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.
"Any given day, any team can beat any team," said Italy's Chris Denorfia. He should know. His single and three doubles, after batting tips from hitting coach Mike Piazza, helped Italy knock huge favorite Canada out of the WBC on Monday. The heart of Canada's order is Russell Martin, Justin Morneau and Jason Bay, who averaged 100 RBI in the majors last year. Italy counts on stars like Davide Dallospendale and Giuseppe Mazzanti.
This WBC may be especially enjoyable to Nats fans, who just a week ago didn't have a single player deemed worthy of representing the United States. Injuries changed that.
So far, in just two games, the Nats' Adam Dunn has two homers, four walks, a single, a sliding catch, a tough take-out slide, several jokester moments caught on TV and just one strikeout.
"This was like a playoff game, even though I've never been in the playoffs," bubbled Dunn after a one-run win over Canada, before adding, "If the playoffs are better than this . . . "
Dunn was so excited that he was taking his own pulse in the dugout in the bottom of the ninth inning. That is, when he wasn't breathing into his hat to keep from hyperventilating. Partly, he cracked up his teammates. But mostly, "I get nervous," he said, despite being surrounded by teammates such as Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia and Chipper Jones. The U.S. team is so deep that Dunn, whose 206 homers the last five years are second only to Alex Rodriguez's 207, batted seventh against Canada.
General fans might appreciate the WBC more if they realized the buzz it creates in big league clubhouses. "It was an easy decision. I knew I was going," said Dunn.
On Saturday, Commissioner Bud Selig had wandered into the clubhouse during a Cubs-Brewers spring training game in Arizona.
"I went inside and there were 15 players going crazy screaming at the TV, rooting for the last out of the U.S.-Canada game," he said. "[Brewers General Manager] Doug Melvin and [assistant GM] Gord Ash are both Canadians. They were both cheering like little kids. If you'd closed your eyes, you'd have thought it was the World Series."
Without doubt, the WBC has caught on internationally more than it has in the United States. The rivalry between Japan and South Korea is long and bitter with both teams advancing to the next round after splitting two games in recent days in Tokyo. Games in Latin countries often end with crowds dancing on the fields.
No one thinks the WBC, played in March before the MLB season even starts, will ever rival the World Series. Selig probably wouldn't even want that. But even he's surprised at what his game has cooked up.
"Isn't it an interesting experience?" said Selig. "You see Jeter and Pedroia hugging each other on the field. Players like Morneau looked shell-shocked after their country loses. I read quotes from our [MLB] players saying it's the most emotional game they've ever played in."
Baseball wanted to create a March shindig to boost the international game, sell some tickets and TV time, maybe thumb the eye of the Olympics a bit. It's too soon to tell. But the game may have stumbled onto something that's quite a bit bigger and better than it expected.