March 9, 2006
"Hey, do you know who South Africa's closer is?"
"We're about to find out."
I had that exchange with Rany Jazayerli Tuesday night around 10 p.m. Arizona time, when I thought I was about to witness the greatest upset in baseball history. The Republic of South Africa's team, consisting largely of amateurs from a nation with no professional baseball, had just taken an 8-7 lead over Canada, maybe the seventh- or eighth-best national team in the world. A team that would go something like 4-158 in a full season of play among the World Baseball Classic teams was three outs away from being 1-0.
It wasn't to be, as RSA's lack of pitching depth hurt them. (I joked that South Africa couldn't have a closer because they'd never had a lead in the ninth, which isn't far from the truth.) A triple and a double on back-to-back pitches tied the game, and Canada went on to score three more runs for an 11-8 win. It was fairly entertaining watching them celebrate in the ninth, so excited to beat a team that might have trouble reaching the postseason in a quality high-school conference.
They've been playing baseball in South Africa for more than a century, but the game hasn't developed deep roots. Most of the players on the national team play in local leagues, what we might equate to Men's Adult Baseball League baseball here in the States. Their roster includes a number of teenagers, and just six players who have professional experience. Losing 11-8 while holding two leads (4-3 as well) during the game, is arguably the second-biggest achievement in the nation's baseball history, after a win at the 2000 Olympics.
For a few minutes, though, they were able to dream, and those of us watching couldn't help but be caught up in the moment. When second baseman Paul Bell lined his double into the left-field corner in the bottom of the eighth, clearing the bases, I was on my feet waving runners around like Wendell Kim after a breakfast of Froot Loops and Red Bull. (Thank god I was in Section 205 and not the press box.) I don't think I'd been that excited while watching baseball since Aaron Boone's home run in 2003, or so disappointed by a loss since Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS.
That moment--cheering a team of amateur ballplayers from a world away as they attempted to pull off a miracle--was just the last in a series of unexpected highs created by my WBC doubleheader. I've written about the many problems with the inaugural event, the awkward timing and significant loss of top players and the problems with trying to make the WBC both a championship and a marketing tool.
In the moment, though, all of those concerns took a back seat to the baseball, and the baseball was very entertaining. People cared--they cheered, they booed, they sung, they waved flags, they showed passion, passion for the game of baseball and for their country. Even the American fans, the ones at Chase Field earlier in the day, the ones who I've argued don't care that much about this exhibition series, were into the action.
That first game was an eye-opener for me. I had expected a crowd of maybe 25,000 people--they had 33,000--and an atmosphere more closely resembling the exhibition games I'd attended for four days. Walking over to the ballpark, however, I was struck by how many people were around; there's an esplanade outside of Chase Field with a bar across from the park, and both were packed. There were radio-station vans playing music--in Spanish--and a party atmosphere. All this on a Tuesday afternoon in March!
Inside, the park was loud, even 20 minutes prior to the game. The concourses were filled, with long lines at concession and souvenir stands. WBC promotional videos were playing on the scoreboard, and every shot of a Mexican player was greeted with raucous cheers. Introductions, a formality at All-Star Games and first games of the World Series, were an event. I'd estimate that the crowd favored the Mexican squad by about two to one; not exactly a home game for the U.S., but not as notable as say, some of the "home" crowds the U.S. soccer team sometimes contends with. Still, chants of "USA!" were outnumbered--and frequently shouted down by--chants of "Mexico!"
On my right was a couple, maybe mid-50s, decked out in red, white and green, the woman wearing a hat and an airhorn, also in the ubiquitous colors of Mexico. What caught my attention wasn't that they were there, or that the lady was cheering wildly as her nation's players came out from the dugout. What caught my attention was that she was also cheering the U.S. players, if not as passionately, definitely as sincerely. She applauded Mexico's first-inning hit and Rodrigo Lopez's three shutout innings, but also a well-turned U.S. double play and Derrek Lee's tiebreaking home run.
With help from a woman in the row behind me (Patty, if you're reading this, thanks), I asked the woman a few questions in the fifth inning. Sarita and her husband had made the trip up from Zacatecas to see the game; in fact, she had a sign on her, saying "hi" to her son back home, a baseball player. She showed me her hat, signed by Oliver Perez, Esteban Loaiza and Jorge Cantu
What I remember best about Sarita, though, wasn't the hat or the sign or her singing the Mexican national anthem. What I remember best is her response when I asked her about her cheering both teams. Rather than talk to Patty, she directed her answer at me with surprising forcefulness: "I love Mexico. I also love baseball. I cheer for good plays by everybody, Mexicans or Americans."
That--not the All-Star teams some countries have, or the neat logowear, or even the possibility of crowning a champion--is what the World Baseball Classic is at its best. A 50-something woman from Zacatecas making her way to Phoenix because she loves baseball. How many Saritas are out there, loving baseball in places where baseball isn't in the bloodstream of their peers the way we in America have it? This is for those people, whose love for our game is no less than ours, but who may be as out of place for that love as soccer fans are here in the U.S.
The game itself was, if not an afterthought, certainly not anything to affect the success of the day. The U.S. won 2-0, and it wasn't as close as it looked. Jake Peavy and six relievers who had ERAs in the 2.00s and below last year combined to allow four hits, no walks, and not a single runner past second base. The next day would bring a different storyline, but on Tuesday, the U.S. staff looked untouchable.
Am I a WBC convert? Will Carroll, a big believer in the event, certainly enjoyed my reaction to the games, and those of you who've been reading my criticisms of the event may be surprised by how enthusiastic I am. There are still problems that need to be solved; one solution to the timing issue--the one from which most problems emanate--is to push the event back two or three weeks, lop a week off of the exhibition season, and move Opening Day accordingly. A 162-game major-league season would still be achieved by removing a couple of off days and scheduling some doubleheaders, and the World Series might slip back one week, into early November, every four years. If Bud Selig is sincere in his beliefs that to make this work everyone has to look beyond their own interests, then he should be willing to force his fellow owners to each sacrifice four home dates to make the WBC a better event, while also getting his TV masters to approve a season that bleeds into sweeps.
If November and December have problems of their own, a late March event would likely get the highest number of participants while allowing for pitcher usage befitting a world championship. A significant weakness of the current format are the rules in place to protect pitchers. They're necessary, but they greatly reduce the chance for what makes the NCAA basketball tournament so popular: upsets. A baseball upset is most likely going to happen when a pitcher has the day of his life, shutting down a poweful lineup. If a team is forced to take out its best pitcher--and I should add, these rules in place to protect professionals would mean the least to the teams and pitchers most likely to benefit from their removal--its chances of making history are reduced, in some cases, significantly. Both underdogs Tuesday got good starts from pitchers who never saw the fifth inning.
I no longer doubt that the World Baseball Classic is a worthwhile event, one that will help to grow the game in new places and stoke fires in places where it already lives. People do care about this, and if they don't care as much here as they do elsewhere, well, that's quite possibly a feature, not a bug. Any event that can make two people as disparate as Paul Bell and my new friend Sarita from Zacatecas happy on the same day, as the WBC did Tuesday, is on the right path.