In the soccer-loving country of Spain, the land where Futbol Club Barcelona and Real Madrid Club de Futbol reign supreme, there's a Spanish expression used to describe the unpredictable nature of the nation's favorite sport.
La pelota es redonda. The phrase literally translates to "the ball is round," but it means so much more. A round ball sometimes bounces your way, sometimes it rolls in your opponent's favor, and sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own and inexplicably spins out of control.
A baseball, amigos, is also a round ball, and sometimes, a ballclub not only hopes for a few lucky hops, it needs them to win.
Just ask Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti.
In one week, Mazzotti's team will kick off play in the 2013 World Baseball Classic against Puerto Rico in Pool C at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The next day, Spain will face the Dominican Republic before concluding pool play against Venezuela a day later.
Mazzotti is also aware that Pool C is affectionately known as "Grupo De La Muerte," or "Group of Death," which is another soccer term used to describe the toughest grouping in a tournament, but the longtime manager in Italy and former European scout with the Mariners and Astros is ready for the challenge.
And for the record, Cenicienta is Spanish for Cinderella.
"We will play with no pressure, even though no other group has the MVP of the American League [Venezuela's Miguel Cabrera] and MVP of the World Series [Venezuela's Pablo Sandoval] and so many Dominican big leaguers and Puerto Rico playing at home," Mazzotti, 53, said. "But the pressure will be on them for sure. These countries want to arrive to the finals. USA, who organized the tournament, has not made it, and Venezuela and Dominican have not made it, either. All these teams are focused on making it and looking good. We will play inning by inning without looking at the scoreboard."
It's a minor miracle the team from Spain has made it this far. Last year, Mazzotti and his staff scoured the Cactus, Grapefruit and instructional leagues in search of players who would be interested in playing for the country. They also reached out to all 30 big league clubs and several agents, and spread the word that Spain was looking for talent.
"I coached with Team Italy in 2006, and it was easy to try to identify potential Minor and Major League players because of their last names, but this time it was a way more difficult job," said Mazzotti, who won European Manager of the Year last year. "There are a lot of Gonzalezes, Hernandezes and familiar last names on rosters, but they can be Spanish, Mexican, Cuban or Venezuelan or something else. And some people with Spanish roots didn't even meet the qualifications."
According to World Baseball Classic guidelines, a player is eligible to play if he or either of his parents was born in, has a passport from, or is/was otherwise a citizen of the relevant country. In addition, a player qualifies if he is eligible to receive a passport.
In Spain's case, the country allows for dual citizenship, making it easy for people from Ibero-American countries to acquire citizenship through a short residency in Spain. A person could also gain citizenship if his spouse is a Spanish citizen.
Also coming into play was Spain's law known as Ley de Memoria Historica. It's a provision that allows a person whose grandparents were exiled from Spain to acquire citizenship. Due to the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship, Spaniards who left Spain between July 18, 1936, and Dec. 31, 1955, were presumed exiled under the law.
Several of the players selected to play for Spain have Spanish passports, but many qualified for the World Baseball Classic because of their wives, parents or grandparents.
"Soccer is the main sport, but baseball is popular in Spain," Mazzotti said. "Spain is a country in Europe that has a lot of Latin American immigration, and that leads to a lot of families from different countries like Venezuela, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Cuba whose parents love baseball so the kids play baseball. There are also a lot of guys that move over there and get citizenship."
Of the 28 players on Spain's roster, 20 are not affiliated with Major League clubs, making Texas outfielder Engel Beltre and Houston pitcher Rhiner Cruz, who were both born in Santo Domingo, the most familiar names on the team. Veteran outfielder Matt Diaz, arguably the most recognizable player with Spanish roots in the big leagues, did not meet eligibility requirements. Spain also reached out to St. Louis outfielder Jon Jay and Seattle's Raul Ibanez but neither could commit to playing.
"We're excited," Beltre said. "We're going to go over there and see what happens. Baseball can be crazy."
It's already been quite a ride.
Last September, Spain beat France and South Africa in the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Jupiter, Fla. They lost to Israel, 4-2, in their second game of the tournament but defeated them, 9-7, in 10 innings in a rematch in the championship game to qualify for Puerto Rico.
"We knew that Israel on paper was the best team, because they had a Triple-A and Double-A All-Star team and everybody thought they would qualify," Mazzotti said. "But baseball is baseball. The baseball is round and it goes where it wants. Spain was not expected to win. It's funny. I'm not sure they wanted us at the qualifier, and look where we are now."
Spain can look to the Netherlands for inspiration. In 2009, the Dutch team beat the Dominican Republic twice in the first round of the World Baseball Classic in Puerto Rico before it was eventually eliminated by the United States in the second round.
Holland, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Sweden and Spain are all considered hotbeds for baseball in Europe.
"If I tell the guys that we want to win the whole thing, they might look at me like I'm crazy," Mazzotti said. "Right now, we are concentrating on scoring versus Puerto Rico in the first game. In baseball, anything can happen on any given day."