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South Africa takes to a new diamond

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Baseball did not take off in South Africa until the late 1990s, when Major League Baseball (MLB) expanded its development program to generate interest there. (The game was first introduced in 1898 by American gold miners.) Rugby, cricket, and soccer remain much more popular, however, mainly because of European colonization of Africa.

But today, between 10,000 and 12,000 youngsters play ball in school programs in nine regions of the country and 18 adult teams compete at the amateur level. The national team, created in 1995, plays in international competitions, such as the Olympics.

"To keep the game going and expand the venue, MLB is trying to create a greater global interest and places to develop big leaguers," says Rick Magnante, a scout for the Oakland Athletics who is managing this South African team.

Magnante traveled to South Africa in January, where the "nucleus" of a national team had formed. He evaluated other players and put together the squad that's playing here.

Magnante is impressed with the team's willingness to learn and their competitive nature. In a practice on Monday, at a field on the fringes of the 1,200-acre Papago Park here, amid towering red sandstone buttes, he ran players through various drills. One is picking off runners at second base. The catcher scoops up the ball and in one quick swoop stands and fires to second base. But the ball moves so swiftly that it rolls between the legs of the second baseman and into the outfield. "One more time, please," Magnante calls.

And on it goes in this very collegial way for nearly three hours. Barry Armitage, one of the top pitchers and one of only two players on this team who has played in the American minor leagues beams as he walks off the field. "My fast ball is pretty good; I'm throwing between 88 and 93 miles per hour," he says.

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