It Really is a Classic

When it was first announced, I didn’t care much about the World Baseball Classic. I figured most of the top players would bow out, and the games would end up becoming glorified exhibition games.

As things went along, several stars did withdraw their names from consideration. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about the games becoming meaningless.

It actually wasn’t until Monday that I even decided to watch any of the WBC. That’s when I realized that Tuesday’s game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic would be on at 1 p.m., and that I would be able to watch on my day off from work.

And really, how could I pass up an opportunity to watch Johan Santana pitch to a lineup with a 2-3-4 of Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz? So I hunkered down in front of the TV, not sure how much of the game I would watch or how closely I would pay attention to the proceedings.

I realized quickly that I would be watching the whole thing, and I would be watching attentively. Maybe the ESPN announcing crew of Karl Ravech, Harold Reynolds and John Kruk (with Peter Gammons in the stands) went a little overboard trying to point out just how important this game was, but the fact of the matter is that it was important. You could tell that immediately.

Bartolo Colon got into some trouble in the bottom of the first inning against Venezuela, and he gave a big fist-pump after getting an inning-ending double play to escape unscathed.

Ortiz ended the scoreless tie leading off the next inning, when he bombed a home run to straightaway center field. He was greeted by the entire Dominican Republic team at home plate.

In Ortiz’s next plate appearance, Santana didn’t get the calls on some close pitches, and he didn’t hide the fact that he was angrier than he would be in a typical spring training game. After he was done voicing his disapproval to the home plate umpire, he turned around and made sure the second base ump also knew he was upset.

With the Dominican Republic leading 3-1 in the fifth, Adrian Beltre unloaded to make it 6-1, and Pujols and several teammates hopped the dugout fence to head out to home plate and welcome their countryman.

But the Venezuelans didn’t let the game get away from them, scoring twice in the bottom of the fifth on a Miguel Cabrera homer, and adding another run in the sixth. Then they nearly tied it up in the seventh, another moment that showed just how much this game meant to the players.

Trailing 6-4 with one on and two out, Cabrera hit what looked like it was surely his second homer of the game when it left his bat. Instead, it hit right off the top of the wall and improbably bounced back onto the field of play, limiting Cabrera to an RBI double instead of a game-tying homer. When they showed the replays, you could see Cabrera’s elation as he rounded first base, and you could see his jaw drop in disbelief when he realized the ball didn’t go out.

And ESPN had plenty of time to show replays, because Venezuela manager Luis Sojo came barreling out of the dugout to argue the call and he stayed out there for quite some time.

Why was this game so important that all of these things that never would have happened in a meaningless exhibition occurred? Well, part of it is that Venezuela recently defeated the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean World Series, so this game was the big rematch for a lot of players and the fans of both teams.

But another concept that I don’t think many people considered is that it was actually good for the WBC that a bunch of stars dropped out. I know some of them (Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez and others) would have been there if they could, but the reason most stars dropped out is that the WBC didn’t mean anything to them (or at least didn’t mean enough).

I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I care so much about sports when I’m watching is that the athletes care so much. I mean, really, if they don’t care whether they win or lose, why should I?

When stars started dropping out, it meant that the people who ended up on these rosters weren’t there because they think they have to be. They’re there because they care about the idea. The chance to represent their country against some of the world’s best is more important to them than playing it safe to avoid injury.

The players on the field Tuesday weren’t taking it easy to make sure they didn’t get hurt. They just wanted to win. That much was apparent when Tejada had some trouble with a ground ball, and instead of just sticking it in his pocket, he reached down to grab it and make an off-balance throw and landed awkwardly.

He came up limping, but he got the runner at first. He also stayed in the game. In fact, almost everybody else did too.

The pitch counts designed to protect the pitchers from injury meant that there were a lot more changes than in a normal baseball game, but the position players weren’t coming out. The only regular who left the game was Alfonso Soriano, and he left after making the final out in the top of the eighth, as Ronnie Belliard came in as a defensive replacement.

If you didn’t care to watch the game, you may have just looked at the 11-5 final score and said to yourself, “I bet that was a bore. I’m glad I didn’t watch it.”

You certainly wouldn’t have realized that the only reason the final was so lopsided is that Ortiz and Beltre both left the yard again in the top of the ninth, finally providing a winner after three tense hours of baseball.

And if you think the U.S. team and its fans don’t care, you must not have been watching Wednesday’s game against Canada. When the Americans fell behind the Canadians 8-0, the boo-birds were out in full force. And when Jason Varitek hit a grand slam to make it 8-6, the crowd exploded in cheers and the players greeted Varitek as though he had just hit a World Series grand slam.

You think the 30 guys on that U.S. roster wanted to be part of the team that got mercy ruled by Canada?

And the fact that the U.S. couldn’t finish the rally and ended up losing 8-6 means that they absolutely need a win against South Africa on Friday. Roger Clemens on the mound in a game the United States has to win to move on to the next round? Sign me up.

While you’re at it, you better watch today’s game between Canada and Mexico, because a win against South Africa might not even be enough depending on what happens in that game. As Alex Rodriguez said, “So we’re cheering for Canada, right? What’s the spread?”

There are certainly some problems with the WBC (namely that it should be played in November rather than March), but lack of enthusiasm from the players is not one of them. And if you didn’t think there would be anything interesting happening in games between the top tier teams (generally thought to be the U.S., Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico) and those in the second tier, think again.

Canada and Panama (which took Cuba to 11 innings before falling 8-6) proved otherwise Wednesday.

Granted, there have been some blowouts thus far, and there probably will be in the second round as well. But once the field narrows to eight, every game promises to be exciting. Hopefully, the United States will still be around to provide some of the thrills. If not, there will be plenty of other hungry teams around to make things interesting.

I know I’m going to be watching to find out what happens. If you like baseball, you will be too.

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