Play ball? South Africa's been doing it since 1896

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 05, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- So, it's opening day of the baseball season in the United States. My heart might be at Camden Yards, but my rear end is on a hard metal bleacher at the Randburg Sports Park.

OK, it's not the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals; it's the Transvaal Lions and the Natal Pumas. And the crowd is about 47,424 fewer than the number that packed Camden Yards yesterday.

The outfield fence is an arc of orange cones out between the rugby goal posts. The crack of the bat is the ping of aluminum.

But it's still baseball. It's the Lions' right fielder streaking across the grass to pull in a few hard-hit line drives. Or their third baseman making a couple of diving stabs, getting up and pegging strikes to first.

It's chatter from the dugouts (actually, small caged-in areas) and some well-turned 6-4-3 double plays.

And, for an American who has spent almost a year learning about wickets and square legs and off stumps (those are cricket terms), it is a blissful two hours in the sun.

For South Africa, this is big-time baseball. It's the last week of the Smirnoff Night Ball series, an attempt to popularize the game by introducing a revolutionary concept -- baseball under the lights.

Most of the matches are day-night doubleheaders between provincial all-star teams picked from squads that play in the leagues in each province. The level of play is about what you'd expect from good college teams, maybe single A minor-leaguers.

But most of the players are in their mid-20s, far beyond prospect status. There's no money involved, a little travel -- a national squad is going to France in a few weeks -- a little glory.

The bottom line is that these guys play baseball for the right reason -- they love it. If there was one aspect that made the Randburg Sports Center seem like home, it was just that, a love of the game of baseball, which has been played in South Africa since 1896 when it was brought over by a group of American miners. It's one of the oldest organized sports in the country.

Charles Jackson, the Pumas' gray-bearded manager, has been involved since he was a kid and coaching for the last 30 years. Almost everyone on his team he coached in Little League.

"This game is the game to teach you about life," he says. "Everything that can happen, it all happens in baseball. But the important thing is that you get knocked down, you have a chance to pick yourself up and come back the next time, the next inning.

"That's why I think, for the nonwhites in this country, this is the game they should be playing."

With the exception of one player from the so-called "colored," or mixed-race community, the field is all white. Baseball is most popular in the Cape Town area, where most coloreds live, and it is played by many colored teams there.

But it has yet to make inroads in the black community, where soccer reigns and cricket is growing. South African baseball awaits its Jackie Robinson.

Across the field, there's a familiar accent coming from the Lions bench. Paul Kindt grew up in Connecticut and was drafted by the Red Sox as a first baseman. A bum knee kept him out of pro ball. He came to South Africa with a college all-star team in 1976, liked it and stayed.

"I'm just trying to give back something to the game," he said of his coaching. Indeed, it's hard to find coaches in a country where few dads know the infield fly rule from a close play at second.

Even though it's fall in South Africa, the baseball leagues are about to start. It's played over the winter in an attempt to attract cricketers during their off season. Mr. Jackson will now start coaching his local Durban team -- called the Orioles.

Yesterday's game was not without drama. The Lions got two runs in the second, another in the third. The Pumas scratched out a run, but then the Lions added another.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Pumas put men on second and third with nobody out. After a strikeout, Mr. Kindt ordered an intentional walk. The next Puma batter dutifully hit into a double play.

The matter was settled in the top of the eighth with a towering two-run homer that cleared the cones in deep center. The final score was 6-1.

Behind the backstop, a bunch of kids were playing with bats and balls, but they were the tools of cricket, not baseball.

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