Welcome to South Africa
Originally Published: January 13, 2006By Joe Connor | Special to ESPN.com
March 3-6, Phoenix
Exhibitions (in Phoenix)
March 4 vs. Oakland (ss), 7:05 p.m. ET
Schedule (Pool B in Scottsdale, Ari.)
March 7 vs. Canada, 9 p.m. ET
March 8 vs. Mexico, 9 p.m. ET
March 10 vs. United States, 3 p.m. ET
Size: 476,217 square miles, or slightly less than twice the size of Texas
Population: 44 million
People: Black African 79%, white 9.6%, colored 8.9%, Indian/Asian 2.5%
Language: Five official languages: English, Afrikaans, IsiXhosa, Tswana and IsiZulu (also spoken: Sepedi 9.4%, Setswana 8.2%, Sesotho 7.9%, Xitsonga 4.4%, other 7.2%)
Government: Republic with multiparty democracy
Capitol: Tshwane, population 2.2 million (formerly known as Pretoria)
Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Anything but baseball; Home of the "Big 5:" lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos and elephants; Nelson Mandela helping the country end apartheid; to the hardest of hardcore fans: 2000 Olympic win over Netherlands, a Dutch team which also beat Cuba that same tournament.
Quotable: "When we qualified to play in the Olympics, the whole world was like, 'They actually play baseball in South Africa?' " South Africa's Ian Holness speaking to Baseball America in the 2000 Olympic aftermath in which his country defeated the Netherlands, 3-2.
Famous national anthem verse: "United we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land."
Baseball's South African debut: Late 1800s when U.S. gold miners working on the Crown Mine and City Deep shafts on the Goldfields Witwatersrand (Gauteng), outside Johannesburg.
South Africa's baseball hotbeds: Cape Town and the Eastern Cape region, Durban and Johannesburg have the most developed baseball programs in South Africa. However, the game is also being played and growing in other parts of the country including the nation's capitol, Tshwane, (formerly known as Pretoria), Natal and many other areas, including rural. One of the most successful club teams is the Westridge Yankees, in the Cape Town area, with a number of players from youth to seniors that have not only represented their country abroad, but have attracted the attention of foreign clubs as well. The Western Province has the strongest base, with the Bothasig club boasting the youngest and among the best youth programs in the country.
Number of South African-born currently signed to MLB organizations: 3
First South African-born to play MLB: None yet
Ones to watch for in the future: Barry Armitage (Royals); Tyrone Lamont (Mariners).
South Africa's baseball weather: Mostly semiarid; subtropical along east coast; sunny days, cool nights.
Biggest sports competitors: The big three -- soccer, cricket and rugby, the latter two remnants of British colonialism. Golf is also popular, having produced Grand Slam winner Gary Player (Johannesburg). Basketball, virtually unknown during the apartheid years, has become more popular, particularly amongst black youths impressed by infrequent glimpses of U.S. basketball stars on local television. Basketball is now offered as a sport at many schools and the U.S. National Basketball Association has promoted its sport in South Africa in recent years by sending over such players as Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal.
Only in South Africa: There are several back-breaking canoe marathons in South Africa, of which the king is the Duzi in Kwa-Zulu Natal, 170 kilometers of tortuous rapids, rocky hills and a myriad other discomforts such as snakes. South Africa also offers some of the world's toughest ultra-marathons, including the Comrades Marathon (up a steep 90 kilometer incline between coastal Durban and mountainous Pietermaritzburg) and the Two Oceans race, which winds its way amidst the mountains around Cape Town. Jeffrey's Bay, on the southeastern coast, draws surfing champions from around the world.
Amateur and international competition
Approximate number of South Africans playing organized baseball: 370,000.
Amateur highlights: First victory: 1974 XXIII Baseball World Cup over Italy; first tournament win: Africa-Oceania Olympic qualifier, 1999, went undefeated; first Olympic win: 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney (3-2, over the Netherlands in 10 innings); first Little League affiliated appearance: Big League World Series 2003 (went 1-3).
Annual competition: Baseball in South Africa is played under the auspices of the South African Baseball Union and is played at club level with clubs affiliated to provincial (regional) structures. For example, in Cape Town, clubs are affiliated to the Baseball Association of the Western Province.
Baseball season: The South Africa baseball season depends on where you live. In Johannesburg and Durban the season is played during the winter with the season winding down by the end of September and Cape Town starting theirs soon thereafter in the summer beginning in October. Games are mostly played on the weekend and tournaments are very common. Baseball is played in the schools during the week and at the club level on weekends. Most clubs have various age groups, including (Under/Age) U8, U10, U12, U14, U16 and a major league, or "senior" section. Volunteers and fundraising help make baseball in South Africa happen, especially at the club level.
Games: Most are played on the weekends. In the adult leagues, the quality of the game is about what one might see at a bad high school game in the U.S. The pitching is erratic, and errors are common. Batters with .500 averages are not unusual.
Ball fields: Under the premise that a sleeping bag under a bridge by a canal is still waterfront property, in South Africa a flat surface is a baseball "diamond." Truth be told, most aren't diamonds at all, but former rugby or cricket grounds with little to no dirt infields or pitching mounds. While some are even equipped for night games, the thick grass slows the ball down and hampers development of infielders to work on their timing and footwork. The best facility is in Boksburg, a series of ball fields in a working-class suburb of Johannesburg.
Fan atmosphere: Similar to a crowd at a Little League or High School game in the U.S. -- mostly parents and friends of the team. Baseball is not up to the level of rugby in South Africa where hooting, cheering, banging of dustbin lids, trumpeting on cow horns and fireworks reverberate as fans are decked out in facial paint, costumed, whistling and cheering.
MLB talent level comparison: Single-A (on a great day); Bad News Bears (on a bad day).
Worth noting: First South African-born player to make a U.S. All-Star Team: Barry Armitage, Durban, South Africa, 2002, Single-A Midwest League All-Star (Royals) ... MLB should play an exhibition game in South Africa. Among the most notable sporting facilities: Cricket: Picturesque Newlands grounds, nestled at the foot of Table Mountain, Cape Town; Wanderers Cricket Grounds, Johannesburg (one which could be site of future MLB exhibition series); rugby: Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld; Johannesburg's Ellis Park; Durban's Kings Park.
South Africa baseball speak: There are 11 languages in South Africa, so naturally, as they attempt to further learn the game, they have their own vernacular, with a particular British air. Here's a sampling of baseball, South African speak. For example:
"A Fortnight Ago" could be last year
"Ball" or "Baseballer" is often used to describe the game and a baseball player
"Bloody slider" is, well, a bloody (really good) slider
"Chap" is the guy you're competing against
"Contested" means to be played, as in two rounds will be played to determine a winner
"Matches," often referred to as games
"Fixture," is the schedule, not an appliance
"Frame" is used to describe an inning, a reference used secondarily in North America
"Giants" is any MLB organization, not just the San Francisco Giants
"Knockout" is an eliminate game of a tournament
"Nightball" is a night game
"Seniors" aren't senior citizens, but a club's oldest, and often most talented players
"Side" is a team, sometimes also referred to as a "fraternity" or a "squad"
"Sportsman" is an athlete and sports is "sport," not "sports"
"Training session" is practice or proper
"Trial" is a tryout
Contact: South Africa Baseball Union
No 3 Panther Place, Link Road, Lyndhurst, Johannesburg
P.O Box 2398 Highlands North, Johannesburg 2037
Tel: (+ 27-83) 453 4211; (+27-82) 990 4546.
Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.