The WBC is slowly growing into a major world baseball championship with funding from MLB and the relationships with national organisations of IBAF (International Baseball Federation, or FIFA for baseball). Late last year, the IBAF moved to replace the Baseball World Cup with the World Baseball Classic for, from what I gather, fiscal and logistical reasons. To that point, the WBC had completed two renditions with 16 teams, almost all of which were traditional baseball powers from the Far East, North America, and Latin America. The IBAF had traditionally been more involved outside of the Americas, and insisted that countries with growing baseball programmes be given the chance to compete, as they had at IBAF competitions. The Netherlands had brought attention to Europe with its 2011 World Championship, plus two wins over the Dominican Republic and several close losses to Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Little do most Americans know that the Dutch, as well as the Italians, are passionate about baseball (perhaps not on the level of football, but above many other sports).
For the 2013 Classic, each of the four winless teams from 2009 will be joined by 12 others in qualifying tournaments. The first to commence is in Jupiter and features France, Israel, South Africa and Spain. Of the four countries, only Israel does not have a quick-growing (at least, in terms of talent) domestic league, but they are considered the favourites because of Israeli citizenship laws, which are looser than the other countries. Former MLB outfielders Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler will play for them, as well as a number of current minor leaguers. Only two native Israelis will play on the team, which IBAF ranked No. 54 (out of 74) before WBC rosters were finalised. France (No. 37) and South Africa (No. 35) are similarly low-ranked, while Spain (No. 18, above Colombia and the Netherlands Antilles, both more known for their baseball players) is fresh off a bronze medal in the European Championships, which concluded only two days ago (Sep. 16).
Israel’s chances depend mostly on how well the team gels and how rusty Green and Kapler are. Attempts at creating a domestic league failed after one year (with most of the players having never been to Israel and little native talent existing), which would make a victory by them disappointing for nations actively investing in baseball leagues (certainly Spain and and South Africa, though France receives government funding as well). The Netherlands Antilles (No. 20), Argentina (No. 22), and Sweden (No. 29) went without an invite, perhaps lacking the connexions of Israel.
Spain will be at more of a disadvantage in Florida than it would in the Regensburg qualifier, although the memories of a close 8-6 win over Germany on Sep. 15 would likely inspire a fierce competition between the growing rivals. It has added a few minor leaguers to a solid core, and is gradually climbing up the international rankings. For South Africa and France, this will be a good learning opportunity and, hopefully, inspiration to continue the sport’s development in these countries. Expect Israel to advance out of the group, but do not be surprised if Spain manages to take a game from them if they settle for second place. South Africa should finish third.