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03/30/2008 Archived Entry: "WORLD BASEBALL TODAY: Vol. 2, No. 13"

by Bruce Baskin, Radio Miami International

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Florida Marlins are not expected to be among the teams battling for National League East supremacy this season, but one player who is a key to any possible success is shortstop Hanley Ramirez. The 24-year-old Ramirez was already a major part of the Marlins offense, but will now be relied on even more after Florida traded slugger Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers in the offseason. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez says he’d like to see a little more power from Ramirez in 2008, even if it comes at the expense of his base-stealing prowess.
Ramirez has swiped 51 stolen bases in each of his first two seasons in the major leagues, but Gonzalez says, “The more you attempt to steal, even if you don’t steal, you’re diving back to first base. You’re getting beaten up pretty good. Hopefully, the home runs go up and the stolen bases go down.” Gonzalez envisions Ramirez as a player who “hits .300, hits you 30 homers, and has a chance to drive in a lot of runs.”

The Tampa Bay Rays have unveiled their plans for a new retractable-roof, 34,000-seat open-air waterfront ballpark that could open as early as 2012. After ten years of playing indoors in one of the least-attractive venues in the majors, the Rays have pledged that the $450 million facility would require no new taxes. It would be built on the site of historic Al Lang field, a longtime spring training and minor league ballpark.
The proposed stadium would have the smallest upper deck in the majors and, like the ballpark in San Francisco, home runs hit over the right field wall would land in the water. During a recent news conference, Tampa Bay slugger Carlos Pena stood at the approximate location of home plate and drilled a pitch from Rays coach Tom Foley into the water. The roof of the new ballpark would produce an umbrella effect, retaining the open-air feel while maintaining views of the bay from the stands.
The Rays currently play in Tropicana Field, which opened as a multipurpose stadium in 1990 in order to attract a major league team. A lot of things would need to happen before the new ballpark could be built, including the passage of a proposed referendum to build it on the Lang Field site. Tropicana Field would be redeveloped into a retail and residential district.

Although he’s known for over a month that he’d be the Atlanta Braves opening day starter, Tim Hudson went into last week’s exhibition schedule not having received verbal affirmation that he’d be throwing the first pitch. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox finally confirmed publicly that Hudson would be given the fifth opening day assignment of his career when the Braves play in Washington Sunday at the Nationals’ new ballpark. Cox also announced that returning veteran Tom Glavine would pitch Monday’s home opener against Pittsburgh. It’ll be Glavine’s first regular season appearance for the Braves since 2002 after spending the past five seasons pitching for the New York Mets. Another longtime pitcher, John Smoltz, will likely open the season on the disabled list due to shoulder concerns. He’s expected to be reactivated by next weekend.

The Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics opened the 2008 season with a pair of games in Japan last week. The two teams split their set played in the Tokyo Dome, starting with last Tuesday’s 6-5 Boston win in a ten-inning contest. Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka allowed a pair of runs in five innings while struggling with control problems. Hideki Okajima came on in the ninth inning for Boston and nailed down the win as the Sox were forced to come from behind twice to send the game into overtime. Boston’s Manny Ramirez drove in four runs with a pair of two-run doubles.
Oakland came back one day later to whack Boston by a 5-1 count as Rich Harden struck out nine Bosox batters over six innings while newcomer Emil Brown clubbed a third-inning three-run homer off Boston starter Jon Lester. Brown joined the A’s in the offseason as a free agent after three seasons with Kansas City. Harden held the 2007 World Series champions to one run on four hits to take the win, while Lester was pinned with the loss after allowing four runs on five hits over four innings of work.

Veteran right-handed pitcher Masumi Kuwata announced his intention to retire last week after his attempt to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season fell short. The 39-year-old Kuwata revealed that Pirates general manager Neil Huntington has told him the team would not give him a shot at pitching in the majors after Kuwata had signed a minor league contract with Pittsburgh in January. As a non-roster invitee, he allowed one run on five hits in five innings for the Pirates over five games.
Kuwata began his professional career with the Yomiuri Giants in 1986 out of high school, and posted double digits in wins over six consecutive seasons. In his Japanese career, he won 173 games, two ERA titles, one Sawamura Award, one Central League MVP trophy and eight Golden Gloves, all with the Giants. Following the 2006 season, Kuwata was phased out by Yomiuri and decided to pursue a career in the American major leagues, signing a minor league contract with Pittsburgh for 2007. He made his big league debut last June against the New York Yankees. He finished the season with an 0-1 record and a 9.43 ERA for the Pirates in 19 games.

