South Africa's baseball heroes 'not awed'

A shocking South African team of gifted amateurs nearly stunned a Canadian collection of major league players on Tuesday at the World Baseball Classic before, faltering at the finish.

Dismissed by some as the worst team in the 16-nation event, South Africa tested Canada before losing 11-8 in an opening-round Pool B match-up that could bring them respect from the elite Major League Baseball millionaires.

“There is some sort of vibe this team hasn’t had in the past. We’re not awed,” pitcher Darryn Smith of Durban said. “We’re on the same stature as the big leaguers.
We’re not awed. Everybody is human.”

Cape Town’s Brett Willemburg hit a bases-loaded double to left field in the fifth inning for three runs to level the game 3-3, and Paul Bell smacked a bases-loaded double the same way in the eighth to put South Africa ahead 8-7.

Bell, a team-best three levels shy of the major leagues in 2002, made the clutch hit off Chris Reitsma, the closing reliever for the Atlanta Braves.

“No one expected us to be on top,” Bell said. “I still wish we didn’t lose the game. I was hoping to win for me and the people back home. Big for us, really big for us. They thought we couldn’t have done it.”

Three outs from defeat, a Canadian club, half comprised of major leaguers, clawed out an escape. Adam Stern doubled home the tying run and scored on a throwing error by third baseman John Phillips to give Canada the lead for good.

“It was a wake-up call,” Canada manager Ernie Whitt said.

“Everybody speculated South Africa would be a pushover. I was surprised at the calibre and how good they were.”

Three wild pitches by South African teenager Jared Elario and a Matt Stairs double gave Canada insurance runs, and the upstarts never brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning, midnight striking their fairy-tale dream.

“I couldn’t be more proud. We closed the book on the Cinderella story,” said South African manager Rick Magnante. “We tried our best. We put ourselves in position to win. We got down. We came back. It was a tremendous effort.”

South African pitcher Kalin Dreyer, a Durban-born teen who moved to Atlanta at age one, watched as his teammates’ confidence grew as Canada failed to pull away.

“No one but us expected South Africa to even get a run. Most everybody had so many doubts. But every day we would get closer and closer,” Dreyer said.

“Getting the first run was amazing for the whole team. After we started getting ahead, we were like, ‘We can do this’. Now the guys know we can do this if we play our best. It is a Cinderella story. We have some kind of chance.”

Cricket, rugby and soccer remain kings of South African sport, but baseball’s dedicated followers had a moment to remember.

“I know the baseball fraternity was watching at home. It was televised at four this morning,” Bell said. “I know a lot of people watched ,and I can imagine their feelings of joy for what we did.”

Smith (30) sees hope that the World Baseball Classic mission to boost the sport worldwide might find a success story in South Africa.

“Back home people have seen our dedication. That’s something South Africans are raised to appreciate,” Smith said.

“If you look at how baseball is growing in the townships, a lot of people are going to sit up and take notice. Baseball is never seen as big as cricket and rugby. But it is growing.”—Sapa-AFP

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