HOW COULD a baseball fan not love the World Baseball Classic? Instead of meaningless spring training games, the WBC last week gave us J.J. Putz of the Mets and Team USA pitching to Jason Bay of the Red Sox and Canada in a grueling eight-pitch at bat with the tying run on second base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth in front of more than 40,000 fans on their feet screaming. It gave us the Netherlands, a team with one major leaguer (Marlins pitcher Rick VandenHurk who didn't play), storming the field after upsetting the star-studded Dominican Republic while hitting the ball out of the infield three times (none for hits). And it gave us Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Samurai Japan, asked to describe his emotions on the eve of play, replying, "My heart is burning."
Of course, you could ignore the tournament altogether and concern yourself with the copious details of other dramas of spring. Like, say, a Florida throwing session by sore-shouldered Red Sox pitcher Brad Penny, which is what The Boston Globe did on Monday. There were no reports of anybody's heart burning over his bullpen work.
The WBC is a gift for baseball fans: games are being played at a very high level by many of the greatest players in the world, motivated by pride and nationalism rather than money. Yet America seems not to know what to make of the gift. Only seven U.S. newspapers (three outside of New York) bothered covering the U.S. team in Toronto as it advanced out of round 1 play. Wrote one absentee, Bob Ryan of the Globe, "Our teams are concerned with a proper preparation for the upcoming baseball season. The WBC is distasteful to our teams on more than one level." It's true: Some owners have groused privately about losing players to the WBC—the same owners who have no problem collecting their cut of Major League Baseball's growing international revenues. Some players are less than enthused too. For various reasons such stars as Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Alfonso Soriano chose not to play.
There is something singularly obvious about the WBC's critics: They do not attend the event. To be witness to the competition is to be won over by it, a truth made most obvious by the U.S. players, who are emerging as the best ambassadors for making the WBC a truly signature event. Be it Jimmy Rollins and Adam Dunn barreling through infielders trying to bust up double plays, or a Yankee (Derek Jeter) and a Red Sox (Dustin Pedroia) turning a slick double play as easily as they needle one another in the clubhouse, or the players bonding over rollicking team dinners ("We let Derek and Chipper [Jones] reach for the check, since they're the veterans," David Wright said), the USA superstars are playing with a love for the game, country and one another. They are everybody's all-Americans.
"I love it," Wright said. "It's not just a great baseball experience but a great personal experience, to be around this group of guys, the fun we're having on the field and in the clubhouse ... it's a blast."
If the players are sold, then the fans can be sold. Said U.S. manager Davey Johnson, "Every guy I talked to was really honored to be on the team. The big thing is, this has to be a great experience for every player for it to grow in the U.S.—to represent your country and to know you're going to get enough playing time. If you can do that, guys are sold, and it can be as big as it is in Japan. Well, they like eight-hour practices, so maybe not big like that."
Try telling the Samurai Japan members that they should be preparing for their pro teams instead of representing their country. Samurai Japan drew more than 30,000 people for workouts in the southern town of Miyazaki, with people camped out overnight for tickets and team buses hardly able to squeeze through streets clogged with fans. The rivalry between Japan (2006 WBC champs) and Korea (2008 Olympic champs) is so intense that it makes the Yankees--Red Sox look like a church picnic softball game.
That the two reigning major international champions are Asian eats at the U.S. players. (Team USA finished a disappointing sixth in the '06 WBC and won the bronze medal at the '08 Beijing Games.) Said Jones, "We feel we've got something to prove." Last Saturday, in its first game of pool play, the motivated U.S. won a thriller against Canada 6--5, with Putz finally getting Bay on a fly ball to end the game. Putz called it the highlight of his career. Rollins compared the atmosphere with Game 1 of the World Series five months ago, and Pedroia said his heart was pounding. "With the adrenaline flowing, it shocks your body," Pedroia said. "This definitely gets you locked in a little more than spring training. It can only help you get ready for the season." The next night the U.S. trailed Venezuela 3--2 in the sixth before busting loose for a 15--6 win.
WBC 3.0, scheduled for 2013, will need tweaking. Tickets are overpriced (most ranging from $48 to $150), so thousands of empty seats at the first-round venues in Toronto, San Juan and Mexico City gave a minor league look to the proceedings. There are too many off days, with the teams playing in the March 23 finals looking at probably eight games in nearly three weeks. And there is no denying that patriotism aside, the tournament is all about commercial aspiration. The minute the fledgling China team, for instance, wins a game in a WBC, Major League Baseball will be that much closer to tapping into the enormous Chinese consumer market.
But for now, the international passion and competitive balance—witness upstart Australia's 17--7 thrashing of Mexico on Sunday—are already there. And Team USA, with its enthusiasm, talent and fellowship, is worth following. Is your heart burning yet?