Panama 🇵🇦 is in the World Baseball Classic again for the first time since 2009.
This is huge news for baseball as one of the strongest baseball producing nations is Panama.
While certain nations have become really good in baseball recently, Panama is unique in that it produces its own players, and has one of the highest amounts of historic and current Major League Baseball players.
For example, their team for the Qualifiers only featured two players not born in Panama.
Furthermore, Panama is a traditional baseball playing nation. Baseball is Panama’s sport, but it has suffered a lack of representation at the highest level of national team baseball for over a decade.
In the meantime, soccer has gained a foothold in the country with their national team almost qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and then qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
For many in the international community and Panama itself, it seemed that baseball was becoming Panama’s past time. But now, Panama will once again get to see their national baseball team on the world’s greatest stage.
To understand baseball and Panama, one must look at how Panamanian baseball became the best of Central America.
Baseball was brought to Panama before its unified rules were formally created.
According to sources, baseball was brought to Panama as early as the 1850s by American traders and Panama Railroad Company workers, an American company founded in 1855 to connect both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean and North America and South America.
And it was not even until 1858 when baseball first gained its unified and codified rules via the National Association of Base Ball Players. Thus, in many ways, Panamanian baseball predates baseball itself.
During these years, baseball would slowly morph into Panama’s sport.
1883 is generally considered a founding date for Panama Baseball as well, because that is when the historic game between the Panama Cricket and Baseball Club from Panama City played a team from the Chiriqui Province with the Chiriqui team winning.
And, following the 1903 Panamanian independence from Colombia and the subsequent creations of the Panama Canal, and the US territory of the Panama Canal Zone (1903), Panama soon became a hot bed for high level baseball outside the integral US.
Panama and the Panama Canal Zone would become recognized for baseball talent and MLB teams would scout the two locations for potential spring training set-ups.
Eventually, teams did go to play in Panama, but this was largely after World War Two.
In terms of players, Panamanian baseball players largely suffered from the color barrier that did not allow African-Americans in the Major Leagues, so a lot of Panamanians played in the Negro Leagues that came to the USA.
But, by this time, Panama had already founded their own professional baseball league (1945) that along with Cuba’s, Puerto Rico’s, and Venezuela’s, would form the Caribbean Series (1949), which features the champions from prominent winter baseball leagues around Latin America in a tournament championship against each other. This has since grown to more nations and has become much more popular.
Eventually, Panamanians would feature in Major League Baseball by 1955, with Colón-born, Humberto Robinson, pitching for the Milwauke Brewers.
Since then, it has not been unusual to see Panamanians in the MLB.
The widely-regarded two best Panamanian MLB players have been 13x All-Star and 5x World Series Champion, Mariano Rivera, who pitched for the New York Yankees from 1995 to 2013, was the 1999 World Series MVP, and is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Class of 2019), as well as Panama Canal Zone born Panamanian, Rod Carew, who was an 18x All-Star for the Minnesota Twins (1967-1978) and the California Angels (1979-1985), winning the 1977 AL MVP, was a 7x AL Batting Champion (1969, 1972-1975, and 1977-1978), managed both the California/Anaheim Angels (1992-1999) and the Milwauke Brewers (2000-2001), and is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Class of 1991). Mariano Rivera is known as the best closer of all-time with the most career saves in MLB history, while Rod Carew is known as one of the best hitters of all-time, leading the AL in hits three times and in batting average seven times (as mentioned under AL Batting Champion).
These two are not the only star MLB players to come from Panama, and currently, Panama features 9 MLB players and historically has featured 78 MLB players. For a nation with a major percentage of their population not allowed in the Major Leagues for most of its early history, this is quite impressive. Some of these other notable players include Carlos Lee, Ben Oglive, Manny Sanguillen, Carlos Ruiz, and present-day players like Angels pitcher Jamie Barría.
