The reaction was the same, everywhere that Canadian catcher Andy Stewart went in the athletes village at the Pan American Games. Any time he mentioned that the Canadian baseball team was facing the United States today at CanWest Global Park, his fellow Canadians told him the same thing: "You guys gotta win."
Stewart hit a dramatic three-run, 11th-inning home run to lead a comeback that culminated in a 7-6 Canadian victory over the United States. Stewart's home run erased the United States' 6-3 lead and set the stage for teammate Stubby Clapp's unusual game-winning RBI single four batters later.
"Baseball is America's game," said Stewart, who plays for Class AA Reading in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. "That's why everyone was telling me that we had to win. It's like beating up on Notre Dame in football. Everyone gets up for the U.S. We wanted to get that recognition, to show that we're a good team, by winning today."
Baseball may be America's pastime, but the U.S. team needs to qualify for the Olympics like any other country (except for the host Australians). The Pan Am Games serve as the Olympic qualifier for baseball; only the top two finishers will advance to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the first to feature professional players. Today was the first official game that USA Baseball fielded a team of professional players.
There are nine teams entered in the Pan Am competition, which means that only one team will not advance to the quarterfinals, which begin on Saturday. That team will come from the five-team Pool A, which has the United States, Canada, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico. The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala are in Pool B. Records in pool play determine quarterfinal matchups. Brazil has lost by the mercy rule (10-run margin) twice, leaving it with an 0-2 mark in Pool A, so the United States probably will advance even with today's loss to Canada.
The United States has finished among the top two teams only once in the last five Pan Am Games, winning the silver medal in Indianapolis in 1987. Canada has never finished higher than fourth place. Cuba has won the Pam Am Games tournament seven straight times.
The U.S. team faces Mexico Tuesday at 9 a.m., and Manager Buddy Bell said that his team has no choice but to refocus and concentrate on Mexico, which has a 1-1 record following today's 10-0 win over Brazil.
"There's nothing else to do," Bell said. "I just think the Canadian team played great and they should be proud of the way they played."
Clapp's 11th-inning RBI ended a bizarre game that lasted 4 1/2 hours, and featured 12 pitchers, three blown leads by the United States and a 30-minute delay as Canada Coach Ernie Whitt lodged a protest.
When Clapp stepped to the plate in the 11th, the bases were loaded with two out. He drew a full count from U.S. pitcher Derek Wallace, then hit a fly ball to shallow left field.
"When I first hit it, my first thought was -- well, you don't want to hear that," said Clapp, who played for the Prince William Cannons in 1997. "But then I picked my head up, and saw that [U.S. left fielder Shawn Gilbert and shortstop Travis Dawk ins] were struggling to find the ball. I knew then that it had a chance."
The ball did fall in, and pinch runner Julien Lepine scored to finish off a four-run, two-out Canada rally.
In the top of the 11th, the United States had taken a 6-3 lead on Jason Hardke's two-run homer. Following Hardke's homer, Whitt went to the mound to talk to his pitcher, Mark Ricketts. The Cuban umpire, Nelson Diaz, told Whitt that he had to remove Ricketts from the game because Canada had already made four trips to the mound without making a substitution. Whitt argued that he was allowed a fourth trip because the game was in extra innings.
The game was delayed for 30 minutes as Whitt argued, was ejected, and then lodged a handwritten protest. The protest was ultimately disallowed by International Baseball Association officials, and the game resumed with a new pitcher, Steve Green.
"There's only so much you can do," Bell said. "I thought we hit the ball decent all day long, but I also think that the Canadian team played about as well as they can play defensively. They played great, and we played well. Unfortunately, we couldn't get that last out in whatever inning that was."