High school baseball in America is a decidedly minor sport, with games attended mostly by parents, friends and occasional scouts. Media attention to prep baseball is usually limited to a few lines in the local newspaper and coverage of individual players in Baseball America, but the game is not a big thing in the USA. Then there’s Japan.
Prep baseball is a national mania in Japan, and nowhere is that more evident than the annual spring Koshien Tournament in Osaka. Koshien is a national competition played in Osaka, with dozens of high school teams playing before tens of thousands of cheering, singing and drum-beating fans in Koshien Stadium. All games are televised across the nation, and time literally stops in towns and cities whose teams are playing. They’ve been playing Koshien for 80 years now, and most of the greatest baseball stars of Japan like Sadaharu Oh, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka became household names before playing their first pro game by playing in it. American college basketball’s March Madness truly pales in comparison.
As Koshien progresses, we’ll keep track of it on World Baseball Today. There’s nothing like this tournament anywhere else in the world.

The Cuban National Series regular season ended last weekend, and the playoffs are now underway. Eight of Cuba’s 16 teams qualified for the postseason, which is split into Eastern and Western groups of four teams apiece. La Habana and defending champion Santiago de Cuba finished tied for the best season record with 61-29 marks.
La Habana was the top team in Group B, and have opened their first round Western playoff series with Group A champion Pinar del Rio, who finished at 45-45. A pair of Group B teams, 53-35 Industriales and 48-40 Sancti Spiritus, are tangling in the other Western semifinal set. In the East, Group D champion Santiago is taking on the 49-41 Las Tunas Lenadores; while Group C winners Villa Clara, who went 55-33, are doing battle with 55-37 Ciego de Avila.
Matanzas’ Yoandy Garlobo won the season batting title with a .398 average, but the big offensive numbers were posted by Santiago’s Alexei Bell, who led the Series in five categories, including 31 homers, 96 runs and 111 RBI. He finished second with 25 stolen bases. Habana’s Yulieski Gonzalez was a perfect 15-0 to lead the series in wins, and struck out a league-best 111 batters. Teammate Jonder Martinez had a microscopic 1.55 ERA, and was the only starter to allow less then two runs per nine innings.

One week into the Mexican League season, three teams have gotten off to great starts with identical 5-1 records. Both the Laguna Vaqueros and Monclova Acereros are sitting on top of the Northern Division standings, while the Yucatan Leones are a half-game ahead of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos in the LMB South. Chihuahua, Puebla, Saltillo and defending champion Monterrey are all 3-3 in the North, trailing Laguna and Monclova by two games each. Minatitlan and Tabasco are tied for third place in the South with 4-2 records, one game out of first.
Mexico City has already made a pair of moves to improve their pitching staff. The Red Devils have picked up hurlers Arturo Lopez and Orlando Lara from the San Diego Padres. Lopez is a veteran who pitched for Mexico in the recent Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Taiwan after winning seven games with a 3.81 ERA for Los Mochis in the Mexican Pacific League this winter. Lara posted a 6-2 record for Mexico City last summer, earning him Mexican League Rookie of the Year honors.

The Korea Baseball Organization began its 27th season Saturday with all eight teams playing opening games. KBO teams will play 126-game schedules in the regular season before embarking on a four-team playoff in September.
The defending champion SK Wyverns are considered the team to beat this year, and a number of KBO managers said as much at a league-wide press conference last week in Seoul. The Doosan Bears are also considered prime contenders despite apparent problems between manager Kyung-moon Kim and his veteran players.
One team expected to be in the mix are the Kia Tigers, who finished last in 2007 with just 57 wins but had the best preseason record in the KBO with a 10-3 mark. Kia has bolstered their lineup with three former major leaguers: Pitchers Jae-weong Seo and Jose Lima, plus infielder Wilson Waldez. The Lotte Giants also expect improvement under new manager Jerry Royster, the first American to manage a Korean pro team.

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