BROOKLYN, New York – There is no doubt that the World Baseball Classic has increased fan awareness of baseball outside the traditional hotspots of North and Latin America and the Far East, with the introduction of the qualifying rounds doing much for the profile of countries on the periphery. In 2012, Brazil stormed on the scene with a surprising sweep through Panamá and New Zealand, a country with no baseball history, advanced to the final in Chinese Taipei. Perhaps the least likely entrant into the WBC, however, was the inclusion of Pakistan in the latest edition.
Pakistan, rated No. 23 in the world in baseball, is the only first-time entrant into this edition of the Classic, replacing Thailand, who were winless in 2012. Pakistan has the world’s sixth-largest population, at more than 200 million, but baseball is far less popular than cricket or the national sport, [field] hockey. As might be expected, baseball in the South Asian country faces difficulties unimaginable to the average baseball fan, and Extra Innings got the inside scoop from the team’s manager, Syed Fakhar Ali Shah, and coordinator, Muzamil Anwar, before its game with Great Britain.
“The sport was founded by Syed Khawar Shah in 1992, and since then we have been taking baby steps,” explained Anwar. “There have been lots of hurdles and it took a while, but we finally got [to the international level].”
That year, the governing body, Pakistan Federation Baseball, was founded by Shah, who is still president, though the board has expanded to include eight others. The road has hardly been straightforward in the intervening decades, and those involved have had to make enormous sacrifices to propel the sport forward.
“In 1996, my dad sold the family car so the team could go to the Philippines to play a tournament. I was a child, so I walked several miles each way to school until we could afford to buy one again,” recalled Shah, the team’s manager and son of the Federation’s founder.
The younger Shah moved to America later in life, but maintained the family passion for Pakistani baseball as his father’s vision.
“I sold my gas station in Virginia to help with our baseball team,” observed Shah. “I’m doing everything to help my nation.”
As the story of the Shah family unfolds, it’s clear that the sport survived on individual determination in a country that ranks in the bottom third worldwide in all economic standards. With no nations nearby in which baseball is very popular, even equipment is scarce.
“I bought wood and made bats, and I’ve started to learn how to make gloves,” commented the visibly energetic Shah. “Until recently, we were using Little League catching gear for our adults. The director of Play It Again USA gave us kids’ gloves and high school gear.”
“We have a lack of funds and lack of equipment,” said Anwar. “We don’t receive any funding from the government. Most of our funding comes from the Federation president’s friends.”
“Ibrahim Keys, President of the Pakistan Pony League, got supplies through the US ambassadors to Pakistan,” offered Shah as an example. “It’s hard to promote a sport with only seven or eight sets of catcher’s equipment in such a populous country!”
Indeed, even the invitation to the Brooklyn Qualifier was an enormous boon to Pakistan’s Federation in resources alone.
“We’re getting 30-40 helmets, proper uniforms, catching equipment, and more given to us by Major League Baseball,” noted Anwar with a look of gratitude. “This is huge!”
The sport is well-organised considering its resources at the national team level, though no structure has yet been implemented at a competitive level.
“We have no leagues. All the key players are given money from their department [state] to play [at national camps] monthly,” clarified Shah. “It’s about $200 per month.”
“There are 10,000 players in Pakistan,” added Anwar. “The military has a team, and there is an inter-university competition.”
Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission puts on annual men’s and women’s university tournaments, and Strawberry, an international sporting goods manufacturer based in the country, has a women’s championship. The most recent edition in June was the 13th annual competition. Spreading the game outside of higher education and government institutions is much more challenging, however. Once more, the work is led by the tireless Shahs.
“I put on camps in major cities myself and bring all the equipment and run them myself with help from others,” explained the squad’s skipper. “Every time I go to America, I buy baseball equipment and bring it back with me.”
Pakistan’s departments [states] have tournaments, but most competitive experience for the top players is on the national team. It has competed regularly internationally since the creation of the Asian Baseball Cup, the second tier of Asian national team baseball, in 1995. In fact, Pakistan earned a medal in seven of nine years, winning in 2006 and 2010, and adding four silvers and two bronzes to its two first-place finishes.
In 2012, the Asian Baseball Cup, the qualifying tournament for the Asian Baseball Championship, split into eastern and western tournaments, also known as the West Asian and East Asian Baseball Cups. Pakistan has hosted and won the western competition all three years since their creation in 2012. It will again host the West Asian Cup in 2017. At the top level of Asian competition, though, the standard is much higher, and Pakistan has never come close to beating any of the top three countries: Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei.
