The Baseball Desert

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

New Light Through Old Windows

I agree with Jayson Stark - if you didn't watch the Venezuela / Dominican Republic game because this whole World Baseball Classic thing is a pointless waste of time, it's your loss. The cynics amongst you will no doubt point out that Stark works - surprise, surprise - for the company which has the broadcasting rights to the tournament, but I don't work for them, and I'm telling you it was a hell of a game.

I think that a lot of the reticence fans have shown towards the WBC stems from a blinkered vision of the game of baseball. In the minds of many people the idea of baseball seems intrinsically linked to baseball in the major leagues. After all, this is what most of us are familiar with, year in and year out - 30 professional teams representing 30 American cities, each playing 162 games a year.

The WBC is another vision of the same thing, but key is to remember is that although players are same, the underlying theme is very different. Fans feel cheated and threatened: Why are our players playing in the WBC instead of playing in Spring Training? And what about the risks of injury? It's all very "me, me, me". But what about the players themselves? They're giving up a hell of a lot to take part in the WBC - time that could be spent getting to know new teammates and working on their game - and, as far as I know, they're not getting paid anything extra for their trouble. And yet there are a huge number of major leaguers playing in the WBC. Why? Because they're getting paid in a currency that sometimes gets forgotten: national pride.

Yesterday's game was unlike anything I've ever seen at a baseball game. Not just the noise, nor the festivities, nor the fact that the only crowd sounds you could hear on ESPN were people yelling in Spanish, but the intensity of the players. That's not to say that these guys are not intense when they play for their clubs, but this was a different kind of intensity, fuelled by the desire to represent their country.

There was an All-Star feel to the game. The top two-thirds of the Dominican lineup read: Soriano, Tejada, Pujols, Ortiz, Alou and Beltre (which I'm sure had been giving Venezuela manager Luis Sojo nightmares for weeks); the starting pitchers were Bartolo Colon and Johan Santana, relived by Miguel Batista and Carlos Zambrana respectively. However, there's also an All-Star feeling at the All-Star Game, but that doesn't make it an exciting evening of baseball. Yesterday's game, though, had a strange mix of Caribbean enthusiasm and World Series intensity. Players were quick to show disagreement or frustration with umpires' calls - not overtly, but clearly enough - but when they were up at the plate or staring down from the mound, you could almost reach out a grab a fistful of tension.

That tension is what makes the WBC worth staging and worth watching. There has been a lot of debate as to the right date for such an event, but at the end of the day, there'll never be an ideal time: spring is too early and players risk injury; two weeks in midsummer would upset pennant races that are heating up; after the World Series, players are just too tired and beaten up after a long season to make it worthwhile. So spring it is, at least for now. One of the advantages of a spring tournament is a simple point that I've been stressing since the start - what the WBC gives us is truly competitive and fascinating baseball in early March, at a time when we're used to seeing marquee players play three or four innings and then head for the showers. The only player to come out of the Dominican lineup last night was Soriano, and it was clear that none of the players out there wanted to leave the game with Venezuela slowly clawing its way back. Tell me the last time you saw that in Spring Training.

Outside of the quality and intensity of the baseball being played, there are other less obvious benefits to be had from playing in the WBC. David Ortiz hit a home run off Johan Santana in the second inning yesterday. This is something that could have happened in any one of a number of Spring Training games, and people would have said: "Fugeddaboutit - don't mean nothin' in Spring Training." Probably both players involved would have said the same thing too. But given what was at stake yesterday, I'm betting that at some point between June 13 and June 15, Ortiz and Santana are going to be thinking about that home run. A small advantage, maybe, but pennants have been known to turn on a single home run.

As far as the benefits for major league teams are concerned, this is clutching at straws, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter, because the real validation of the WBC comes from the players themselves, no matter what flag they're playing under:
"I've never had a better feeling in my life," [US pitcher Jake] Peavy said. "It was the coolest thing I have ever done when Team USA took the field today."
The feeling was probably best expressed by Miguel Tejada, who, after a winter of discontent, suddenly found exactly the right words to say:

"We've dreamed about this for a long time," said Tejada, who played shortstop for this Dominican Dream team. "And I think every player has been doing the same thing -- not just the Dominican players but the players for each country. ... When we won, we all said in the clubhouse, 'What we did [in this game], we just did for our country.' Our country is so excited to have all our major league players playing.

"So this was their gift -- what happened today."

This particular fan would like to express his sincerest thanks.