International Men of Mystery

To see the WBC is to love it. Too bad many in the U.S. aren't paying attention
March 15, 2009

HOW COULD abaseball fan not love the World Baseball Classic? Instead of meaningless springtraining games, the WBC last week gave us J.J. Putz of the Mets and Team USApitching to Jason Bay of the Red Sox and Canada in a grueling eight-pitch atbat with the tying run on second base and two outs in the bottom of the ninthin front of more than 40,000 fans on their feet screaming. It gave us theNetherlands, a team with one major leaguer (Marlins pitcher Rick VandenHurk whodidn't play), storming the field after upsetting the star-studded DominicanRepublic while hitting the ball out of the infield three times (none for hits).And it gave us Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Samurai Japan, asked todescribe his emotions on the eve of play, replying, "My heart isburning."

Of course, youcould ignore the tournament altogether and concern yourself with the copiousdetails of other dramas of spring. Like, say, a Florida throwing session bysore-shouldered Red Sox pitcher Brad Penny, which is what The Boston Globe didon Monday. There were no reports of anybody's heart burning over his bullpenwork.

The WBC is a giftfor baseball fans: games are being played at a very high level by many of thegreatest players in the world, motivated by pride and nationalism rather thanmoney. Yet America seems not to know what to make of the gift. Only seven U.S.newspapers (three outside of New York) bothered covering the U.S. team inToronto as it advanced out of round 1 play. Wrote one absentee, Bob Ryan of theGlobe, "Our teams are concerned with a proper preparation for the upcomingbaseball season. The WBC is distasteful to our teams on more than onelevel." It's true: Some owners have groused privately about losing playersto the WBC—the same owners who have no problem collecting their cut of MajorLeague Baseball's growing international revenues. Some players are less thanenthused too. For various reasons such stars as Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard andAlfonso Soriano chose not to play.

There issomething singularly obvious about the WBC's critics: They do not attend theevent. To be witness to the competition is to be won over by it, a truth mademost obvious by the U.S. players, who are emerging as the best ambassadors formaking the WBC a truly signature event. Be it Jimmy Rollins and Adam Dunnbarreling through infielders trying to bust up double plays, or a Yankee (DerekJeter) and a Red Sox (Dustin Pedroia) turning a slick double play as easily asthey needle one another in the clubhouse, or the players bonding overrollicking team dinners ("We let Derek and Chipper [Jones] reach for thecheck, since they're the veterans," David Wright said), the USA superstarsare playing with a love for the game, country and one another. They areeverybody's all-Americans.

"I loveit," Wright said. "It's not just a great baseball experience but agreat personal experience, to be around this group of guys, the fun we'rehaving on the field and in the clubhouse ... it's a blast."

If the playersare sold, then the fans can be sold. Said U.S. manager Davey Johnson,"Every guy I talked to was really honored to be on the team. The big thingis, this has to be a great experience for every player for it to grow in theU.S.—to represent your country and to know you're going to get enough playingtime. If you can do that, guys are sold, and it can be as big as it is inJapan. Well, they like eight-hour practices, so maybe not big likethat."

Try telling theSamurai Japan members that they should be preparing for their pro teams insteadof representing their country. Samurai Japan drew more than 30,000 people forworkouts in the southern town of Miyazaki, with people camped out overnight fortickets and team buses hardly able to squeeze through streets clogged withfans. The rivalry between Japan (2006 WBC champs) and Korea (2008 Olympicchamps) is so intense that it makes the Yankees--Red Sox look like a churchpicnic softball game.

That the tworeigning major international champions are Asian eats at the U.S. players.(Team USA finished a disappointing sixth in the '06 WBC and won the bronzemedal at the '08 Beijing Games.) Said Jones, "We feel we've got somethingto prove." Last Saturday, in its first game of pool play, the motivatedU.S. won a thriller against Canada 6--5, with Putz finally getting Bay on a flyball to end the game. Putz called it the highlight of his career. Rollinscompared the atmosphere with Game 1 of the World Series five months ago, andPedroia said his heart was pounding. "With the adrenaline flowing, itshocks your body," Pedroia said. "This definitely gets you locked in alittle more than spring training. It can only help you get ready for theseason." The next night the U.S. trailed Venezuela 3--2 in the sixth beforebusting loose for a 15--6 win.

WBC 3.0,scheduled for 2013, will need tweaking. Tickets are overpriced (most rangingfrom $48 to $150), so thousands of empty seats at the first-round venues inToronto, San Juan and Mexico City gave a minor league look to the proceedings.There are too many off days, with the teams playing in the March 23 finalslooking at probably eight games in nearly three weeks. And there is no denyingthat patriotism aside, the tournament is all about commercial aspiration. Theminute the fledgling China team, for instance, wins a game in a WBC, MajorLeague Baseball will be that much closer to tapping into the enormous Chineseconsumer market.

But for now, theinternational passion and competitive balance—witness upstart Australia's 17--7thrashing of Mexico on Sunday—are already there. And Team USA, with itsenthusiasm, talent and fellowship, is worth following. Is your heart burningyet?

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The World Baseball Classic is a gift, and if theplayers can be sold on it, FANS CAN BE TOO.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)