The A's have been getting their butts kicked all over Arizona so far this spring (they're 1-6), but there have been plenty of distractions to keep me from thinking too much about all the inflated ERAs of the A's pitchers so far.
The most impressive performance of the spring by a member of the A's just might be that of the new manager of the A's short-season A-ball team in Vancouver. Rick Magnante has been managing the South African team in the World Baseball Classic. The South Africans are basically a team of amateurs, and most people fully expected them to be routed in all three games of the first round.
In their first game against Canada, Magnante's team held the lead going into the ninth inning, only to lose 11-8. Still, a fully respectable showing. Today, against Mexico, they lost 10-4. But that's still pretty good. The mercy rule seemed to be made with the South Africans in mind, but mercy hasn't been needed. Magnante's team has been competitive, and he should be commended for it.
And that praise should be said now, because South Africa faces the United States on Friday, and I have a feeling they're going to get clobbered. The USA lost to Canada today, and if there's one rule in sports, it's this: don't be the team that plays a great team right after they lost in a huge upset.
I lived in Sweden during the 1980 Winter Olympics, and I didn't get to see the Miracle on Ice game, where the US beat the Soviets, because the game started at 2AM or something Swedish time, and I had school the next day. But I did get to see the next game the Soviets played, which, unfortuately, happened to be against Sweden. The Swedes had a pretty good team (they were only team that team USA didn't beat, tying them 2-2). But no team in the history of hockey could have beaten USSR that day. The Soviets competely and totally wiped the Swedes off the ice, 9-2.
So South Africa should probably be happy with the moral victory. Sometimes those victories are as sweet as any. I play in a "beginners" over-30 co-ed indoor soccer league, with a bunch of other old farts like myself. We're the worst team in the league. The best team should probably play about two league levels above us. The first time we played them, they clobbered us by some ridiculous score like 17-2. If we got the ball past midfield at all we were lucky.
But we noticed as we played them that they had a few weaknesses. So this past Friday, when we met again, we devised a radical game plan to exploit those weaknesses, and make the game competitive. The game plan was one part four-corner offense, one part hockey-style penalty kill, one part man-to-man double-team on their best player, and one part Swedish hockey mentality: play defense defense defense, and move up on offense only if a quick counterattack presents itself.
And it worked! We actually took the lead for a few moments, scoring the first goal of the game. At halftime, we were only down 4-1. We ended up losing 10-4 (I scored a miraculous two-pointer from midfield on a kickoff), but it was the most satisfying loss I've ever been a part of.
Necessity is the mother of invention. We didn't want to be embarrassed again, so we came up with a way to improve ourselves. And I'm sure that in our next game, we'll be a better team because of it.
And maybe that's the best reason of all to have this World Baseball Classic: not to have the Dominicans face the Japanese, but to have the South Africans face the Americans. There was a time when the USA basketball team made fools of every other team in international competition. But those teams didn't like losing so badly, and worked and worked and worked, and improved and improved and improved. It's not an upset anymore when Team USA loses.
Perhaps baseball is where basketball was 30 years ago, with huge imbalances in talent. But if you face that better talent enough, you're going to get better yourself. These South African players are going to go back to South Africa and bring their newly gained knowledge to their teammates and to the next generation of South African baseball players. And then someday, mercy rules won't be necessary.