Damon Hopes to Foster Thailand’s Baseball Ambitions

Fifth in a series of World Baseball Classic Previews

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)

MARYVILLE, Tenn. – Of the 16 teams in the qualifying round of the World Baseball Classic, Thailand is the most enigmatic.  Aside from American-born Johnny Damon, the nation has no players in the United States and very little experience in global tournaments.

Like a number of the teams in the qualifiers, Thailand has only played organised baseball for about two decades.  According to the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the launch of a baseball association was a combination of government funding and Japanese investment.  The last five years has seen Thailand emerge as a potential site for baseball growth, as the national team has been composed of players who learned the game domestically.  Still, the sport lags considerably behind Muay Thai (boxing) and football.

Thailand has had success in Southeast Asian play in particular, and is rated as 27th-best nation in the world by IBAF, one spot ahead of Brazil.  They are the seventh-highest ranked Asian team, only three spots behind Pakistan.  The country does not have a professional league and even amateur play is somewhat disorganised at the adult level.  The national team has been quite active in the last half-decade, though.

In mid-November 2007, Thailand travelled to Chinese Taipei for the Baseball World Cup to begin a gruelling two-month stretch of competition.  Thailand replaced China, who withdrew from the competition.  In a bracket that was so strong that Venezuela finished six out of eight, Thailand was last in the group and only scored seven runs in its seven contests, giving up 108.

Only two weeks later, they were back in Taiwan for the Asian Baseball Championships, the qualifying tournament for the 2008 Olympics.  Competing in the lower level, they entered their third game needing a win to advance to the higher pool.  Thailand battled the Philippines for twelve scoreless innings before a draw was called, eliminating the blue-and-red.

Less than fortnight later, Thailand hosted the Southeast Asian Games (SAG).  Two years earlier, they claimed the silver medal in the SAG Tournament hosted by the Philippines, who dismantled them 11-0 in the final.  In the 2007 event, they earned an impressive win over Indonesia, who along with Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines are the best Asian teams outside of the traditional powers.

The blue-and-red saved their best outing for last, as they took an early lead against the Philippines and held on for a 5-4 win and a gold medal.  Thailand outscored their opponents 67-6 in five contests, though half the runs were scored against a woeful Malaysian side.

Thailand again competed in the Asian Baseball Championships in 2009, but had a disappointing showing.  In their opener, Sri Lanka upset them 3-1 and they failed to regroup.  Though they trounced Malaysia once more and also topped Indonesia, they lost to Pakistan and were beaten twice by the Philippines.

The following year was another busy one for the team, though not as frenetic as 2007. In May, the squad travelled to Islamabad for the Asia Baseball Cup, a generously-named competition, as only South Asian teams usually competed.  In this case, the qualifier for the Asian Games was a four-team affair.  Despite finishing with only one win in three games (over Afghanistan), Thailand would advance to the Games in November.

Before finishing their year at the Asian Games, the blue-and-red made their only appearance in the Intercontinental Cup.  Put in a bracket with Japan, Italy, and the Netherlands, they struggled in five games, as even fourth-place Nicaragua shelled them.  Thailand was outscored 55-11 in the event, held in Chinese Taipei.

The Asian Games in Guangzhou, China were almost equally as difficult.  Though Thailand put 25 runs on the board against Mongolia, Japan plated 18 against them and China also shut them out, 7-0.  All told, they finished 2-8 on the year.

While the previous two years were disappointing, the team’s roster remained virtually unchanged, and the experience certainly paid off for Thailand at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games.  Despite losing to the Philippines and Indonesia in going 2-2 in the round robin part of the tournament, Thailand took a bronze medal with an emphatic 12-4 victory over Vietnam.

Priming for the World Baseball Classic, Thailand hosted the East Asia Cup Baseball Championship in September 2012.  They squeaked by Hong Kong 2-1, also earning wins over Myanmar and Singapore, but lost 3-1 to the Philippines in the de facto title match.

The recent losses to the Philippines in the East Asia Cup and in 2011 at the SAG was no doubt fresh on the players’ minds when they encountered their rivals in the first game of the World Baseball Classic.

Most of the team played together in the aforementioned tournaments, but Manager Masao Tokunaga and the governing body of Thai baseball happily added perennial All-Star Johnny Damon to the roster after he expressed interest in playing.

“I would love to continue to play, but that’s not up to me, so now I’m spreading some goodwill to the game,” remarked Damon to the New York Daily News. “And I’m doing it for my mother’s native country of Thailand, a country that has some great athletes, but needs some guidance and hope that baseball can someday be a popular sport.”

Damon is half-Thai, as his mother hails from the nation, and brings some impressive accolades to the team.  The 39-year old outfielder has two World Series rings and has totalled 2,769 career hits, 235 home runs, and 408 stolen bases with a .284 batting average.  Damon arrived early and spent several weeks putting on clinics in Thailand, mentoring the team, and flashing a winning smile at the many cameras trained on him.

“His desire to play for Thailand not only validates the W.B.C. concept, which we fully support,”declared Riccardo Fraccari, IBAF President, to the New York Times, “but also demonstrates the strong draw for top players to represent their countries and to play against the best in the world.”

