Armitage a diamond for South Africa

KC prospect Armitage a diamond for South Africa

PHOENIX -- So there Allard Baird was, at a ballfield in Durban, South Africa, early in 2000. The Royals were holding a tryout camp. They'd never signed a South African player and they might dig out a diamond.

Someone told him excitedly that he knew a pitcher that could throw 90 mph. Yeah, sure, thought Baird, bring him over.

The local rushed to an athletic footwear shop where Barry Armitage was working.

"A friend of mine said the Royals were having a tryout. He said I should go over there because they hadn't seen anything that really caught their eye yet," Armitage recalled.

There was a problem. This was about 4 in the afternoon, a busy time for the shoe store. Armitage approached his boss.

"He said, 'OK, you've got pretty much 20 minutes,'" Armitage said.

Off he went to see Baird.

"I asked him, 'How long is this going to take? I've only got 20 minutes,' " Armitage said. "I think that's the funny part of the story, that I told the then-assistant general manager how much time I had, not how much time he needed."

Armitage reeled off his 90 mph fastball, then Baird asked him if he had a curve.

"I have a drop," he said.

Close enough, and quickly the Royals had their first South African player signed -- for a plane ticket, no bonus. Armitage, on the Double-A Wichita roster, is about to launch his seventh season with the Royals.

As an intriguing aside, he'll be pitching for South Africa against Canada in the World Baseball Classic on Tuesday night at Scottsdale Stadium.

Team manager Rick Magnante isn't sure who will start but it'll be either Armitage or Carl Michaels. But both are scheduled to pitch because of the Classic's 50-pitch limit.

"Apparently, I'm pitching against Canada and the USA. Whether I'm starting or relieving, that has yet to be decided," Armitage said.

And the USA pitcher in Friday's game is supposed to be a young fella named Roger Clemens.

Compared to the future Hall of Famer, Armitage is a baby. He was a reliever last season for Wichita, going 4-3 with a 3.87 ERA.

"He made some big strides, keeping the ball down and throwing a good slider," Wichita manager Frank White said. "He's got a good, competitive spirit."

Armitage came by that naturally.

"I guess that came from being out of South Africa. The first time I came over, I met a lot of guys that kind of looked at me and thought, 'OK, he's not as good as us because obviously he hasn't played the same kind of baseball,'" Armitage said.

"I didn't want to be looked at as kind of a charity thing. I wanted to show them right off the bat that I could compete with everybody else, regardless of my background."

Armitage, 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, last spring became the first South African to play in any kind of a Major League contest. He pitched an inning for the Royals against the Astros in an exhibition game at Houston.

Proud? Yes, especially coming from a country where cricket and rugby are king.

"I am," he said, "but it's not enough. ... I want to be the first South African to play in a real game because it'll bring much more publicity to baseball. Maybe kids who decided they want to play rugby and cricket can think, 'Hey, maybe I can go play in the Major Leagues,' and we can keep some players in the game."

And, just think, it all began with a 20-minute break from the shoe store.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.