March 13, 2006

I'm a Believer

Okay, it's official: I'm a supporter of the World Baseball Classic.

Prior to yesterday, I wasn't one of the ones who've been piling on the WBC all winter, talking about what an idiotic disaster it would be. But I was largely indifferent to it, made no real attempt to see the games, barely kept up with the results.

What changed my mind? It wasn't the thrilling Japan-USA tilt yesterday, though I did see the ninth inning, or enough to be able to call my dad and congratulate him on A-Rod once again coming through in a game that doesn't matter.

No, what changed my mind was the Dominican Republic-Puerto Rico clash, broadcast live from San Juan. If you saw that game, saw the passion of both fans and players, and still came away hating the WBC... well, I don't know what to say to you.

American sportswriters have, by and large, been harrumphing at the WBC since it was conceived. "The players aren't ready to play yet! A major star could get hurt! None of the stars will play! The games will be boring! It doesn't mean anything! Selig's done it again!" These criticism were, at bottom, founded on the idea that the MLB regular season is what really matters. The players will show up for the regular season because that's what they're paid for, the thinking went. They'd treat these games as glorified exhibitions, the play would be sloppy and indifferent, and anyone who was even thinking of trying hard would stop the minute someone got hurt. In other words, it would be like the NBA regular season.

Well, I hope those harrumping sportswriters were watching the game last night. If everyone was supposed to be going half-speed, someone forgot to tell these guys. Jose Valentin of Puerto Rico hit a slow dribbler toward third base. Albert Pujols of the Dominican made a hot bare-hand grab and fired the ball over to first in one motion... but Valentin beat it with a headfirst slide, then took second when he saw no one covering. Moises Alou of the Dominican smacked a hanging slider into the left-field corner, and tried to stretch it to a double... but was gunned down when Ricky Ledee fired a bullet from the corner, right on the mark. If this is how they play when they aren't trying, I'd love to see it when they are.

In the end, the plucky Puerto Ricans, missing Carlos Delgado from the heart of their order and relying on a largely obscure pitching staff, thumped the mighty Dominicans, 7-1. (By the way, even though Delgado has tendinitis and doesn't figure to play in the WBC, he was in uniform in the Puerto Rico dugout, cheering on his teammates. Probably because he doesn't care.) The "road" team, Puerto Rico, benefited a good deal from a very vocal crowd at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, but both teams were hustling and playing all out.

I figure that the writers who scoffed at the WBC figured that because they didn't care, the players also wouldn't care. They figured the players were motivated mostly by money. Well, after last night, I can say that love of country is a pretty powerful motivator for these guys. Orestes Destrade, broadcasting the game for ESPN (he made part of a fine three-man booth with Orel Hershiser and the largely useless Gary Thorne), related a story from Alex Cora, playing second for Puerto Rico. Cora told him that there were things he'd do in the WBC that he might not do in America, a little extra flair, hustle, and razzle-dazzle.

Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico is some of the best the WBC has to offer: two rival countries with a storied history that brings out the best in the players. I loved the game for much the same reason that I love the Carribbean Series: players out there giving their all for their country and for the game, showing a fire and a style that isn't quite matched in the American game.

And the crowds! The baseball fans in the Carribbean have a passion and vigor that matches the best American crowds. The color, the noise... it's a feast for the senses. After seeing the fans in San Juan, the crowd in LA for the Mexico-Korea game (or Japan-US, for that matter) seemed subdued and a bit drab. Before I die, I want to experience a game in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican, or Mexico, just to sit in the middle of the raging cauldron and feel it first-hand.

As far as I'm concerned, the WBC is a winner. Sure, it's not without faults (what business do countries like South Africa and Italy have in the tournament?), and I'd like to see more games played outside our shores (how about Estadio Monterrey? Estadio Quisqueya in Santo Domingo? Maybe even Havana, after Castro dies?), but I give the venture two thumbs up, and I can't believe I'll have to wait until 2009 for the next one.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at March 13, 2006 01:35 PM | TrackBack

I became a believer in the WBC yesterday. The Missus and I were at the Mariner Team Store in downtown Seattle (I need yet another Mariner hat). It was the bottom of the ninth and all the employees of the team store, plus about a dozen shoppers were huddled underneath the TV watching every move. It was great -not October great- but closer than I thought possible.

It was trippy though, watching 30 Mariner fans rooting on Junior and A-Rod.

Posted by: frinklin at March 13, 2006 08:12 PM

When is somebody gonna sign Seung Yeop Lee?

Posted by: frinklin at March 13, 2006 09:12 PM

I'm with you guys, the WBC, especially yesterday, was pretty interesting. It even got me away from college basketball for a little bit.

I saw a game in Reynosa a few years ago and it was incredible. One of the best atmospheres for baseball anywhere. And apparently Reynosa was never a team that had great support, hence the fact that they no longer exist. If that was a team without support, I would love to see what a good crowd would do. It must get pretty crazy some places.

Posted by: Brandon at March 13, 2006 09:40 PM
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