At the World Baseball Classicby Dave Studeman
March 13, 2006
When Bill and I drove into the parking lot, an hour and a half before the start of the game, we could see that this wasn't going to be a run-of-the-mill baseball game. The lot was filled with cars, and also fans, flags and emotions. We were attending the opening Dominican Republic-Venezuela game of the World Baseball Classic, and it was an experience I will never forget.
We had flown into Orlando and driven straight to Disney's Wide World of Sports, where they were playing the Pool D games. Disney normally hosts the Atlanta Braves' spring training games; there were lots of security people and attendants with Atlanta caps and such. But these were no normal spring games. They didn't even resemble normal regular-season games. These were all-out, highly emotional, life-or-death baseball games.
The only Braves player I saw play was Jorge Sosa, who wasn't really a Brave at the time. He was a Dominican, and the Dominican Republic had something to prove.
Just a month before, Venezuela had won the Caribbean World Series in a wild finale against the Dominican Republic. Venezuela was losing, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth when a rally, capped (literally) by a flyball off the head of Dominican shortstop Erick Aybar allowed the Venezuelans to score their second run of the inning and take the Caribbean title for the first time in 15 years. Passion and enthusiasm, constant accompaniments to Caribbean games, reached a crescendo that was still reverberating in this WBC rematch.
The players were very different from those who had played a month before. I knew beforehand who would be playing, but seeing the actual lineups posted outside the gift shop was stunning. The D.R. infield was Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada and Adrian Beltre. The outfield was less imposing, but still the equal of many major league teams (Moises Alou, Willy Taveras, Juan Encarnacion). The DH was David Ortiz. Bartolo Colon was on the mound. So many great players on one national team! Fans were getting their pictures taken with the lineups hours before the game began.
The Venezuelan infield was less imposing, with several players out of position (Carlos Guillen at first, Edgardo Alfonzo on second) but having Miguel Cabrera at third, Bobby Abreu in the outfield and Johan Santana on the mound does a lot for a fan.
Once the game began, it was clear that the players cared about this match, too. In the bottom of the first, with Abreu and Colon facing off in a batter-pitcher duel (three 3-2 fouls eventually resulting in a walk) every Venezuelan player was standing on the top step of the dugout, intently watching the faceoff.
The Dominican Republic won, 11-5, though they only had a one-run lead in the top of the ninth. The Venezuelan star was Cabrera, who looked unstoppable. He hit a home run and a double that sure looked like another home run to me. Bill thought the ball didn't go over the fence, and replays showed he was right. Of course, Bill and I didn't see any replays at the park, so we debated it for several hours. The other Venezuelan stars were Vizquel, 3 for 4 (including two doubles), and Alfonzo, 3 for 4 with a home run.
But the true stars of the game were Oritz and Beltre, who both hit two home runs (including one each in the 5-run ninth that clinched the game). And my favorite play of the inning was the leadoff bunt single by Tejada in the top of the ninth. It showed how much these players wanted to win.
By the way, Beltre was tremendous in both games I saw. If he maintains this intensity, the Mariners will no longer regret that big contract.
Tuesday night was as different as (can I say it?) night from day. Italy played Australia and the fans were a little less intense and quite a bit more sparse. Australia started an Oriole prospect named John Stephens, who failed to break 84 on the radar gun. His offspeed pitches were in the 50's and Italy had a field day against the guy, winning 11-0 (games were called once they reached an 11-run difference after seven innings or more).
The big name was Italy's Mike Piazza. On the Aussie side, Justin Huber (Royals prospect and one-time heir apparent to Piazza while with the Mets) was most familiar to me, as was Dave Nilsson, who had put on a few pounds and looked like Terry Forster, though he didn't hit as well as Forster.
Italy's Jason Grilli had a near-perfect stint for the Italians, striking out seven, walking none and giving up only one hit. Riccardo De Santis (an actual authentic Italian native!) pitched a perfect 2.1 innings. Unfortunately, that tingle of glory would fade when he faced the Dominican Republic two days later.
The best thing about this game was the Italian lineup. The names rolled off the tongue: Giarratano, Menechino, Catalonotto, Piazza, Sinisi, Pascuccci, Saccamanno, Gregorio. Tony Giarratano, who is a shorstop prospect for the Tigers, was the best-looking player of the bunch, and he rapped several hard-hit balls against Australia, as well as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Yes, we saw the Italian team play three times.
The next day, the Italians only managed two hits against Venezuelans Freddy Garcia, Carlos Silva and Rafael Betancourt, while Cabrera continued to dominate at the plate.
Actually, the most entertaining part of the game was tracking Silva's pitch count, to see if he could outfox the limit (65 pitches per game in the first round). He retired the side on eight pitches in the fifth, but lost his control in the sixth when he actually walked a batter and threw 25 pitches in total.
The Italians briefly led the Dominican Republic team the next day, 3-2 in the top of the third. But Sosa relieved an ineffective Odalis Perez, and the team from Italy only mustered one two-out single the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Pujols absolutely smashed a pitch into the wind for a two-run homer and Beltre belted a three-run homer two innings later.
At the end of that game, Bill and I walked back to the parking lot, got in our rented car and drove to the airport. Several hours later I arrived home, gave the gifts to my kids and started to tell them about this new type of baseball tournament I had seen. I have a feeling they will be hearing about it for a long time.
But I have to ask...
Was it really necessary to play the United States national anthem at each game? I think that playing the anthem of each team is great (Italy wins the "longest national anthem ever" award), but insisting on a U.S. anthem when the U.S. isn't playing seems pretty overbearing to me.
Why weren't rosters made available to fans at the game? We had no idea who was in the bullpen for each team because there was nothing at the ballpark that reflected the most current rosters.
The Ceremony of the Flags was a nice touch.
About the Fans
During the Italy/Australia game, a couple of obnoxious American fans settled in behind us. I could tell they were American because they continually berated all the players, and they seemed to think that the rest of us enjoyed their foul-mouthed diatribes. I couldn't help comparing these ugly Americans to the Dominican and Venezuelan fans, who loved their baseball with a passion and cheered wildly (and positively) throughout the games.
After each home run or big play, the fans would go wild, running around the outfield grass with their flags and celebrating. They didn't boo the other team. In fact, he only boos I heard occurred when the Dominican fans saw someone wearing an A-Rod shirt (A-Rod was persona non grata for his decision to play for USA instead of the Dominican Republic).
America started outsourcing its baseball-playing "jobs" a long time ago. The World Baseball Classic made me realize that we are outsourcing our passion for the game, as well. Perhaps that's inevitable. If so, I wonder what it means for our business base.
There were some other great games during the first round of the WBC, of course. Canada beat USA, the Netherlands actually no-hit Panama, and Cuba beat Panama in a thriller behind their superb young second baseman, Yuliesky Gourriel. David Tybor used Win Probability to track the game, and here's what it looked like:
References and Resources
Bill, an old friend whom I last saw about ten years ago, contacted me out of the blue to suggest we go to the WBC together. Thanks for thinking of me, Bill.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.