Monday, April 29, 2013

The Tightening of the Laces: Donald Lutz and the Emerging European Game

Baseball is America's pastime. While that implies a sense of ownership of the game, recent memory will prove quite the contrary. We have the World Baseball Classic as an example. Detractors will spout cliches of how the United States players do not want to participate, but in the end the world still makes a case. Japan, with an organized and respected baseball league of nearly a century, won the first to Classic titles. This year, it was the Dominican Republic atop the baseball world. Both countries are established goldmines of talent. But what about the 'lesser' countries? Those nations just planting their respective flag in the baseball landscape; Spain, Brazil, and Germany. Traditional soccer powerhouses are growing into baseball upstarts.

Tonight, for the first time in Major League history, a German player stepped onto the field. While Donald Lutz was actually born in America, he moved to Germany as a baby. He pinch hit for the Cincinnati Reds tonight. Jackie Robinson he is not, Lutz is still a pioneer in his own right. European baseball is growing, and global access to MLB games has greatly increased the visibility of the sport. To see a player from Germany get a shot in the big leagues can have a lasting ripple effect. In the years since the 2009 World Baseball Classic, baseball play in Holland has increased greatly, even if a majority of the players are only Dutch by association. Most of the Dutch national team is comprised of players hailing from the Caribbean Netherlands Antilles.

Lutz is truly a global ballplayer. In 2010, he spent time in the Australian Baseball League as a member of the Canberra Cavalry. While his call-up from double-A Pensacola was an under-the-radar roster move, the significance of another nation creeping on to the big league stage is not lost on me. I started watching baseball in the early 1990's, when Japanese imports were a rare and mysterious breed. The Latin American contingent, spearheaded by the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, had already found a foothold and were a constant staple of everyday baseball. Now, twenty-plus years later, baseball has seen an influx of Korean, Cuban, and Taiwanese talent.

Like the vines that climb the walls of Wrigley, baseball is branching out. The leaves and twigs are binding to places they've never been. Tonight the game changed, if only for one quick groundout. In the ever-shrinking stretch of horizon, Donald Lutz is a forerunner for a game that is becoming just as new and special in Europe as it was here, Japan, and Latin America many years ago.

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