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March 16, 2006

Suspending Disbelief

Up Close at the World Baseball Classic

by Jay Jaffe

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As my curmudgeonly colleagues enjoyed pointing out, there were plenty of reasons to be cynical about the World Baseball Classic at its outset. The early-season timing requires competition from players just starting to get themselves into game shape. The pitch-count constraints (65 in the first round, 80 in the second, 95 in the third) and mercy rules (a 15-run lead after five innings or 10-run lead after seven) deviate from the stone-tablet rules by which major leaguers play. The presence of teams from the Netherlands, South Africa and Italy teams--complete with old-country ringers like Mike Piazza and Randall "Dutch" Simon--creates bracket-filling patsies unable to compete with the Latin American and Far East powerhouses. The absence of numerous marquee stars delegitimizes any claim of presenting the top-shelf talent from every country. The limited number of games between top teams and the rather unorthodox--for baseball, at least--single-elimination format in the later rounds creates a helter-skelter set of results in which the better team--gasp!--may not always win. The oversight of Selig and Co. has no standing as compared to the Olympics and their grand tradition of international competition (a grand tradition that's included all of four sets of official medals and is so hallowed that the International Olympic Committee has voted the sport off the island as of 2012 unless it bows to their whims). The list goes on...

But as the first round revealed, even the hardest heart is capable of being warmed once the games begin. The sudden presence of baseball in early March--not the lazy exhibition walkthroughs in front of somnolent audiences of sun-worshippers but tooth-and-nail battles between bitter rivals in front of frenzied fanatics--trumps all. Either find a way to enjoy the first (relatively) meaningful baseball in four and a half months, or fill out your bracket and kiss Andrew Jackson goodbye.

As of five weeks ago, I had been planning my own sun-worshipping Florida pilgrimage when my brother-in-law Adam upped the ante by suggesting a couple of second-round WBC games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Though mindful of my own reservations about the tourney, I've got enough experience in marquee event attendance to know that even the most pilloried events--such as the birthed-in-scandal 2002 Winter Olympics in my hometown of Salt Lake City--look much better when you're holding a fistful of ducats. As my wife, Andra, likes to say, we're "event people"; it doesn't take much arm-twisting to induce us to hunt big games. So with her blessing, we procured a quartet of tickets for the Pool D winner versus Pool C winner matchup on Monday, March 13 (Adam's girlfriend Nicole would also be accompanying us), and a boys-only pair for the previous night's matchup pairing the Pool D winner and the Pool C runner-up. With the Dominican Republic and Venezuela likely to come out of the D bracket and Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama vying for the C slots, we were virtually assured of a pair of high-end Latin-flavored ballgames.

As the first round of play also revealed, that Latin flavor is one of the driving forces behind these games, a point sorely underestimated by critics of the Classic. We jaded Americans may not see the obvious need for a tournament celebrating the internationalization of our national pastime, but this tournament is an emphatic acknowledgment the game has produced tremendous pipelines of talent in several regions, talent that has created its own distinct traditions and heroes and fashioned its own identities within several sets of borders beyond the U.S.

And in some ways, the U.S. fans need this tournament as much as any other nation. I have to admit that even as a savvy, well-read fan, that up until a couple of years ago I was largely ignorant of which Hispanic players beyond the Yankees came from which country. They're not interchangeable, and confusing a Puerto Rican with a Dominican or a Panamanian is just as disrespectful as mixing up Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Understanding the basics of the relationship between Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth of the United States and, say, the Dominican Republic, a sovereign developing nation which has nonetheless seen in excess of 200,000 of its citizens emigrate to Puerto Rico in search of a better life, offers at least some small insight not only into the tournament but the culture of major league baseball and the greater world beyond.

