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European Representatives - A Frank Look at the Challengers

2/11/2015

By Ryota Tanaka

On March 10 and 11 Samurai Japan will confront the European representatives in Tokyo Dome. From World Baseball Softball Confederation President Riccardo Fraccari on down, everyone in the world of baseball is unanimous in saying this is a historical series. However, only a very small minority of people in Japan know these veterans who have come all the way from Europe. Just what kind of team are the European representatives? We saw the European representatives as they really are and found out what is in their hearts.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the sport of baseball. I want you to remember this as the era when the world of baseball turns toward globalization. Events like these add a great deal to our sport. Now it's not just America, Asia and Latin America that is playing baseball. Europe, Australia, Africa, all of us are playing the world's best sport." The year before last the powerhouse team Regensburg Legionaere dominated the Bundesliga. Starting this year they are commanded by Rodriguez, who has taken on the post of manager. We asked him to tell us the significance of holding the Japan - Europe baseball matches.

I think it's safe to say that for most baseball fans European baseball is a completely different world from that in Japan and America and that for European players and fans the world of Japanese and American baseball is completely different. That said, in a certain sense the image most Japanese hold of "what's behind the curtain" is subtly different from the reality.

The shape of baseball on the European continent is a completely different thing from that found in America and Japan. In Europe there aren't national leagues that play over 100 games a year and there aren't the prerequisites of a domestic leading sport such as media reports and a large fan base. In the first place, there is the issue of the players being able to support themselves only through baseball. From what Manager Rodriguez says it doesn't even amount to 10% of the players. This has been the normal situation in European baseball for over half a century.

This is why players in Europe don't even try to hide the fact that they yearn to have for themselves the environment found in Japan which is the polar opposite of theirs. One of those players is Juan Carlos Infante who is in the Italian Baseball League (IBL) and often wins their Golden Glove prize and becomes the Stolen Base Champion and who has appeared in the WBC as an Italian representative. He is affiliated with last year’s league champions, Fortitudo Bologna 1953, and in the past was a colleague of G. G. Sato (formerly of the Saitama Seibu Lions, Chiba Lotte). Infante is a 33 year old shortstop who since the start of the off season has been seriously aiming toward transferring to the Japanese baseball world.

Infante says, "I want to play in a country that has a high basic level and lets us play in a large number of games. I've played baseball in various countries, Venezuela, America, Canada, Nicaragua, Italy... I’m confident about my skills and I believe I could play in Triple-A. Next I want to prove that I can also succeed in Japan, one of the world class powerhouses of baseball."

NPB is a world of top level professional baseball but probably from the point of view of people like Infante and Rodriguez it has its pros and cons. On the one hand, Japan is in a firm position to build as a baseball powerhouse. However, because of the maturity of the thriving domestic professional baseball pennant race as sports content, in Japan the system of representative games like those in soccer has not become fixed. That has been a factor in top European players not having opportunities to face off against their Japanese counterparts. Since "Samurai Japan" has become permanent, that situation has been changing greatly. That wall has finally come down with the 2 games to be played soon and it goes without saying that for the European players they will not simply be friendly matches. It's safe to say that these matches, as their name implies, have the future of the whole world of European baseball riding on them.

In addition, in the European baseball world as well, we should touch on the bright spots that are necessary to develop the sport. Rodriguez leads Legionaere and their home, Armin-Wolf-Baseball-Arena is a beautiful park that has full infield and outfield natural grass and can accommodate up to 10,000 people. Even when compared to the American minor leagues, there are many stadiums that are outshone by the one that Legionaere has. On the continent, baseball clubs like them are to be found here and there very much as a matter of course.

Further, in Japan, G. G. Sato going to play in Italy attracted attention but now in Europe hiring foreign players who have built up experience in the MLB and minor leagues from countries like America, Dominica and Venezuela has become a matter of course (Infante and Rodriguez were both born in Venezuela). Because of players that seemingly yesterday were at the AAA and AA ranks, the level of competition in Europe has greatly improved. Now young European players that build up their skills there, are highly regarded by the MLB and go over to the US are not unusual. Now, players like the prominent reliever Alex Maestri (Orix) who get good results at the top level have started to appear. When Rodriguez says, "Our team is going to give it our best and they'll be much tougher games than you Japanese think," it has weight and cannot easily be dismissed as nonsense.

If that is the case and the curtain is open, now Samurai Japan has just one job to do. That is to face these nameless challengers with all seriousness. What thoughts will the Japanese and European players have in mind as they engage over two days? Of course that will influence the long term future, over the next decades, of European and world baseball, but, after someone has gotten the 27th out, it will also determine the very near future. Notwithstanding the reputations that the European representative players have built up, if Samurai Japan loses focus for a moment then the Europeans have the potential to rain blows down on them. This is the attitude with which they will go into these games.

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