Contact hit: Philippine baseball finally gets noticed

Baseball in the Philippines just needs a little push. (Getty Images)

It sort of brings back memories from 2010, when the Azkals first started making noise in the international scene. All it needed was a televised win and the rest eventually fell into place, not only for the footballers, but for a nation united behind the sport.

When I heard that Solar Sports was going to broadcast the qualifiers for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), I felt that it was the sluggers' turn to shine. True enough, after the "Aguilas" trounced Southeast Asian titlists Thailand, 8-2 (despite the presence of World Series champion Johnny Damon), a new captive audience practically dropped everything to witness if the boys could duplicate that feat against the #8 team in the world, host nation Chinese-Taipei.

Of course, the Taiwanese gave us the royal spanking (16-0 halted by the Mercy Rule) which set up an all-or-nothing match against New Zealand. I hope everyone appreciated the effort (despite eight errors) in the uphill struggle against the Kiwis. Because in spite of the 10-6 score line, the Pinoys showed a lot of chutzpah going up against a squad that had more arsenal and technology as well as support.

You can argue that we were already beefed up by the celebrated pitching phenom Geno Espinelli and Major League Baseball (MLB) farm campaigners Chad Nacapoy, Devon Martinez and Ryan Pineda while Tim Lincecum and Clay Rapada gave us the cold shoulder.

You can argue that the showing against New Zealand exposed a lot of weaknesses—basic weaknesses, in terms of defense and teamwork.

You can argue that pitching crew was not even close to the level that Chinese-Taipei brought to the table. You can argue all you want, and play Monday morning quarterback (or in this case, Weekend PSA Chair) to your negative heart's content, but the bottomline is clear: for one brief moment—when the Aguilas were shellacking the Thais—the nation came together to rally behind a team not in the popular consciousness.

The success the Azkals attained a few years back was also the result of a zillion initial setbacks. For the Aguilas, we have the tools to make the same waves.

Baseball, like soccer, suits the natural build of the Filipino: height is not a required advantage (unless you look at the imposing figure a Randy Johnson brings to the mound), speed and reflexes are a premium and being under the sun (the very hot tropical sun) works out well for our team.

The Philippine baseball team, known as the "Aguilas", are struggling to catch up with Asian powerhouses Japan, …

A couple of generations ago, the Philippines was considered the hotbed of baseball in Asia, so much so that the Bambino himself (that would be Babe Ruth) along with Lou Gehrig travelled halfway around the globe seeking the next great baseball sensation from the region on our very shores. I've been told stories of the Japanese during World War II taking Filipino baseball Prisoners of War (POWs) back to their homeland to teach the sport to a then fledgling minority.

Some Nomos, Matsuis and Ichiros later, they're the most dominant country in Asia, now hotly pursued by Korea and the aforementioned Taiwanese. But, like its brothers on the pitch, the Philippine baseball community is just a few baby steps away from reclaiming its rightful place in the region.

Take the pitchers, for instance: Jon-Jon Robles—the winning hurler in that victory over Thailand—was recruited by a club team in the Czech Republic and saw action for one season with the Arrows Ostrava. Charlie "The Mad Dog" Labrador issues 90 MPH fastballs while lefties Vlady Eguia and the versatile Joseph Orellana have been known to go over a hundred pitches and still have bites on their curveballs. As far as fielders go, Jonash Ponce and Saxon Omandac are extremely quick for outfielders while Francis Candela and Jennald Pareja are solid examples of the vaunted quickness of the PH infield.

It can be noted that many candidates for our Aguilas are scattered all over the world and bringing them in could be a tough task. But the Azkals have shown that once the word gets out, the hidden gems begin revealing themselves. There are several talented aspirants lurking in the college scene. There is also a handful in the provinces.

What keeps these players from being discovered? My guess is it's a lack of visibility for a program that can do great things once exposure is on a constant level. Prior to 2010, soccer was there, but it took the Azkals to elevate it to the stature it enjoys today. What Solar Sports did in showing the Filipino the WBC qualifiers is the shot in the arm that Philippine baseball may need.

Baseball Philippines, a community-based league formed in 2008, is another entity that hopes to spurn public interest in a sport where the Philippines can compete on the world stage. Its upcoming season begins in March of 2013. Maybe if the games there are brought to the sports-hungry Filipino aficionado via more television exposure, we could be in for another Renaissance in another long under-appreciated discipline.

Hopefully, the efforts of our Aguilas in the WBC spark a new awareness. We've made first contact already. Let's help close this inning with a walk-off home-run.

Follow Noel on Twitter: @NoelZarate

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.

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