OK, enough with the civics lesson. More or less as we predicted, the Dominican team won Pool D, sweeping through Venezuela, Italy and Australia with a minimum of trouble despite the late scratches of Pedro Martinez (whose toe injury has slowed his start) and Vladimir Guerrero (who lost three cousins in an auto accident earlier this month and withdrew from the roster). Venezuela also advanced despite losing 11-5 to the D.R. team in a tight game broken open by a five-run ninth inning. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico ran the table against Panama, the Netherlands and Cuba to claim the Pool C title, and Cuba advanced by beating both the Netherlands and a Panama squad in disarray (they were eliminated via an unlikely Dutch no-hitter on the day we arrived).

The tournament organizers threw a switcheroo at us, however: our two games swapped time slots to put the hometown team in prime time against their most bitter rivals, the Dominican Republic team. Andra and Nicole were adamant that this was the matchup they wanted to attend, requiring us to explore the vigorous aftermarket for tickets.

Sunday, March 12, 9 PM: Puerto Rico vs. Dominican Republic

We arrived at Hiram Bithorn Stadium--named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the majors, circa 1942--about ninety minutes before gametime to find a frenzied scene outside the park. Salsa music blared, airhorns sounded, thundersticks pinged (those inflatable abominations make a decidedly "aluminum" sound when they're banged together) and packs of Puerto Rican and Dominican fans waved flags, chanted and danced to the rhythms. Even to an American fan who can claim attendance at a World Series clincher in the Bronx, not to mention a large handful of tense Yanks-Red Sox matchups, this was an entirely higher level of tension, chaos, and sensory overload outside a ballpark. The atmosphere was as electrifying as jamming a steak knife into a wall socket. Faced with the need to procure a pair of extra tickets to the sold-out event, we were anything but loose.

We began our discussions with a tall, broad-shoulder Dominican man asking $80 apiece for a pair of $50 tickets. He had been asking $100 a pop earlier, he confided, but wanted to get inside the park to join the fun (keep in mind this was still well over an hour before game time). We haggled and in doing so, drew a curt dismissal. Our next discussion was with an enthusiastic Puerto Rican wearing a replica flag as a bandana. He wanted $100 per for a pair of $75 tix down the rightfield line. As we negotiated with him, a visibly intoxicated seller brandishing a seating chart horned in on the racket, claiming his $50 seats, for which he was asking $100 apiece, were superior. The scene got tense, and I backed off, letting Andra and Adam, both of whom can speak Spanish, work their way through the conversations as I scanned the crowd for our Dominican contact. The second Puerto Rican soon wandered away. Finally our bandana-bedecked friend--citing a need to get into the park as well--relented, punting the tickets for face value as the clock struck 8 PM. No laws were broken in this transaction, officer.

We entered the park to find that within the concourse, the fans were no less controlled. Loyalties were advertised on sleeves and heads; at least half of the people visible were wearing something to mark which side of the rivalry they were on, be it via t-shirt, replica jersey, hat, flag, or face tattoo. A ring of Puerto Rican musicians playing drums and brass instruments whipped up a frenzied, cacophonous beat while women danced among them, throngs pushed towards a D.R.-only merchandise area, the stadium shook with the cheers and jeers of fans in the stands watching Japan versus the U.S. on the Jumbotron, and a vendor hawked piņa coladas. Alas, the only food we could find on the concourse besides plantain chips was standard-issue fare from an American fast-food chain. So much for my dreams of ballpark churrasco with tostones and plastic mini-helmets full of mofongo.

The concourse became even more tightly packed as a thunderstorm started, with fans crowding around the TVs overhead to see the end of the Japan-U.S. game. We could barely see the monitors when Alex Rodriguez laced a game-winning single up the middle, to the disappointment of nearly everyone among us, and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Finally, the rain stopped, and the gals departed for their seats. Adam and I, in taking in a cold beer, missed the announcement of the starting lineups and the ceremonial first pitch, apparently delivered by a Puerto Rican boxer, but we arrived in time for the "Star Spangled Banner," reminding us that we were still, technically, on American soil. I was agog at the quality of our seats: second row behind the photographer's pit on the third base side, less than 20 feet from the back end of the D.R. dugout.