As one might expect, the hopes attached to Damon’s involvement with Team Thailand are enormous.  Some cite Babe Ruth’s exhibition contests in Japan, which helped dramatically in growing the sport there, as a parallel to Damon.  Others note that the proliferation of baseball stars around the globe might help for baseball’s reinstatement to the Olympic programme.

“As we make our case for the value proposition of baseball to the Olympic movement, this is a very powerful message of universality and support from the best players,” noted Fraccari to the Times. 

Damon will obviously lead a team that is without any other players with US experience.  Information on many of the players is fleeting, but several with good international performances are Nattapong Sampahangsit, Somsak Sarnwit, and Siraphob Nadee.

Nattapong was 5-for-19 in the 2007 World Cup, ripping a double in the game versus Cuba, though he struck out eight times in the tourney.  Somsak was the top hitter for the blue-and-red in the Cup, totalling a.273/.429/.364 line and throwing out 2-of-8 baserunners from behind the plate.  Siraphob threw three shutout innings against Mongolia in the 2010 Asian Games, despite turning 18 only weeks before.

Three other players worth noting are Nathan Lorentz and the Daru brothers, both of whom attended IMG Baseball Academy in Florida, but were born in Bangkok.  Lorentz, a Seattle native, finished up his senior season at the American School in Japan earlier this year.

As a junior in 2011, Lorentz led the team to its first Far East title by hitting .621 with four home runs, 36 RBIs and 37 runs.  He was 4-1 with a 0.53 ERA on the mound.  He followedthat campaign up with a .580/.687/.1220 line, with 33 RBIs.  He was 5-1, 1.11 on the mound.

One opposing coach observed, “Hitting-wise, he was head-and-shoulders above the rest. He hit well from both sides of the plate. He’s got a sweet stroke. And that team was something else.”

The younger Daru brother, Joseph, plays outfield and was rated the 19th-best secondary school prospect in Florida.  During his junior season in 2010, he hit .265/.342/.647 in 38 plate appearances, blasting four home runs in 11 games.  A year later, he concluded his prep career with a .299/.373/.612 campaign.  In 22 games, he had three doubles, three triples, and four dingers.  Joseph was named the Best Hitter in the Hall of Fame Classic that year, going 5-for-12 with a pair of four-baggers.  He now attends Sierra College, a top junior college in California.

Jack Daru, the elder sibling, graduated from IMG in 2009, when he hit .237/.404/.289 with only six strikeouts in 38 at bats as the starting catcher for a team that went 31-1.  He also attended the International School of Bangkok.

After finishing high school, the 22-year old Daru played for single seasons at Saint Leo University, West Valley College, and California State University-East Bay.  Daru hit .250/.312/.386 in 20 games for Saint Leo, throwing out 2-of-21 runners.  He earned All-Conference honours at WVC.  In 2012 at CSUEB, he was 0-for-7 in four games.

The four Thai-American imports did not disappoint in the World Baseball Classic, though Thailand’s quick exit was discouraging.  Damon was 3-for-7 with a walk and a run, playing first base and serving as designated hitter.  Joseph Daru was 2-for-6 with two walks and two RBIs.  Jack Daru was 1-for-8, but threw out 2-of-8 runners attempting to steal.  Lorentz was arguably the most impressive player, hitting leadoff and going 3-for-7 with a walk.

The exploits of these four could not propel Thailand past the Philippines or New Zealand, both of whom exposed the lack of pitching depth and the unsteady fielding.  As a team, the pitching staff had a 7.94 ERA and walked 10 in 17 innings.  The defence was execrable, failing to make routine plays and committing 11 errors.

There were moments of hope for Thailand.  In their 61 at bats, they totalled seven walks and 11 hits, and made consistent contact, even if they did finish with 18 strikeouts.  When runners reached, the batters seemed to ramp up their concentration and creativity, faking bunts and choking up on the bat to put the ball in play.

Their pitchers lacked the velocity and consistency of the teams with professional players, but showed a mixture of interesting breaking pitches that would improve radically with the sort of tutelage Americans would expect at a small university.  To their credit, they also maintained their composure during difficult innings.

While Damon is unlikely to play for Thailand in future international tournaments, Lorentz and the Daru brothers would be a boon for the country.  Manager Tokunaga was careful to use as many players on his roster as possible in the World Baseball Classic, as the level of competition and funding are unlike anything the domestic players experience.

The preceding might seem to be grasping at straws, but Thailand certainly seems to have a foundation on which to build.  With the massive attention brought to the country by Damon, it is quite possible that other Americans will volunteer their time to improve Thailand’s quality of training.

“The experience was amazing. I am glad I get to come represent my mother’s country,” Damon reflected. “Hopefully Thailand has a chance to get back [to the World Baseball Classic]. My role is to help out as much as possible.”

“My players have trained and fought very hard,” Tokunaga told MLB.com. “We will keep up the spirit and hopefully soon participate in another major tournament to compete against other baseball powerhouses.”

Thailand will likely compete in the 2012 Asian Baseball Championships and attempt revenge on the Philippines.  Despite their performance, it is probable that they will earn a spot in the 2016 World Baseball Classic qualifying, though their spot might be offered to Pakistan or Indonesia.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
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