The Latin Link: Guatemala earns its baseball stripes


Guatemala City celebrates its championship victory in the Senior League World Series. (Bangor Daily News)

The August summer is an important time on the baseball diamond. In the major leagues, it’s often a turning point for the season’s “Cinderella” teams in the marathon race toward the postseason. In a kid’s world, August means that underdog clubs surviving the grind now get a chance to perform on a world stage. And a confident bunch of teenagers from Guatemala made the most of their opportunity.

Led by a balanced squad that featured excellent pitching, defense and timely hitting, Guatemala City defeated Lemon Grove, California, 6-3, in last weekend’s Senior League World Series championship game in Bangor, Maine. It was an unbelieveable accomplishment for a country that has never produced a major league player, but now has proved there is talent ripe for the picking. That’s why this triumph is worth a belated shout out. There were several players on the winning side in this 14-17 year old group who could have promising professional careers, or perhaps gain a free ride to a prominent university.

Guatemala City’s starting pitcher, Alejandro Amezquita, who featured a rolling curveball and a much better change-up, struggled with his control in the early going. But the lanky right-hander was aided by a pair of slick double plays started by third baseman Fernando Valls and shortstop Fabian Vizcaino. That’s when a seemingly frustrated California team played into Amezquita’s hands, first-pitch swinging into outs rather than trying to work the count. Meanwhile, Vizcaino and Julio Alvarado helped the Central Americans overcome an early deficit to pull away in the third inning and regain the momentum, never looking back.

The powerful team from Lemon Grove, an eastern suburb of San Diego that boasts “The Best Climate On Earth,” had their chances. But despite key hits by scrappy Frankie Nunez and Esteban Lieras that produced runs, the United States western champs kept shooting themselves in the foot with poor plate discipline and base-running blunders. A rally by Lemon Grove in the bottom of the sixth was cut short by Valls, a good-looking prospect who came on in relief of Amezquita. Flame-throwing closer Hans Werner slammed the door in the seven inning battle for the upset victory.

The fact that Guatemala went undefeated in this tournament was a tribute to manager Angel Hoyos, a Cuban national , who had his team well prepared. His efforts fine-tuned talent like Vizcaino and outfielder Gabriel Montenegro, a terrific athlete whose mother was a former Olympic swimmer.

Yes, amigos, Central Americans can play baseball at a high level, and Guatemala now joins Nicaragua and Panama as countries who deserve recognition. Hopefully, more stateside scouts and their employers will take notice.

Williamsport notes …

The two Latino teams in the Little League World Series, Mexico and Panama, have been impressive. The kids from Nuevo Laredo hit more big flys than the New York Yankees, and they’ve relied on that strength to battle their way through the loser’s bracket.

The polished Panama squad, led by Edisson and James Gonzalez as well as pint-sized phenom Daniel Cruz, went undefeated in the tournament until being edged 4-1 by Japan. Miami Marlins first baseman Carlos Lee donated $10,000 to the Agua Dulce Little League so Panama could host the Latin America regional series, where the locals defeated favored Venezuela to gain a trip to Williamsport. Ironically, Mexico and Panama ended up facing each other in the semifinals.

What is interesting to me, though, is how youth baseball has become such an international sport. Uganda was the darling of this year’s world event, drawing huge crowds before going two and out. Now, with Africa in the mix along with Europe, Asia and the Americas, I’m wondering when Australia will join the party.

Even teams from the United States were extremely diverse. The Mid-Atlantic youngsters from New Jersey looked like an all-star squad from the United Nations, sporting players of Turkish, Indian, Filipino, Italian and Vietnamese decent. Kids like Emil Matti from that team and New England’s Biagio Paoletta played lights out. But their clubs have now been eliminated.

So, what team stands above the crowd? Japan, of course. This year’s group just has that confident swagger, and a pitching staff that is ridiculously superior. But even though they perform like meticulous robots, the Japanese are human and anything can happen.

That’s why they play the game.

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