The World Baseball Classic comes to a merciful end next week at Dodger Stadium, though the odds are it will end earlier for a U.S. team that apparently didn’t take Tommy Lasorda to heart when he said it was their patriotic duty to win one for the home team.
Never mind that the Americans are so hobbled by injuries that they have a hard time fielding a starting nine. Even healthy they were going to have difficulty with teams that really seem to care about whether they win or not.
The Cubans certainly care. They better, because Fidel Castro is keeping a close watch on things, even suggesting some strategy to go up against Japan’s pitching.
The Venezuelans care, too, and so does their president. Hugo Chavez wasn’t in Miami to watch his countrymen eliminate the Netherlands over the weekend, but even from afar he couldn’t stand the thought of Magglio Ordonez being booed by Venezuelan fans simply because he was good friends with the leftist leader.
“Viva Magglio, and all our patriots!” Chavez said.
All those patriots are having a nice tournament so far, which isn’t all that surprising since most of them are on major league rosters. The same goes for Puerto Rico and, to a lesser extent, Japan, which got six shutout innings out of Daisuke Matsuzaka to hand Cuba its first loss.
Parity reigns in the WBC, or at least it has since pretenders like China and Italy made quick exits. The best players play in the United States because that’s where the money is, but three out of every 10 of them hail from somewhere else.
To them, the WBC means something, even with goofy rules that make it seem more like Little League than the big leagues. Putting on a uniform with their country’s name on the front gets them as passionate as Lasorda was earlier this month when he tried to get the American players to buy into winning for their country’s sake.
“It’s our game. Baseball is America’s game. It doesn’t belong to the Italians or the Cubans or the Koreans or the Japanese,” Lasorda said. “It’s our game, and we’re not going to let them beat us.”
Those were interesting words, if only because they were coming from the man Bud Selig appointed to be global ambassador for the WBC. Apparently, Lasorda’s idea of global begins at Dodger Stadium and doesn’t extend past New York City.
But Lasorda has the wrong job anyway. What he should be doing is managing the U.S. team.
It’s not that Davey Johnson doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a longtime baseball guy who guided four different major league teams over 14 years and managed a group of minor leaguers to the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics.
But Lasorda might have provided a spark that seems to be missing on a U.S. team that is just 3-2 and is one loss away from elimination. He might have brushed aside the objections of various major league teams and used pitchers as he saw fit to win games, not stay on spring training schedules.
He might have seen to it that the players on the U.S. team began conditioning even before spring training and were in the same kind of form that players from other countries seem to be. He might have twisted a few more arms to get the right players to commit.
And he certainly wouldn’t have begged off Saturday’s game with Puerto Rico because he had a wedding to go to.
Johnson ended up at the game, getting there just as it was starting, but the message had been sent. If the manager doesn’t care enough to be there, how can the players care?
They didn’t against Puerto Rico, getting blown out 11-1 in a game that was made even more embarrassing because it ended in the seventh inning on the mercy rule. The next day, just 11,059 people bought tickets for a game against the Netherlands the United States had to win to avoid elimination.
The fact that the WBC hasn’t really caught on in the United States isn’t all that surprising. The pool concept is a little hard to grasp, spring training is barely underway, and there’s no history of “Dream Teams” playing for their country to lay a proper foundation.
At times, it seems like the whole thing was created because of a desperate need to fill hours of programming on the new MLB channel.
That’s not the way it looks to the Cubans, though, who have their national pride on the line in every game. Venezuela and Puerto Rico don’t see it like that, either, and neither does Japan.
To them it’s like a World Series, only better. So much so that Venezuela’s starting pitcher Felix Hernandez called his team’s win over Puerto Rico on Monday “the most important game I ever pitched.”
But to the U.S. players it just seems like something to do until the real season starts.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org.