SAN FRANCISCO -- The smallest shall be first. If you lined up the 16 entrants in the World Baseball Classic according to population, the smallest are the only ones left playing baseball. With Puerto Rico (3.6 million) meeting the Dominican Republic (10 million), the WBC final tonight stands as confirmation of the talent and passion of Caribbean-flavored baseball.
"Spicy," is how Dominican Republic GM Moises Alou described winter league baseball atmosphere in the Caribbean. The atmosphere is especially charged when Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are on opposite sides of the field -- or of a San Francisco eatery.
"I saw some of the Puerto Rico players at lunch today," Alou said, after the Dominicans squashed the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 4-1, "and nobody said 'good luck' to me."
"It's only a rivalry between the Dominican and Puerto Rico in everything, not just baseball," Alou said.
Major League Baseball and the players association devised this tournament to grow the game internationally, with teams from almost every corner of the globe looking to get into the WBC. And two weeks of play (more if you count the qualifying tournaments last year) get distilled down to two countries that are about as close together in miles as Washington and New York, and rank 1-2 in Caribbean World Series titles.
The final will mark the third time Puerto Rico and the Dominican have met in this tournament. The Dominicans won the first two games, both of which were played only for the purpose of seeding, not for advancement or elimination.
The way the Dominicans have played this tournament, you wonder if anybody can beat them, even the 1998 Yankees. Humbled by their exit in 2009, when players chartered a plane home from San Juan between games to throw a party, the Dominicans have exhibited impressive focus from day one.
Day one happened to be a workout in Tampa. Manager Tony Peña, at the conclusion of his welcome speech, asked every player on the team to stand up and pronounce in their own words why they were a part of this team. Several of them mentioned the embarrassment of the 2009 tournament.
The American pitchers who backed out of the WBC complained about having to ramp up their throwing schedules early. Nobody mentioned anything about it in the Dominican. Closer Fernando Rodney said he began prepping for this tournament "last year." He has hit 98 mph in the WBC and been virtually unhittable.
"This is the best shape the players have been in for the WBC," Alou said. "It didn't happen in '09. I knew myself when I was batting, then I knew I was not in top shape. This year they all took it seriously, and they're paying off."
Just imagine this: take this team and let it play 162 games in any division. How many games do the Dominicans win? Remember, the Dominicans don't even have Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Starlin Castro, Adrian Beltre, Melky Cabrera and other top major leaguers here. Okay, maybe the Dominicans don't have the rotation of the Washington Nationals. They have Edinson Volquez, Samuel Deduno (the starter tonight) and Wandy Rodriguez as their only starting pitchers. (Johnny Cueto is not here).
But that lineup? And that bullpen? Ridiculous. They are so good maybe 90 wins in that fictional major league season are possible. This bullpen is better than anything in the major leagues. Last night you could have played the last four innings of the game in the lobby of the Netherlands' hotel and not broken so much as a lamp. Nothing was hit hard off Kelvin Herrera, Pedro Strop and Rodney. Fifteen batters came to the plate and only one of them hit the ball out of the infield. Nobody has scored on the Dominican bullpen since the first round in San Juan, more than 16 lockdown innings of nothingness.
If you're a true baseball fan you can't help but fall for the way the Dominicans are playing this tournament. Edwin Encarnacion is sliding headfirst into bases, Hanley Ramirez is volunteering to play third base and DH, Carlos Santana is refusing to take days off, Jose Reyes is making people tired just watching him bound all over the field, and Robinson Cano, always smooth and confident, has emerged as the kind of vocal leader you never knew existed in Yankees pinstripes.
Before every game Peña talks to his club, but he doesn't get the last word. That belongs to Cano.
"Robbie always has something to say," Alou said. "He's the leader. He's showing it on the field and in the clubhouse."
No team has ever run the table to win the WBC. The 7-0 Dominicans can finish off a clean sweep of the world by beating Puerto Rico in the final. It won't be easy. Puerto Rico has faced two elimination games already -- against USA and Japan -- and cut down both Goliaths while allowing only four runs combined. But Puerto Rico will be under intense pressure not to fall behind, not with the way Santiago Casilla, Octavio Dotel, Strop and Rodney have been throwing. Not with the way the Dominicans are focused on proving to the world they play the best, proudest brand of baseball on the globe.
"In the Dominican right now," Peña said, "there is only one channel. There's no soap operas. No news. It's one channel: baseball."
Said Alou about the love affair between the Dominican Republic and baseball, "It's like Europe or South America with soccer. Hopefully, we will win [tonight], and they will be heroes for the rest of their lives."