South Africa has nothing to lose

Originally Published: March 9, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- South Africa baseball coach Rick Magnante, a big movie buff, is a firm believer in the power of film to motivate competitive athletes.

Magnante recently brought in the DVD player and showed "Hoosiers" in the clubhouse to inspire his underdog club. Thursday afternoon he opted for "Miracle," the feel-good story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey squad.

Brett Willemburg and Jason Cook
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIt's not the country's favorite pastime, but baseball is spoken in South Africa.
"My kid said, 'Don't show "Miracle," dad. It's about the Americans,' " Magnante said. "I told him, 'Yeah, but you have to look at the big picture. It's about the underdogs versus the can't-be-beaten giant. That's the moral of the story. It's not who's wearing the uniforms.' "

If Magnante wants to show a film that truly resonates with his players, he should think about "Cobb." The movie received mixed reviews from critics and can hardly be classified as inspirational. But it does feature a neat cameo by a 31-year-old Roger Clemens.

That's the same Roger Clemens who's won seven Cy Young Awards, ranks second in baseball history with 4,502 strikeouts and will try to pitch Team USA into the second round of the World Baseball Classic on Friday.

All the Rocket has to do is beat South Africa.

Team USA's brief dalliance with disaster has come and gone without incident. Mexico's blowout win over Canada on Thursday assured that the Americans will advance to Round 2 in Anaheim, provided they can beat a South Africa team with only one current professional player -- Royals minor-league pitcher Barry Armitage.

On paper, this looks like David Wells versus David Eckstein in a pie-eating contest.

While the U.S. squad features $25 million-a-year Alex Rodriguez , man-about-Manhattan Derek Jeter and several other surefire or potential Hall of Famers, the most familiar face in a South Africa uniform is nine years retired and walks as if his knees could use an injection of lubricating oil. Lee Smith, baseball's career saves leader, has taken a break from his job as roving instructor with the San Francisco Giants to serve as South Africa's pitching coach.

While drug testing is an obvious concern for Team USA members in the Classic, the South Africa squad is stuck in Pleasantville. One of the 11 teenagers on the South Africa team, when apprised of the WBC drug testing rules, expressed concern that he might flunk on account of his acne medication.

The South Africans are intelligent, well-mannered and accommodating. First baseman Nick Dempsey, a gentle giant at 6-6, 250 pounds, was asked to describe his emotions on the eve of facing Clemens.

"It's going to be a great honor and a privilege for us to face the Rocket," Dempsey said. "Everybody knows what he's capable of doing and what he's done for the last 20 years in the big leagues. He's definitely a future first-ballot Hall of Famer."

How's that for global trash talk?

Baseball's roots in South Africa go back to 1898, when the sport was introduced by Americans who played it for fun at the Crown Mines of Johannesburg. But it wasn't until the breakdown of apartheid in the early 1990s that blacks and whites were able to share the same playing field.

Magnante, a California native who works as a scout and minor-league manager in the Oakland system, still foresees several obstacles to baseball's having a major impact in South Africa. Rugby, cricket and soccer are a much easier way for talented athletes in the country to make money. Funding for baseball is nonexistent, and the best ball field in South Africa is the equivalent of a municipal park. "They don't even have a rake," Magnante said.

Still, the South Africans acquitted themselves nobly in their first two WBC games. Most people figured they'd fall behind by double figures and force the "mercy rule" to go into effect. Instead, they gave Team Canada a scare in an 11-8 loss, and played competitively again in a 10-4 defeat to Mexico.

I closed the chapter on Gulliver and the Lilliputians. The bottom line is we're here now, and our objective once the game begins is to win. Anything less would be compromising ourselves.
South African manager Rick Magnante

"I closed the chapter on Gulliver and the Lilliputians," Magnante said. "The bottom line is we're here now, and our objective once the game begins is to win. Anything less would be compromising ourselves."

Smith, South Africa's resident philosopher and humorist, will play a key role in schooling the team's players on pressure competition and Clemens in particular. The two were teammates with the Boston Red Sox in the late 1980s, and routinely hammered each other in pickup basketball games.

"Me and Bruce Hurst used to put a beat-down on Rocket," Smith said. "But he's competitive, man. He'll knock your block off on the hoopball court. I used to tell him, 'This is supposed to be a finesse game, fella.' "

Even at 43, Clemens doesn't know the meaning of going half-speed. At a news conference Wednesday, a reporter asked Clemens if he might take the relative inexperience of South Africa into account and think extra hard about pitching inside. Clemens responded with a shrug, seemingly dumbfounded that someone would even ask that question.

Given Clemens' competitive nature, Smith has advised the South African hitters on the importance of proper baseball etiquette.

"Some of our kids take a lot of time getting in the box," Smith said. "That sort of irritates Rocket. I've told guys, 'Go ahead and get your ass in the box.' And I wouldn't be calling timeout while he's in the middle of his windup. That might not go over too good."

Smith also has a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to bunting against Clemens: Make sure the bunt is fair, because you don't want to step back in the batter's box while he glares a hole through your skull. By the next time around the order, maybe he'll have forgotten.

Paul Bell, South Africa's second baseman and leadoff man, will be the first hitter to get a crack against Clemens. Bell played three seasons in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and has a touch of Craig Biggio in him. He took a fastball off the wrist against Mexico and a fastball off the upper arm against Canada, and still is achy in both places.

With absolutely nothing to lose, he plans to take the aggressive approach against the best Team USA has to offer.

"I'm having my hacks against the Rocket," Bell said. "I'm going to swing away, unless it's a close game and I need to get on base. Maybe I'll try to drag bunt one, and he'll throw one up and in and break my ribs."

At least he'll have something to tell his kids one day.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer