By Jay Jaffe
Earlier this week, the Dominican Republic not only captured the World Baseball Classic title for the first time, it became the first team to go undefeated during a single tournament. Now it appears we might have to attach a big ol' asterisk next to its championship.
Nobody on the DR squad has been retroactively declared ineligible. It's just that the inspiration for its championship must be called into question in the wake of the startling revelation that the giant plantain closer Fernando Rodney displayed during the player introductions before the semifinal game against the Netherlands — and continued to wield during the finals against Puerto Rico — was not flown in from his hometown in the Dominican Republic as previously believed. According to Mark Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, Rodney was given the plantain by a fan in the AT&T Park stands in exchange for an autographed ball. His story was as twisted as his cap, the fruit's origin as imaginary as the arrows he shot upon closing out each victory.
Throughout the tournament, the DR team's exuberance was paraded as a positive example of the sport's international flavor. As the pressure mounted, squad manager Tony Peña credited the fruit with keeping his team relaxed:
"How are you going to lose the stress? How are you going to keep your whole group of players laughing, keeping loose?
"So I got surprised when I saw Rodney with a banana, a plantain on the side. I think he pulled them out. I just laughed. Right in the middle of the game, this made everybody laugh. And the ballclub, the game like this, you need to have a little bit of fun. You need to find a way to loosen up. And I'm glad that he did it."
Random bananas have long served as staples of prop comedy, and plantains are closely related; the two fruits share the same genus, Musa, but are of different species. Superficially, Rodney's ruse worked wonders, if not quite the same extent as the team's run of 25 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings out of the bullpen dating back to the fourth inning of the opening game. Seven and one-third of those innings belonged to Rodney, who pitched in all eight games and saved seven of them.
In retrospect, the media should have caught onto the plantain plot more quickly. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, any fruit entering the United States from a foreign land must be declared, inspected and found free of pests by a U.S. Customs Border Protection agriculture specialist. The exact guidelines for inspection of "plantains, cooking bananas and bananas which differ from the usual bananas of commerce" from the Dominican Republic are a closely guarded secret. Yet neither Rodney nor anyone else affiliated with the team ever offered any paperwork reflecting the plantain's passage of inspection or otherwise spoke of such a process, and even in this time of heightened national security, no members of the media questioned him on the matter. They simply bought what he was selling, preferring to print the legend instead of uncovering the facts. Such lapses have sent countries to war and allowed steroids to infiltrate the national pastime. Now they've made a farce out of an international tournament. The truth has slipped on a plantain peel.