The game in Panama continues to be played at a high level with the three team professional winter league. While Panamanian winter league champions were historically in the Carribean Series, after 1960, this had seized to be the case. Similarly, the Canal Zone Champions would also not be in the Caribbean Series, despite being a top league in Latin America as well, and by the 1970s, would come to no longer exist as the Panama Canal Zone would no longer be a US Territory by 1979. But, in 2019, due to political instability in Venezuela, Panama was chosen as a surprise host for the Caribbean Series, and that season’s league champions, Toros de Herrera, won that season’s Carribean Series. They were the first side to do so from Panama since the Carta Vieja Yankees in 1950! Due to monetary issues, these two teams do not exist currently in the winter league. In addition to the Béisbol Profesional de Panamá winter league, there are other leagues played throughout the year to keep Panamanian players developed for their two to three months of professional baseball, particularly the two to three month long Liga de béisbol Mayor de Panamá, which features provincial teams, multiple being from Panamá the province itself. Usually there are 12 teams in this league. There are also provincial leagues during the other parts of the baseball season who feed into the national level league to represent these provinces.
In addition, Panama is very good at the youth levels. Provinces also have a similar set up at the youth levels, as do the national levels for youth. These games can sometimes get up to 5,000 people. Many Panamanian youths also benefit from a well ran Little League system, that sees Panama, Puerto Rico, and Cuba rotate between each other for an automatic participation in Williamsport. Every year, two of these three nations get an automatic spot, while one has to go through other regional qualifiers. This means that two out of every three years, the Panamanian Little League Champion makes it to Pennsylvania for the LLWS, and once every three years, they may still make it.
As far as players, apart from the current Panamanian MLB players, another player is making headways who is only 21 years old, and is part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He is José Ramos. Since no MLB players played in the qualifiers, Panama had to feature all non-MLB players and yet still qualified. This is very impressive because this essentially means this team was Panama’s B Team (Note: Panama did have players that had played in the MLB and also those who were part of MLB club systems via MiLB).
Now that we get to see a return of Panama’s A Team, it will be a lot of fun to see how Panama competes.
Panama qualified for the 2023 World Baseball Classic via Qualifier 2, where they had a bye the first round, then defeated Argentina, 11-0, in the Semi-finals, and then defeated Brazil, 4-0, in the Qualifier 2 Final. All of these games happened in Panama City, Panama at the Estadio Nacional Rod Carew, the 27,000 seat national baseball stadium of Panama.
In the 2017 and 2013 qualifiers, Panama barely missed out on the World Baseball Classic with a 1-2 Qualifier Final loss to Colombia at the Estadio Nacional Rod Carew in 2017, and a 0-1 Qualifier Final loss to Brazil at the Estadio Nacional Rod Carew in 2013.
For the 2009 and 2006 World Baseball Classic, Panama featured in both, but did not put up very inspiring results. In 2009 in Pool D at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Panama lost to Puerto Rico, 0-7, and the Dominican Republic, 0-9, suffering elimination after two games. In 2006, Panama featured in Pool C which played all its games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium as well, and Panama finished 0-3, losing to Puerto Rico, 1-2, Cuba 6-8, and the Netherlands 0-10.
In other competitions, Panama has done well in, but none of these are baseball at the highest and professional level.
Panama will hope to do better for the 2023 edition having barely missed out on the last two editions by 1 run in each Qualifier Final. For the 2023 Qualifiers, Panama was not messing around and took it to both Argentina and Brazil. Panama are the best team to have gone through the Qualifiers and likely will be in the Top 16 in terms of overall talent in front of the likes of Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain. If nations only got to use domestic born players, Panama would even be higher on the list, and still may be higher on the previous list as things are. It has been many years since we last saw a Panama National Team full of MLB players so Panama could very well be a Top 10 team at the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
Panama may feel like a country devoid of the baseballing elites of the USA, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, but in fact, Panama has talent both in the present-day and in the past that rivals all these nations. The only question for Panama now is will they display this level of talent at the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
For those interested in the history of Panamanian baseball, these two links are very good: Panama Baseball: A Brief History (Audio ability) and The history of baseball in Panama.
You can rewatch Panama’s historic win over Brazil here: