A whole different baseball world where team really means team
Posted: Tuesday Mar 21, 2006 4:10 AM
There was one thing you could count on in the final of the World Baseball Classic: Nobody was going to refuse to play left field.
Not on the Japanese side, where everything is done for the team. Certainly not among the Cubans, who do everything for Fidel.
Major leaguers might have learned something had they been watching Monday night. And, surely they had plenty of time to tune in because all but two of them were eliminated from the tournament before the final game.
Baseball is different in the rest of the world, and not just because the Big Red Machine means something else to Cuba than it did to Cincinnati.
Alfonso Soriano should know that, because he played for the Dominican Republic team before it was eliminated by Cuba. But there he was Monday getting a major league attitude and refusing to take the field in his exhibition game debut with the Washington Nationals because they wouldn't let him play second base.
Meanwhile, Japan's players were out on the field stretching for a night game before most San Diegans had even finished lunch. When they were done, they went out and scored four first-inning runs on the way to the first WBC title with a 10-6 win over Cuba.
The team concept is alive and well in baseball, judging from the teams that made the WBC finals. It doesn't thrive nearly so well among the spoiled millionaires who play it in the United States.
Soriano throws a fit because he can't play where he wants. Barry Bonds takes over a big corner of the locker room with his big easy chair, reality show videographers and people to protect him from the media meanies.
And, across spring training, players try to figure out ways to avoid those pesky fans who want nothing more than a friendly nod, photo or maybe even an autograph.
The WBC was a surprise hit, even with every star but Ichiro Suzuki out before the final game. And it gave us some surprising sights.
How about the Cubans, who swallowed hard after making the final out and then lined up as a team to go out and congratulate the Japanese on their win? Some even brought cameras to have their pictures taken with Ichiro.
Or the Japanese, who didn't have a bulging muscle between them but certainly understood how the game used to be played with their own version of small ball. Being Japanese, they also had a very good understanding of what it meant to be together on a team.
The best thing about the tournament may not be that it drew sellout crowds to Petco Park and provided the most entertaining month of March baseball ever, but that those who watched discovered there is a big world of baseball outside the major leagues.
A world where individual numbers don't mean everything. A world where the cleanup hitter might be asked - and actually know how - to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
It wasn't perfect, but it gave a glimpse of what a real World Series might look like. Not one between the Yankees and Dodgers, but perhaps one between the Yanks and the Cubans.
Cuba, the team the U.S. government tried to keep out of the tournament, was the biggest winner even though the Cubans came up losers in the final. Take the team that Cuba fielded and put it in the majors, and it could easily contend for a World Series spot.
Not only that, but the players come cheap.
Soriano is scheduled to make $10 million this year. But if he was born one island to the west in the Caribbean, he would be making $20 a month for Castro's team.
And he wouldn't be giving the coaches any lip about what position he would be playing.
There are other benefits to being an athlete in Cuba, a country of 11 million where some are more equal than others. Cuban players get better housing, and more perks than the average worker.
And then there are the bonuses.
When boxer Joel Casamayor won a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics for Cuba, he returned home and was given a bicycle for his win. Casamayor sold the bike, buying a pig with the proceeds so his family could eat.
Hard to say what Cuba's players will get after their impressive performance in the inaugural WBC. After all, what can the Cuban government offer players who have now seen the riches of America on display at sparkling Petco Park and in the five-star hotel where they stayed in San Diego?
For Cuba, the tournament wasn't a success until the plane lifted off from San Diego with everyone on board.
The players had to be dazzled, even dazed, by what they saw. They weren't so speechless, though, that they forgot the party line.
"I think this Classic is historic because it demonstrated that not only the players from the paid major leagues can carry the supremacy. We've demonstrated that what matters is sacrifice, human values and the effort you give on the field,'' Cuban outfielder Frederich Cepeda said.
That, of course, was meant to sound good back home. But in this tournament, it made some sense.
Baseball was all about being a team again, if only for a few weeks.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org