Sunday, April 5, 2009 springtime = swingtime: leagues opening ’09 season

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Springtime has arrived, which means several baseball leagues around the world are opening their 2009 regular seasons, including Major League Baseball.

The World Champion Philadelphia Phillies will host the Atlanta Braves Sunday in the first game of the season, an honor that used to go to Cincinnati (home of baseball’s first fully professional team). All other MLB teams will begin playing for real Monday.

The regular season has already begun in other countries. In Taiwan, the President Lions topped the Brother Elephants, 5-1, in the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s lidlifter last Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 10,000 in Taipei Municipal Stadium.

The Mexican League is a week into their schedule with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Reynosa Broncos tied for the Northern Zone lead at 6-1, while the Quintana Roo Tigres and Yucatan Leones lead the LMB South with 5-2 records.

In Europe, the Spanish League is three weekends into their season, and the defending champion Puerto Cruz Marlins are unbeaten at 6-0 after sweeping Pamplona last Saturday.


This season, a new video system will be used in all 30 Major League Baseball parks to monitor umpires’ pitch calls. According to the New York Times, a new system called Zone Evaluation will be used to record a pitch’s position in flight from a pitcher’s hand to a catcher’s mitt 20 times, while also recording the umpire’s call of the pitch. Zone Evaluation will replace the QuesTec system, which had been used since 2001 in about one-third of MLB ballparks.

Baseball’s vice president for umpiring, Mike Port, told The Times, “It’s an upgrade from where we were. The umpires don’t want to miss a pitch any more than a batter wants to strike out.” Port added that the World Umpires Association union has approved the change.

When Gary Sheffield whacks the 500th home run of his major league career, it won’t be as a Detroit Tiger. The Detroit Tigers cut the 40-year-old outfielder last week, even though they’ll owe him a guaranteed $14 million salary for this season. The well-traveled Sheffield, who has been on an opening day roster every MLB season since 1989, signed a deal Friday with the New York Mets.

Sheffield struggled to a .225 batting average in 2008 with 19 homers and 57 RBIs. Lifetime, the Florida native is a .292 hitter with 499 homers, 251 stolen bases and 1,633 RBIs.

When Chan-Ho Park signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the offseason, it was because the world champions promised him a fair shot for a berth in their starting rotation. After a solid spring for the Phillies, the team proved as good as their word by penciling in Park as their fifth starter.

Park was 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 21.1 innings this spring. While he was a solid starter between 1994 and 2001, going 78-51 with a 3.74 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he has struggled since then, even spending most of 2007 in the minor leagues. Park was 4-4 with a 3.40 ERA out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in 2008 prior to signing with Philadelphia in January.


ESPN reports dozens of players in the Dominican Republic are being kept there as part of a Major League Baseball probe into allegations of false identifications, bonus kickbacks and performance-enhancing drug smuggling. According to, MLB has officers in Latin countries working with the FBI on investigations “implicating the Chicago White Sox and Washington Nationals.”

The website claims “one MLB official estimates at there are more than 70 young players being detained in the Dominican and other countries.” The article says MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s office became “heavily involved” after White Sox director of player personnel David Wilder’s smuggling of cash into the USA led to an investigation proving kickbacks of bonus money for teenage prospects were paid to people including those serving as de facto agents for the prospects.

The Nationals paid a $1.4 million bonus in 2006 to prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez, but it was discovered the 19-year-old Gonzalez is really 23-year-old Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. Nats GM Jim Bowden has since resigned, but the FBI is continuing its investigation into allegations Bowden skimmed money from Latin player bonuses.


A new movie slated for release this weekend depicts a Dominican baseball prospect making his debut in American minor league baseball. “Sugar” was to be shown Friday at theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with a nationwide release date of April 24.

“Sugar” is a fiction about 19-year-old pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos, who comes from the Dominican Republic to play for the Bridgeport Swing of the Class A Midwest League. It is his first trip outside his native country, and the film focuses on the cultural adjustments Latin prospects are expected to make when they come to America. While the film is about life in the minors, it is not a comedy like “Bull Durham” and there are no Annie Savoys in it. Thank God.

Whatever one thinks of straight-shooting Bobby Valentine, they can’t say he lacks confidence. Valentine is a former major league player and manager now entering the final year of his contract with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League. While he’s not sure of where he’ll be next year, he’d like a crack at changing the United States’ fortunes in the next World Baseball Classic.

Valentine said last week the first thing he’d do as manager of Team USA in 2013 is bring in players with more of a desire to win the event. “It seems like there’s a little more passion and a little more desire to do your best from the Japanese players,” Valentine said. He went on to say he would interview players prior to the next WBC to determine who would work harder to win the tournament.

