LIMA, Peru -- In the last decades, the Argentine city of Paraná became a hotbed of men's softball, and this week the national team confirmed its dominance in the sport by winning gold at the Pan American Games in Lima.
Argentina beat a U.S. team in the preliminary round, the semifinals and the finals of the competition in Peru. Huemel Mata tossed a two-hitter as Argentina blanked the Americans 5-0 in the gold medal match on Thursday. It is the albiceleste's first Pan American Games gold in a discipline that has little to no tradition in the rest of the country.
The Argentine squad has 13 players from Paraná, the capital of the province of Entre Ríos, with a namesake river that flows into Buenos Aires, some 300 miles away. Surprisingly, softball competes with soccer and basketball for the attention of their fans.
"It's all very strange, and we have to study it well," said manager Julio Gamarci. "Because we're experiencing high-level softball through one city. This doesn't happen in other cities [in Argentina]."
Rare but quite successful. This same squad won the softball world championship last month with a 3-2 win over Japan in the final in Prague, the competitive pinnacle for a sport that has not had Olympic tradition like the female version has.
"We continue working after winning the World Cup, we came with that pressure to be in the final at the very least, so we could meet the goal, and we continue to make history for our sport," said the catcher Bruno Motroni. "We are 13 from Paraná, and the boys who are not from Paraná, moved to Paraná," he added. "It's a very big advantage we have, to be able to train together every day."
That teamwork had been paying off for a few years, as Argentina softball won international titles in 2012 and 2014 at the youth level, and a bronze medal in the 2015 and 2003 Pan American Games. In Lima, the Argentine national team crushed its rivals by a combined 41-4 total score.
How did a city of about 260,000 become a world power of softball? It all starts with the boys.
"There's a very good softball tradition in that city that begins in grade school and continues into high," said first baseman Teo Migliavacca. "I think that's the reason that area is strong."
The Argentine softball federation was founded in 1960 and regional chapters were opened in Paraná, the province of La Pampa, Bahía Blanca and the capital Buenos Aires. However, it was in Paraná where the sport took root, and now the local federation has a tournament with seven teams, from which the national team is nurtured.
So much so, that the softball tournament of the 1995 Pan American Games was held in Paraná, although the city is 460 miles from Mar del Plata, the host of those games.
Thanks to this constant push to succeed, Gamarci said, it was only a matter of time until they managed to reach the top of the sport.
"Argentina has always had a great desire to improve," Gamarci said. "Every tournament, every trip abroad, there has always been a solidarity to learn, learn from everyone. First, a lot was learned from the Central Americans. Then the North Americans, Canada. Then from [seven-time world champion] New Zealand, and we're finally what we are today."