The lineups:

Puerto Rico              Dominican Republic
DH Bernie Williams       2B Alfonso Soriano
C  Ivan Rodriguez        SS Miguel Tejada
CF Carlos Beltran        1B Albert Pujols
1B Javy Lopez            DH David Ortiz
RF Jose Cruz Jr.         LF Moises Alou
LF Ricky Ledee           3B Adrian Beltre
3B Jose Valentin         RF Juan Encarnacion
SS Alex Cintron          C  Juan Brito
2B Alex Cora             CF Willy Taveras

SP Javy Vazquez          SP Bartolo Colon
On paper, there's a decided edge to the Dominican squad. Their starter, Bartolo Colon, is the reigning AL Cy Young winner, while the 1-4 hitters combined for 150 home runs in 2005 and narrowly missed claiming both MVP awards. Every player is a starter on his team save for catcher Juan Brito, who started a plurality of games for the 2004 Diamondbacks. While the entire Puerto Rico side is major leaguers, only Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Javy Lopez figure to be starters, and the biggest names here--Bernie Williams, Ivan Rodriguez--are on the downslopes of their careers. Starter Javier Vazquez, after reaching stardom with the Montreal Expos, is slated to pitch for his fourth team in as many seasons.

The Puerto Rican team, despite having the bulk of the capacity crowd (official attendance: 19,692) behind it, was the visiting side nonetheless. The game began with the unfamiliar sight of Williams in a non-pinstriped uniform taking his customary ease-my-butt-into-this-rocking-chair stance. He popped out, and then Pudge knocked a drive to right field that Encarnacion got to in time, but couldn't hold. Charitably, this was ruled a hit, reminding us that home cooking in the official scoring department isn't just confined to the lower 48. The "double" went for naught, however, and as the side was retired, the Dominican bench emptied to congratulate the fielders. Reliever Fernando Rodney, his hat askew, waved a small Dominican flag as he swapped high fives with his teammates. No lack of pride on that side.

Flag or no, the fearsome Dominican side could do no better in the first, save for a two-out error by Cintron that allowed Pujols to reach base. They did break the ice in the next inning, when Adrian Beltre, who'd already homered three times in the first round, bashed a towering shot to left-center. The Dominican fans, including a half-dozen people in the row behind us, were understandably ecstatic but the rest of the crowd, unsurprisingly, a bit subdued. The Dominican fans had even more reason to cheer in the third, when Willy Taveras led off with a single up the middle. But Taveras, after drawing four pickoff throws from Vazquez, was gunned down at the back end of a strikeout-throw out double play when Alfonso Soriano failed to connect with a 3-2 pitch. The faux pas was magnified two pitches later, when Miguel Tejada doubled down the leftfield line. Oops. The Puerto Rican contingent of the crowd erupted in jubilation when Vazquez caught Pujols looking for strike three. Punchado!

As if feeding off the crowd's energy, the P.R. team immediately stoked a rally. Beltran doubled down the right field line, and two pitches later, Lopez laced one down the left field line--the first of three hits he'd have on the night--to tie the score. One out later, Colon suddenly lost the plate. After a called strike to Ricky Ledee, he delivered four straight balls, then three more to Jose Valentin. We peered down the left field line in search of action in the bullpen, but all was quiet.

The slightly-less-rotund righty, who looks to have lost at least 10 pounds since last fall, wormed his way out of that jam and closed his night on a high note by retiring his last five hitters. He showed no signs of the shoulder troubles which forced his early exit from the AL Divisional Series. My random glances at the scoreboard's speed gun readings saw him reach 94 MPH but mostly clock in the low 90s. Vazquez closed his night with even more of a flourish, striking out Brito and Taveras, the latter his fifth on the night. His 71 pitches matched Colon's total.

Damaso Marte, traded from the World Champion White Sox to the Pirates in the offseason, was the Dominicans' first reliever. He quickly made a hash of things, walking Beltran, surrendering another double to Lopez, then a two-run single to Jose Cruz Jr., who took second on a bad throw by Taveras. Marte struck out Ledee and looked to be out of the inning when Valentin topped a ball to Beltre. But the contact was too slow, and Valentin beat the throw as the "home" crowd whipped itself into an airhorn-and-thunderstick frenzy. Marte got the hook, his exit accompanied by the familiar "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," which Adam reminded me originated at the White Sox games he was attending back in the late '70s.

Next on out of the D.R. pen was Julian Tavarez and I reminded myself to root for bad things for the new Red Sox reliever, who last caught my eye while trying to pitch with his grossly swollen, broken glove hand during the 2004 postseason. Indeed, bad things happened instantly. Alex Cintron dropped down a perfect bunt on the first pitch, and the charging Pujols could make no play as Cruz raced home to put Puerto Rico on top 4-1.

In marked contrast to the Dominican bullpen, Puerto Rico's picked up where its starter left off. Jose Santiago needed just three pitches to retire Soriano and Tejada--so much for selectivity at the plate against a guy who's thrown all of 5.2 innings in the majors over the past two years--and again, Pujols failed to get the ball out of the infield, grounding to shortstop. The P.R. juggernaut rolled right back into action when Soriano couldn't come up with a sharp grounder from Beltran. Lopez blooped a ball down the rightfield line that landed just out of reach of Encarnacion, Soriano, and Pujols, bouncing into foul territory. Cruz added another RBI to his ledger with a single to virtually the same spot, running the score to 5-1. The Dominicans behind us slumped in their seats while the rest of the crowd hooted and hollered. Steam's greatest hit accompanied Tavarez's departure, and Salomon Torres arrived to yield an RBI single to Valentin, 7-1 Puerto Rico.

As the inning ended, the Dominicans slunk back to the dugout, the wind clearly out of their sails, and the offense began pressing. David Ortiz, a total nonfactor all night, squandered a 3-1 count by grounding weakly to first base. Alou hit a hard shot down the left field line, but was nailed trying to stretch to a double. Beltre walked and Encarnacion doubled, adding another run to their "shoulda" ledger and prompting Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo to summon Kiko Calero. I expected Dominican manager Manny Acta to go to his bench in Brito's spot; platoon issues notwithstanding, one swing from Wily Mo Pena might have gotten the D.R. back in the game, but Acta opted to let Brito hit and he quickly fouled out to first base to end the threat. At that, the Dominican fans begin to disembark.

By this point Adam had gone down to left field to join Nicole. My wife arrived in his stead wearing the familiar cardboard crown of fast-food chain fame. Apparently, she'd been crowned the Queen of Section 34, and not surprisingly, had brought me the King of Beers so I could share in the royalty. Correlation doesn't prove causation, but from here, my scorecard was a mess. I missed about half of the late-inning substitutions, though the PA announcer's inability to rise above the raucous crowd's noise did me no favors, and neither did the fact that I was apparently the only fan in the ballpark with a scorebook. Seriously--nobody was selling souvenir programs or hawking even the most basic scorecard prior to the game.

All the way back to our hotel in the Condado area, horns honked, passers-by cheered, and flags waved, and at a postgame meal where poor service--endemic to the island's restaurants, apparently--allowed us to catch no fewer than four innings of the Korea-Mexico game, a crowd of morose Dominicans picked absently, silently at their meals.

Monday, March 13, 3 PM: Dominican Republic vs. Cuba

The next afternoon found Adam and I back at Hiram Bithorn for the D.R.-Cuba matchup. With the hometown crowd hanging back for the night's matchup between Puerto Rico and Venezuela and the Cubans understandably underrepresented, the ticket aftermarket for our better halves' unneeded passes was decidedly depressed. We spent a half-hour amateurishly trying to get something near face value but were swimming with sharks, and rather than press our luck, we ended up unloading our tickets at a fraction of the cost. Suffice it to say, neither of us is planning to leave our day jobs.

