08 March 2013

World Baseball Classic 2013: Spain

This is the sixth in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and the USA.

The body of the Spain article was written by Stuart Wallace.

IBAF Ranking (out of 74) 16th
2013 Pool Puerto Rico

Dominican Republic

2013 Players of Note Rhiner Cruz, RHP

Eric Gonzalez, RHP

Paco Figueroa, INF

Engel Beltre, OF

Danny Figueroa, OF

2009 Record NA
2006 Record NA

Not a baseball powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, Spain nonetheless has enjoyed a fleeting dalliance with the game, most of it arising from its colonial influences in the Americas and Caribbean. One only needs to check out Baseball Reference and search for players born in Spain to see that the history of the game in the country is sparse. In many respects, Al Cabrera, the first player with Spanish roots to play in the MLB, set the tone for baseballing Spaniards to follow, including those we see manning the Spain roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In actuality a Canary Islander, Cabrera had a brief tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1913, going 0 for 2 for the day, before calling it a day in the MLB. He then went on to play and manage another twenty years in the Cuban Leagues, and was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1942. While not necessarily a Spaniard in the truest sense, Spain has nonetheless taken liberties to call players like Cabrera their own, and parlay it into developing the baseball nation we see today. 

As foreshadowed by the Cabrera reference, Spain's baseball roots were planted, nurtured, and brought to fruition by Cuba's zealous passion for and following of the game. Spain had its initial exposure to the game by Cubans in the late 19th Century, during the island nation's struggle for independence against its colonial rulers. The Spaniards did not think much of the game initially, going so far as to ban baseball in Cuba, as they struggled to maintain control of the country. In spite of its initial distaste for the game, Spain did see games played locally, thanks to soldiers returning from Cuba bringing home the game, with competitions first seen in Barcelona in 1901, and Madrid in 1903. From the banning of the game in Cuba, to the notion that the game was considered somewhat barbaric and violent by the Spanish ruling elite, baseball sat dormant in the minds of those on the Iberian Peninsula until the late 1940's, when the descendants of Cuban immigrants began to play the game across the country in earnest. While still a nation whose sporting landscape is dominated by soccer, basketball, and bullfighting, Spain saw an uptick in interest and popularity of the peasant's game, with teams being formed and funded by many of the sports clubs better known for their soccer squads. Post World War II, clubs like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid found themselves fielding baseball teams along with their more popular soccer squads. With the formation of these domestic teams and the start of competition in the Campeonato de España also came the formation of a governing body - La Federacion Española de Béisbol. By the 1950's, baseball had truly gained a following in Spain; however, this increase in participation and interest in the sport nationally was quickly swept away. With the ushering in of the TV age, came another drop in interest in baseball, as the country's minds and eyes turned to televised soccer, in particular First Division Spanish League 'La Liga' games. What little traction baseball had gained in the late 1940's and 1950's had all but dissipated by the 1970's.
Yet, the few survivors from the teams formed in the early days soldiered on, and led to the formation of the baseball leagues we see today in the country – the top División de Honor and the Primera División. Set up similar to the soccer leagues in Europe, the División de Honor is considered the premier league, with the worst performing team each year relegated to the Primera División, and the top team from the Primera promoted to the División de Honor. Within the 10 team División de Honor, play is normally on the weekends, with each team playing a home and away game on the same day, in a double round robin format. With no playoffs, the top four squads then play for the Copa del Rey, with the winner going on to represent Spain in the European Cup. In an interesting twist not unlike that seen in the Italian Baseball League, the second game of each series must have pitchers that are eligible to play for the Spanish National Team. Among the teams in the league, the Barcelona area Viladecans is by far the most popular and the most successful, having enjoyed a 21 season championship run from 1981-2002. Viladecans is also unique in developing and fielding local talent, on top of recruiting foreign players for their roster.
Internationally, Spain successes have been few and far between. After winning the European Championship in 1955, Spain didn't see a baseball championship until 1978, in the form of a European Cup victory. In the years since, Spain has finished 8th in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, and a 3rd place finish in the 2007 European Championships; 2013 will be the nation's first foray into WBC play.
With respect to the WBC, Spain is most definitely the underdog in Pool C, sharing the field with international top dogs Venezuela, host Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Yet, the opportunity is there to play spoiler, due to their roster heavily influenced by the likes of Cuban, Venezuelan, and American players eligible to play for Spain under WBC criteria. With only one player on the WBC roster considered a Spaniard – pitcher and Canary Islander Eric Gonzalez – the team's fortunes lie almost completely in the hands of such imports like University of Miami alums Paco and Danny Figueroa, Cuban defector Barbaro Canizares, and Dominican flamethrower Rhiner Cruz, who pitched a handful of innings last year with the Houston Astros. While the potential to win is present, albeit slim for Spain, the focus should not be on the win/loss column, but more on exposing the team and the nation to elite baseball. There is an opportunity to not only continue to recruit high performing players with Spanish ties to play for the team, but also to challenge other European squads such as Italy and the Netherlands for the title of Europe's best baseball team. In order to do that, it will take an approach much like the local Viladecans squad, where the time and effort has been put into the scouting and development of local talent, versus relying solely on imports to win games. With only one Spaniard player on the roster, and at that, a Canary islander, the impetus is upon Team España to cultivate the game on the Iberian Peninsula, if they are to build upon their 16th place IBAF world rank. In spite of being rivals in so many ways, Spain could possibly take a look at how Italy has developed their local talent, using a unique set of rules in their professional league that is geared towards developing national talent, and providing playing experience in preparation for international competition. Overall, Spain has a long way to go in becoming a top baseball nation, but the seeds planted in their colonial past are ready to bloom.

No comments: