Espineli sees promise for baseball in Philippines
Geno Espineli didn't grow up in the Philippines. It didn't register with the lefty that he could make a significant impact in the country of his ancestry until he made it to the Majors, with the Giants, in 2008.
"Up until that point, I had not really thought about how baseball is viewed in the Philippines," said Espineli, who was born and raised in Texas. "I had just assumed that baseball was popular globally. The sport has meant so much to me and my life. I wanted to go over there and see how I could help out in any way."
Espineli, now 30, went to the Philippines and held a free, day-long clinic in Manila, the country's capital. The turnout was beyond anything he expected, and he moved from group to group for five hours.
He talked of his journey to the Majors -- from winning a national championship at the University of Texas to being drafted by the Giants in the 14th round in 2004 -- and he took mental notes.
The talent he saw was more than he expected.
"What surprised me the most that day was the amount of ability that some of the younger kids had," he said. "The thing they did not have was the facilities or equipment to foster their development in the future. I left that day feeling good about the enthusiasm for baseball, but frustrated about the amount of support given to these kids compared to other, more popular sports."
Plenty of kids want to play baseball in the Philippines, but between a lack of facilities and funding, that can be difficult.
"I left the Philippines vowing to continue to help spread baseball's popularity," Espineli said. "I also said I hoped to one day play on a Philippine baseball team on a global stage to show that we can compete with any country. That day has come."
Espineli was contacted in August about playing for Team Philippines in a World Baseball Classic qualifier, and he "did not hesitate a second."
Espineli is looked upon as a leader on the team that's hoping for a bid into the main tournament. He hasn't been in the Majors since that 2008 season, when he went 2-0 with a 5.06 ERA in 15 relief appearances. But certainly, a good showing in the Classic would help his chances of a return.
He knows, too, that a good showing could help the future of the sport in a country he loves. He's graduating with a degree in sport management this year, and that knowledge will allow him to run facilities, leagues and tournaments.
"We hope that our team's success can show the Philippines that their younger generation can develop into great athletes," he said, "especially if given adequate opportunities to enhance their skills.
"I hope to return to the Philippines in the future with other [Filipino-American] players in tow. I see great opportunity to build and expand the sport from the ground up. With my education, and along with the help of others dedicated to baseball's growth, the foundation exists to help grow the sport. It starts with more fields with adequate lighting. It involves encouraging all kids to play sports, not just baseball or basketball. We need coaches with the right training. We need to find athletes that have the determination and ability to succeed in baseball, and we need to put our support behind them."
Thailand, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei are the Philippines' opponents in the qualifier, a modified, six-game double-elimination tournament in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
The Philippines' first game in the qualifier is scheduled against Thailand -- and Johnny Damon -- for 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Xinzhuang Stadium. New Zealand and Chinese Taipei are scheduled for a 5:30 a.m. ET game that day as well.
The winner of this qualifier is to be crowned by Nov. 18.
Two four-team qualifiers were held in September: one in Jupiter, Fla., (Spain advanced) and another in Regensburg, Germany (Canada advanced).
One other qualifier, in Brazil, will run concurrently with the one in Taiwan. Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua are participating.
The 16-team World Baseball Classic begins on March 2 at four locations: Fukuoka, Japan; Taichung, Taiwan; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Phoenix. The championship round is scheduled for March 17-19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco -- where Espineli debuted in the Majors on July 20, 2008.
"I couldn't have been more proud as I looked into the stands and saw my family and fiancé clapping in joy," he said. "I have been blessed to play the highest level of baseball, a sport that I will love until the day I die. I see others in the Philippines with that kind of passion, and I don't want to see that wasted. Countries like Taiwan have five times less the population of the Philippines, but the level of baseball interest and development is much greater. There is no reason that Filipino athletes cannot be world-class. I believe we have the talent. I just hope that one day I can see that talent blossom into more professional athletes."