CLEARWATER, Fla. --
"I think we're the team to beat," said U.S. manager
The brash and bold Johnson is the best thing to happen to the WBC since, well, since the unprepared Americans were unceremoniously bounced from the inaugural tournament in 2006 by Mexico. "It was kind of like glitz and glamour but not a lot of preparation," Johnson said of the U.S. approach then.
Johnson, who has burnished his fine major league managerial career with international success, is here to win, and has made certain his players bring the same intensity. The U.S. players will benefit this time around from playing about six exhibition games (three as a team, about three with their major league clubs previously) before their opening game against Canada on Saturday in Toronto. (Though that still leaves them underprepared when compared to Asian clubs and Cuba.) The U.S. blueprint was to take advantage of pitch-count limits that force starting pitchers out of games by building a lethal bullpen, but withdrawals from
Then again, maybe we should have just sent the Yankees. Consider this: Team USA assembled the finest 29 players it could possibly get, and the combined salaries for this all-star team add up to $163 million -- still almost $40 million short of the talent the Yankees assembled.
In only its second go-around, the WBC is already a hit. It has succeeded in its twin goals: raise interest in baseball globally and raise revenue. The third version, scheduled for 2013, is expected to expand on the 16-team field in this one. Aesthetically, it also is a success. The games are played with passion and national zeal with many of the best players in the world. What's not to like?
Curiously, the soil where the WBC needs the biggest jolt of enthusiasm is right here in America, where baseball interest runs regionally, not nationally. Many U.S. fans and media outlets would rather worry about the backup catcher battle for their local team than get jazzed about Team USA. At the U.S.'s first workout Monday, more Japanese media were on hand than American media. The game between Italy and Venezuela on Saturday on a neutral field in Toronto likely will outdraw a 2006 WBC game the U.S. played at
Well, guess what? The WBC is not just about us, America. Baseball is a global game. You're missing a great show. But if you still need convincing that watching
In 2006, two of the six highest-rated TV shows in Japan were WBC games: a semifinal game against Korea that drew a 36.2 share, including a 50.3 peak, and the final against Cuba that drew a 43.4 share. It's been 23 years since the World Series has attracted that kind of rating in the United States, going back to the 1986 Fall Classic between the Mets and Red Sox.
"My heart is beating with anticipation,"
Part of the fun watching the Cuban team play baseball is the unorthodox manner in which they are managed. They have been known to warm up two pitchers before a game, leaving the opposing manager to guess who will be starting as he makes out a lineup card.
"One time we got the first three batters of the game on base against their starter," Johnson said, "and they pulled the pitcher. The guy hadn't even given up a run. They believe how you start off is what you're going to do. They don't give their pitchers any rope."
"I think we beat Darvish in the Olympics, didn't we?" Johnson said with a smile, knowing the answer full well. "His style is more like the American style. He's a power pitcher."