As the U.S. waits to see who they will face in the Baseball World Cup final, Great Britain’s players, coaches and supporters have had time to reflect on the nation’s own World Cup performance this week. America are the reigning champions and anything less than an appearance in the final would have been considered a failure.
In contrast, Great Britain had more modest targets heading into the tournament. Stephan Rapaglia’s men achieved their main goal of getting to play ten games against good quality opposition and the event has to be seen as a success for the side.
An overall record of 1-9 might not strike you as being all that impressive, but it has to be considered in context. Great Britain had never qualified for the Baseball World Cup prior to booking their place in the 2009 event by finishing second in the 2007 European Baseball Championships.
Yes, the record books say we won the first ever World Cup in 1938 and I certainly don’t want to diminish one of our few major triumphs, but what is now known as the World Cup debut was actually just a five-game series against the United States. Playing as England, the team was mostly made up of Canadians and won the series 4-1. The International Baseball Federation decided to count this as the first Baseball World Championship after the event. As Josh Chetwynd puts it in ‘British Baseball and the West Ham Club’: “to this day, that bureaucratic decision may be England’s greatest baseball victory”.
That triumph aside, we haven’t played any official World Cup baseball in our history. So, qualifying for the 2009 World Cup was a great achievement on its own. Once there, the objective was simply to try and reach the second round. That was always going to be the results-based measure of a successful tournament for Great Britain and we achieved it.
We faced two tough teams in Japan and Nicaragua, pushing the former all the way and succumbing to some mighty hitting against the latter. Those opening two losses meant that we entered our final game needing to win to give us any chance of progressing. The pressure of the final day event, accompanied by the partisan home crowd in Zagreb, ensured that a win against Croatia was in no way a formality, even if they are one of the lesser-established baseball set-ups. Brian Essery and Tom Boleska pitched brilliantly for GB and timely hitting gave us a 4-1 victory.
For much of the evening, it didn’t look like that result would quite be enough. That was before Venezuela’s late four-run inning obliterated Germany’s hopes of making the second round. The way it panned out could make you believe that GB were lucky, but while there was an element of fortune at sneaking through by just two runs (Germany conceded 22 to our 20), the team had earned their spot.
If you needed any indication of what qualifying for the second round meant to Britain, the dramatic change in fortunes of that Saturday evening illustrates it perfectly. The team went from an evening pondering an early tournament exit, to waking up for an early morning flight the next day to get to Haarlem for a game against Cuba. It made for a monumental challenge, but what a thrill it must have been to stand at the plate facing fine Cuban pitching with legendary catcher Ariel Pestano crouching behind.
It’s experiences like that which would have made making the second round so rewarding for the players and coaches, regardless of how the games panned out.
The standard of competition meant that it was no great surprise that Great Britain finished bottom of their group with an 0-7 record. However, the team performed commendably in all seven games, even in their two biggest losses. They were tied 3-3 with Spain in the seventh inning before late runs saw Britain fall to a 10-3 defeat and they had drawn level with Korea in the seventh inning before the reigning Olympic champions added ten runs to give the score (15-5) a lopsided look.
Great Britain’s efforts against Cuba were such that their opponents had the great Pedro Lazo warming-up in the bullpen ready to close a tight game out with the score at 3-0. Three additional runs in the eighth inning meant that Lazo sat back down, but it was the ultimate sign of respect that the Cubans came so close to turning to him.
Even without facing Lazo, the standard of pitching that Britain came up against was incredibly strong and their team batting average of .213 is not so much a mark against them, but a reflection on the quality of the opposition. There were some bright spots in the British batting lineup, not least in the form of two players making their debuts for the team. Sam Wiley finished the tournament with a .333 batting average and hit a memorable three-run homer against Japan, while catcher Chris Berset hit the team’s other home run against Croatia and really stood out in the second round, hitting .429 in those seven games.
As for the pitching, Brian Essery lived up to his ‘ace’ tag with some sterling work (2.25 ERA) in his two starts and the real find of the tournament for GB was Tom Boleska. Like Wiley and Berset, he was making his debut for Great Britain and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Single-A pitcher struck out fourteen batters during his 12.2 innings.
The wider benefits of competing in the World Cup can be summed up with reference to the youngest player in the squad. Just one year ago, Richard Klijn was playing for the GB Junior Baseball Team in the European Championship Qualifier tournament in Sweden. Thirteen months on and he was circling the bases to score a run in the Baseball World Cup against Japan, after coming into the game as a pinch-runner, and he even pitched at the end of the game against Korea. The nineteen year-old has been part of the British baseball set-up since he was ten and the former Manchester Eagle looks set to have a big future with the British Senior team. Certainly playing in such a big event will have been an invaluable experience for him and the rest of the roster.
And that’s the most important thing about the World Cup for Great Britain. Those involved won’t just have some great memories, but also a wealth of new knowledge and wisdom from many a lesson learned. Using that collective experience as a platform on which to build for the future should be Great Britain’s next goal.
Hopefully we will be able to bring you some World Cup thoughts from members of Team GB over the upcoming offseason here at BaseballGB. I’m sure the players and coaching staff will have many great stories to tell of their epic baseball journey. They certainly did British baseball proud.