Our mood was brightened by the sunny, 83 degree weather. Fifteen rows back in the upper of the two sections of the ballpark, we had it made in the shade, a relief given how much time beach time we'd accumulated. The crowd was sparse (official attendance: 6,594), though there were a few small pockets of flag-wavers for Cuba. As the two lineups were introduced and anthems played, an announcement that no political signage would be tolerated was made in both Spanish and English.

Dominican Republic         Cuba
2B Placido Polanco         SS Eduardo Paret
SS Miguel Tejada           3b Michel Enriquez
1B Albert Pujols           2B Yulieski Gourriel
DH David Ortiz             RF Osmany Urrutia
LF Moises Alou             DH Yoandy Garlobo
3B Adrian Beltre           LF Freddy Cepeda
RF Juan Encarnacion        C  Ariel Pestano
C  Ronny Paulino           1B Ariel Borrero
CF Willy Taveras           CF Carlos Tabares

SP Odalis Perez            SP Vicyohandry Odelin
The Dominican lineup had just two minor tweaks from the night before. Reflecting the urgency the team felt with a game already in the loss column, Soriano, 0-for-11 on the tournament, had been benched in favor of Placido Polanco. Ronny Paulino, a promising backstop who split last year between the Pirates' Double- and Triple-A squads, was behind the plate. The Cuban team was completely unfamiliar to me, not to mention most other observers. Due in part to fear of defections, they had reportedly sent a youngish team that was light on international experience; actual demographic data was missing at the WBC site and on Clay Davenport's pitcher and hitter translations. The unfamiliarity of the names, combined with my poor eyesight and a not-so-easy-to-read display on the Jumbotron, had me scrambling to fill in my scorecard; that the positions were all announced in Spanish required me to jot down uniform numbers to connect players to their spots on the field.

Vicyohandry Odelin, the Cuban starter, offered an interesting array of pitches: low-90s fastball, an off-speed pitch that came in at about 82-83 MPH, and a hellacious curve that he'd unveil when the occasion merited it, clocking in the low 70s. His first two innings were uneventful save for hitting Pujols with a pitch, but he got into trouble in the third. Paulino drew a leadoff walk and was swapped for the speedier Taveras on a forceout. Polanco singled, and then Miguel Tejada ripped a double off the right-center field wall to plate two runs.

That was all Cuba manager Higinio Velez needed to see. He summoned Yadiel Pedroso from the bullpen, the first of what would be six relievers on the day (not to mention an untold number of visits to the mound), contributing to a glacially-paced ballgame that would skirt four hours. Pedroso walked Pujols on four straight pitches, and after retiring Ortiz on a long fly ball, looked to be out of the inning when Alou grounded to short. But Eduardo Paret's throw sailed over the first baseman's head and caromed around the generous foul territory, and both Tejada and the big Cardinals slugger hustled home, 4-0 D.R. Pedroso hit Beltre with a pitch but escaped further scoring.

On the other side, Odalis Perez had gotten off to a rocky start. Paret led off the first with a single, and though he was erased on a nice 4-6-3 double play, Yulieski Gourriel--a 21-year-old whom Davenport touted as a potential 30-homer hitter in the majors--blooped a double to left. Osmany Urrutia walked, but Perez escaped without allowing a run when Yoandy Garlobo fouled out to Pujols. From there the pitcher cruised, allowing just a bunt single in the third by Carlos Tabares before yielding to Jorge Sosa with two outs in the fourth, just 48 pitches in and having struck out three of his last four hitters.

Already comfortably ahead, the Dominicans tacked on runs in three straight innings. Paulino led off the fourth with a ground-rule double and came around to score on an error by first baseman Ariel Borrero. In the fifth, Ortiz, who homered twice in the D.R.'s opener against Venezuela, finally got his groove back. You've seen the replay by now: Big Papi connects, turns towards the D.R. dugout and tosses the bat as if he's shooing a fly as the ball not only sails over the back wall of the stadium but crosses the Tropic of Cancer. The emphatic blast--estimated at 455 feet--ran the score to 6-0.