Valentine, a former outfielder who managed the New York Mets to the 2000 National League pennant is in his sixth season with the Marines, who he led to a title in 2005. His contract with the team is reportedly worth $3.9 million this season, and is not expected back in 2010 because of the global economic crisis.


A 17-year-old high school girl made history by pitching against a men’s professional baseball team in Japan. Eri Yoshida, who throws a sidearm knuckleball, made her debut for the Kobe 9 Cruise of the independent Kansai League in a game against the Osaka Gold Villicanes at the Osaka Dome.

Yoshida, who was drafted and signed last winter by the first-year team, faced two batter in the ninth inning in front of 11.592 fans and curiosity-seekers at the 45,000-seat stadium. She walked the first batter she faced on four pitches and allowed a stolen base before she struck out the next batter swinging before being pulled from the contest, which was won by Kobe, 5-0.

Yoshida began playing baseball in the second grade, and wants to emulate Boston’s Tim Wakefield as a successful knuckleball pitcher. Until now, no woman had ever played against a men’s team in Japan, although there was a women’s professional league there in 1950 and 1951.


The 2009 European Cup got underway in Italy last week, but not without concerns about weather and field conditions. While there were no problems getting one group of six teams going in Nettuno or Anzio, poor field conditions forced a change in format in Matino.

The six-team pool in Nettuno and Anzio are Spain’s Puerto Cruz Marlins, Belgium’s Antwerp Royal Greys, Germany’s Regensburg Legionaere, France’s Rouen Huskies, Holland’s Amsterdam Pirates and host Danesi Nettuno. Rouen won their first three games, including an 8-5 shocker over Dutch champion Amsterdam, to take the early lead in round-robin play.

Things didn’t get off to such a smooth start in Matino, where a sloppy field led to cancellation of first-day games and a reconfiguration of competition among their six teams. Instead of a straight round-robin format, the pool was split into two groups with three teams each. Group A consists of Italian League champs T&A San Marino, Spain’s FC Barcelona, and AVG Draci Brno of the Czech Republic; while Group B includes France’s Senart Templiers, Holland’s Corendon Kinheim and Italy’s Fortitudo Bologna. The top two teams from both pools will advance to June’s Euro Cup Final Four.


Although last year’s top two teams are in Italy for this week’s European Cup competition the French Elite League began its 2009 regular season last weekend as the remaining six teams swung into action.

Derek Malikian led the way as Montigny topped Claremont-Ferrand 10-2 in their opening contest. Malikian, who played for Solingen in the German League in 2008, stroked four hits for Montigny, including a home run. Claremont-Ferrand came back to earn a split by winning the second game, also by a 10-2 score. Former Phillies farmhand Ben Pfinsgraff was the winning pitcher for the Arvernes. In other French League action, Stade Toulousain and La Guerche split a two-game series, while Savigny and Barracudas did likewise in their two-game set.

Major League Baseball continues its drive to make inroads in Europe this spring with a series of seven tryout camps across the continent. Players from Sweden to Italy will be auditioning for a chance to attend the 2009 MLB European Academy at the Italian Olympic Training Center in Tirrenia from August 11-29. The first tryout camp will be held April 26 in Stockholm, Sweden, followed by a one-day trial in Rouen, France on April 29 and another in Tirrenia, Italy on April 30. In May, tryout camps will take place in Barcelona, Spain; Prague, Czech Republic; Amsterdam, Holland; and Bad Homburg, Germany.

The various tryout camps will be run by staff members of MLB Europe as well as members of the Major League’s Central Scouting Bureau, although there will be no scouts on hand in Stockholm. In past years, the European Academy has resulted in 28 players signing contracts with MLB organizations. The tryouts will be held for players ranging in age from 15 to 18 who have been nominated by their respective national baseball federations.


According to Matt Smith from Baseball Great Britain, the International Olympic Committee will be considering the reinstatement of seven sports in time for the 2016 Summer Games, including baseball. The IOC will consider the seven sports at an August meeting in Berlin, with five of those being cut from further consideration prior to the IOC Congress in Copenhagen in October.

The original plan was for all seven sports to be voted upon in Copenhagen after presentations were made in Berlin, but the IOC decided to cut the final list from seven to two prior to holding its Congress in Denmark after the subject came up at an IOC executive meeting last month in Denver.

There was an appeal for a joint bid between baseball and softball interests, but International Softball Federation president Don Porter turned his nose up at the idea.

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