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South Africa takes to a new diamond

The 20,000 to 1 underdog is actually paying to play in the first World Baseball Classic.

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Everybody else may view these guys as classic underdogs. But this beefy team of hurlers and hitters from South Africa - entered in the first World Baseball Classic - see themselves as sitting on top of the world.

These young men are not only from a very different continent half a world away, where baseball is a distant fourth to rugby, soccer, and cricket. But they're from another universe than those like Derek Jeter or Roger Clemens, who play for multimillion-dollar contracts.

The South Africans are not paid to play professional baseball. In fact, they have to pay in order to play. That's right.

Each of these young men, who work up through their country's nascent junior system to senior baseball, must pony up $80 to $100 each month to support their professional organization.

Still, there's not a squad happier to take the field here nor more delighted to be playing at the level they are this week. "It is an awesome experience for each and every one of us," says Sean Campbell, who can't seem to erase the broad smile from his face. The lead South African coach has 30 years of experience playing and coaching on South African teams. "It's the pinnacle of our careers for the coaches and players alike to come here and live life like big leaguers for three weeks."

That sentiment reverberates throughout this team as clearly as the crack of bat on ball in private interviews, team practices, and its first World Baseball Classic (WBC) game against Canada Tuesday night. Canada won 11-8, but the South Africans took the lead early and held it close until the 9th inning.

For them, that is disappointing, but still a huge success. Pitching coach Lee Smith, a former major league reliever, couldn't be prouder of the way this team has come together.

"You're talking about guys here who play 25 to 30 games a season compared with 160 in our major leagues," Smith says. "They don't have facilities like we have here. You should have seen them when they got here - they were taking pictures of the grass on the fields."


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