By Dick Kaegel
Phoenix - Carl Michaels was on familiar ground. Way too familiar, if you ask him. Michaels, a right-handed pitcher for South Africa, made his pro debut on the same field where his team was practising at the weekend.
In 2001, Michaels broke in with the Milwaukee Brewers' entry in the Arizona League. They were facing the Athletics almost in the shadows of the craggy mountains of Papago Park.
"We were up in the game by three and they scored one run off me," Michaels said. "We won by two and I got the save anyway."
But gosh, he won't forget that one run, a homer by the A's clean-up hitter whose name, at least, Michaels has mercifully forgotten.
The first pro pitch he threw came back like a rocket. "He smashed it," Michaels laughed. "It went about 200m. To me, that ball was never going to come down."
That's something he'll try to avoid in the World Baseball Classic when he'll be facing Canada and the USA. Michaels might start both games against Canada's Adam Loewen and USA's Roger Clemens.
South Africa's primary pitching duties are to be divided between Michaels and Barry Armitage. Darryn Smith is to start the middle game against Mexico.
Going against the Rocket and facing such big names as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez of the USA holds a certain amount of intrigue for Michaels. That's fast company for a guy who never made it past Class A.
"It will be more overwhelming to play against guys you've watched so many times," Michaels said. "That's the ultimate goal, to play against the big leaguers. That will be special."
Michaels warmed up with a scoreless inning on Saturday against an A's split squad. He gave up one hit, a single. The A's surged to a 13-1 victory. But Michaels faced just three hits, ending his inning with a double-play grounder by Jeremy Brown.
"I'm hoping he gets the opportunity to hook up with another (US) club," pitching coach Lee Smith said. "I think he can help another ballclub. He throws strikes."
A right-handed rail who throws a fastball and slider, Michaels' three years with the Brewers ended with a knee injury. "He throws an upper-80s fastball with a strong slider and keeps the ball down," SA team manager Rick Magnante said. "He's a competitive kid."
SA's fixtures (Scottsville, Arizona):
Wednesday: SA vs Canada (TV: ESPN 4am)
Thursday: SA vs Mexico
Friday: SA vs US