Though they only came away with one more in the sixth, the Dominicans were within sight of subduing Cuba via the mercy rule. Paulino again walked--he'd go 2-for-2 on the day with three free passes--and Taveras doubled, chasing Jonder Martinez, the third Cuban pitcher. Polanco greeted Luis Borroto by grounding sharply back to the pitcher, who held the runners. A fielder's choice cut down Paulino at the plate, but Pujols loaded them up via an epic, nine-pitch battle. With Ortiz now at bat, a repeat of his previous result would stretch the score to 10-0 while leaving the Cubans six outs away from the humiliation of a shortened game. But Borroto didn't get anywhere near Ortiz. He threw three straight balls, got the obligatory called strike, then forced in a run with ball four, but Alou grounded into a force, ending the threat.

Somewhere in all of this, the game turned explicitly political. In the early innings, a Cessna plane had flown overhead, trailing a banner which read "Abajo Fidel," (Down with Fidel). As the Dominicans ran up their lead, a group of Cuban exile protesters behind home plate revealed single-lettered white t-shirts which spelled out the same message. The crowd called for their ejection ("Fuera! Fuera!") but security allowed them to stay once they covered their message up. A defiant Cuba team would refuse to partake in any postgame interviews as a result.

The Dominicans ran themselves out of another opportunity to pad their lead in the seventh when Ronnie Belliard, who'd taken over for Beltre, singled and was caught stealing. Two batters later Paulino was gunned down at second trying to stretch a booming drive off the wall into a double. Right after that, the Cubans finally cracked the scoreboard when Gourriel opened the home half of the seventh with a solo homer to left-center. They loaded the bases against Sosa via two hits and a walk, but with two outs, Duaner Sanchez came on and struck out pinch-hitter Elier Sanchez looking as the crowd roared in approval.

The Dominicans were still ahead 7-1 going into the bottom of the ninth, when Robinson Tejeda took the ball. He couldn't find the plate, walking the first two hitters on a combined nine pitches. Ariel Pestano fouled out to first base, and the Cubans looked to be down to their final out until Encarnacion dropped another ball out in rightfield, bringing in one run. A pinch-single by Alexi Ramirez cut the score to 7-3 as the restless crowd groaned. Fernando Rodney, crooked cap and all, came on in relief and quickly got Paret to strike out looking, but he walked Enriquez to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate.

That run would have been in the form of the dangerous Gourriel, except that the Cuban second baseman had been hit on the hand by Sanchez in the at-bat following his homer. Instead, pinch-hitter Joan Carlos Pedroso took the call. Seven drawn-out pitches and a full count later, with the small yet frenzied crowd on its feet, Pedroso struck out on a checked swing to give the Dominicans the victory.

Epilogue

Powered by an Endy Chavez home run--his second of the tournament after hitting none in the bigs last year--and a Victor Martinez grand slam, Venezuela notched a 6-0 victory over Puerto Rico on Monday night, bringing all four teams in the pool to a 1-1 record. Thus the stage was set for a pair of single-elimination games. The Dominicans topped Venezuela 2-1, with Alberto Castillo, the team's third catcher in as many days, playing the role of unlikely hero. In the seventh inning of a tight 1-1 tie, Castillo singled (I know, suspend your disbelief). One out later he stole second base, and took third on an infield single. A Miguel Tejada walk loaded the bases, and Castillo scampered home on a passed ball with the deciding run. The Cubans, meanwhile, shocked Puerto Rico by rolling up an early 4-1 lead, then hanging on to win a hotly contested 4-3 affair that saw Velez ejected amid Puerto Rico's comeback. Odelin, Cuba's fourth pitcher on the night, worked the final two innings for the save, crushing the hopes of the hometown team and sending the bracket's darkest horse to the semifinals in San Diego.

As for this humble reporter, while my skepticism about the Classic had already been whittled away in the opening round, I came away from my trip thoroughly convinced about the tournament's viability. Sure, it takes some suspension of disbelief to countenance mid-March baseball as championship caliber. But once the games begin, passion--that of the players and ours as fans--wins out every time.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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