The World Baseball Classic is a two-way mirror. You can see the way other countries play baseball, but it also reflects the way the U.S. plays it. The difference in styles is one of the more beautiful aspects of an event with some of the best baseball you'll see this side of October. It also might explain why the U.S. has failed to reach the final in any of the three tournaments. Baseball was born in America and always will be cherished as "our" game, but as with jazz, blue jeans and the mass-produced automobile, the world has taken Americana and, rather than simply copying it, crafted its own versions.
"Unsustainable" was how USA pitcher R.A. Dickey termed how the demonstrative Dominicans played baseball in the WBC, what with pitchers celebrating early-game strikeouts and dugouts emptying whenever the team scored a run. "They score a run and it's 'fiesta on,' " Dickey said. "You'd be running out of gas after about 40 games. Everybody would be saying, 'My arms are tired. My voice box is tired.'"
Dickey made his observation last Friday, a day after the Dominican Republic beat USA 3--1 and hours before Puerto Rico bounced the Americans, 4--3, using five minor league pitchers and a sixth who doesn't have a pro contract. Both games were played in Miami to the cacophony of air horns, drums and whistles—the rhythms of Latin American baseball. Earlier games in Japan and Taiwan featured Far East versions of bedlam.
For all the talk about Americans not wanting to play in the WBC, the U.S. enlisted a star-studded roster pulling down $141 million in salary. But playing with major league sensibilities—appease general managers worried about players getting hurt, a passive-aggressive approach to hitting, the American "keep an even keel" emotional suppression—did not serve the Yanks well. "You just see how everybody's passion is totally different than our country's," said second baseman Brandon Phillips. He meant it as a nod to the WBC's diversity, not as a knock to American emotional investment, though it worked in both regards.
But the mission of the tournament is to grow the game internationally, not to assuage American feelings of superiority, and MLB's metrics and plans are pointing upward. According to sources, the league could play opening games in Australia next season and in the Netherlands in 2015, while MLB is also studying a possible Yankees--Red Sox game in London and a training academy in Italy. "If we do it right," commissioner Bud Selig said, "you won't recognize the sport in a decade."
The WBC is but one part of the plan. In the depths of March, with snow still on the ground in places and Opening Day weeks away, the tournament gave the baseball fan the gift of spirited play. Japan with its small-ball perfection, the Netherlands with its honkbal, and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico with their fiestaball reached the semis in San Francisco. The WBC didn't need the Americans to define success.