Thomas Boswell: The WBC Is Winning Converts

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Who needs baseball in the Olympics? Let the IOC kick the sport out forever, if it wants to be grouchy. As long as we have the World Baseball Classic, we're happy.

Three years ago, the WBC hooked me against my will. The loaded U.S. team finished eighth. Big league stars gagged on the pressure no matter what country they played for. International baseball bully Cuba choked in the final. And I ended up wearing a "Japan" cap all summer. Now, even as I resist, it's happening again.

On Monday, I built my evening around watching the Kingdom of the Netherlands play baseball on TV. When the unknown Dutch lads took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning against stacked-with- superstars Puerto Rico, my wife came to see what all the yelling was about.

"This could be one of the biggest upsets I've ever seen," I said, explaining that a team of teenagers and unknowns for the Netherlands had beaten the all-star-filled Dominican Republic on Saturday and now might whip an even mightier Puerto Rican team, with Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, even though they were playing in San Juan. Before I could explain the vast ramifications, I was halted.

"The Dutch baseball team?" my wife said slowly. "I think CNBC has finally gotten to you."

Puerto Rico eventually won, 3-1. But how tight were the winners? They left 21 men on base. Afterward, their players, with major league all-stars everywhere, looked like their baseball souls had been saved.

All that, however, was merely a warm-up for last night. In its rematch with the Dominican, the Netherlands completed as unexpected a pair of back-to-back upsets as baseball has ever produced with a come-from-behind 2-1 win in the 11th inning to reach the final eight in Miami.

In essence, a bunch of Class A players, aged obscure big league retreads, 19-year-olds and submarine pitchers somehow eliminated a Dominican team that was virtually an MLB all-star team, with a lineup that included José Reyes, Willy Tavares, Hanley Ramírez, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, José Guillén and Robinson Canó, as well as pitchers such as Pedro Martínez.

The only person in a Netherlands uniform most fans have ever heard of was the pitching coach: Bert Blyleven. Only three Dutch players have ever appeared in the majors: Randall Simon, Sidney Ponson and Eugene Kingsale. Yet the Dutch scored two runs in the bottom of the 11th on a double, a bloop single, a two-base throwing error on a pick-off throw to first and, finally, an error by first baseman Willy Aybar.

After this night, the WBC will never again draw the kind of bemused mockery that greeted Nationals Manager Manny Acta when he called the Dutch win Saturday over the Dominican "the biggest upset since the U.S. beat Russia in the '80 Olympics." After the Dutch repeat feat, Acta's amazement might be only moderately exaggerated.

The whole goofy WBC, with four first-round pools of games all over the globe, looks like an ungainly animal built by committee. A couple of teams still look like they can't beat anybody. Just like the Dutch, until they did. You can't claim, with a straight face, that the event is truly important or that such a fluky format proves a great deal. For American fans, it's totally outgunned by the NCAA basketball tournament. But it sure is a lot of fun.

The central feature of the WBC is that, more than in any other major sport, the "wrong" team can win one game on dumb luck, defense, unfamiliar pitchers, inspiration and a whole lot of late-inning choking. The Dutch showed how. In Saturday's victory, they scored three runs in the first inning without a hit to the outfield -- dribblers, walks, errors and wild pitches. They never scored again. The Dominican took a win for granted, suddenly woke up in mid-game, terrified, then ran the bases like they were headless.

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