It is the first tournament outside of Asia for Pakistan, and many of players have never seen a dedicated baseball field, let alone a Single-A stadium in the heart of the United States’ largest city. The Brooklyn Cyclones, host for the qualifier, play in MCU Park, built in 2001. The ballpark has a view of historic Coney Island and the Atlantic Ocean on one side and, from the rooftop patio, a vista that stretches to Manhattan.
The experiences of game two starter Muhammad Zohaib are typical of many of his teammates.
“I am playing my first international match on any field. I will be more confident as a result,” said Zohaib through Shah, doing double duty as translator. Shah expanded, “At our [tryout] camp, we had some players who were very good at cricket. One of which was Mo, who we convinced to change from cricket to baseball.”
“We have a lot of experience in cricket, so hopefully there is a lot of new talent in Pakistan in baseball,” observed pitcher Muhammad Asad after stretching for the team’s matchup with Team GB. “We’re hoping that with our cricket history, this will be a friendly with Great Britain. It’s the biggest game of my life; I’ve never seen a field like this!”
While Pakistan may not be ready to play at the standard of the world’s premier nations, its selection by Major League Baseball to the World Baseball Classic reflects its ranking with other teams in the qualifiers, who mostly fall within ten places above or below Pakistan’s world ranking. Unlike most of those nations and its competitors in the Brooklyn qualifier, Pakistan has no so-called ‘passport players’, or U.S. citizens with foreign ancestry that in MLB’s eyes makes them eligible for other countries. Instead, all 28 players come from the Federation.
“Selection was based on past performance,” replied Anwar when asked about how the team was formed. “Some have been with the Federation for a few years, some since they were 12, and we have nine military guys.”
“One of our coaches signed up when he was 12 to play and now coaches,” added the team’s coordinator, implying this was a regular trajectory in Pakistan’s Federation.
“We did a camp for 100 players and took the top 10 [in addition to our veterans],” noted Shah, clearly delighting in every moment as he called out directions to the team. “We have been practicing for eight months in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.”
Pakistan was clearly overmatched in its two qualifier games versus Brazil and Great Britain, but showed promise, particularly in its defence and starting pitching. In fact, it took Brazil till the seventh inning to break out the bats in what would finish as a 10-0 defeat in Pakistan’s first game. Team GB would beat the WBC rookies 14-0 a day later, but other teams were left impressed with their energy and athleticism.
“Pakistan is in pretty good shape [in their development],” observed Carroll. “They are raw, but they have some tools to build on. They’re quick, they’ve got a couple guys who can throw hard, and they have a lot of athleticism. Their shortstop made a great throw early, and they just need more game time.”
“Even though we lost, we held our own, and we can take it from here and can become professional baseball players,” asserted Anwar.
“We can now see what the difference is between professional players and us and know what we need to do to improve,” agreed Shah. “All the kids now have heard of the major leagues, but now they can see us on this stage and picture it themselves.”
“There is a large Pakistani population in Great Britain, and we talked about growing that relationship in baseball,” stated Carroll. “We’ll be developing our contact with their federation as they grow.”
Shah and Anwar noted various goals for the Federation after the conclusion of the qualifier, highlighting the lofty goals for a nation that has only been playing baseball for just over two decades.
“We hope to send better players for coaching training—we can’t succeed without the newest and best training methods,” pointed out Shah. “I want a few players to get in the minor leagues and then come back and help, and it will grow from there.”
“We are hoping to draw the attention of the large Pakistani-American community and draw support from them,” commented Anwar, who is based is in the United States.
What is clear from speaking with especially Shah, and from the smiles on the players’ faces as they raced in from throwing and stretching and headed into the clubhouse, is that their week in Brooklyn was easily the highlight of their baseball careers.
“I think of [the team] all the time and I see my father’s dream coming true,” said Shah. “I saw my dad here, sitting in the premium seats behind the dugout and not looking at me, but just looking at the game and smiling, and I thought, ‘Praise God!’.”
“Baseball unites people and builds team spirit and it will do good in your life,” concluded Shah as he prepared to join the team for their pre-game pep talk. “Baseball teaches how to sacrifice for one’s family and to better oneself in life.”
For the Shahs and the players from Pakistan, baseball has bettered many of their lives already. The Shahs, Anwar, and the rest of the Federation will see if they can use baseball to better their nation. Find out more through the Federation’s Facebook page.
All photos copyright Gabriel Fidler, 2016.
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