Jeffrey M. Boan/Associated Press
David Wright is congratulated by Kevin Youkilis (21), Derek Jeter, second from right, and Shane Victorino after a 6-5 win in the bottom of the ninth over Puerto Rico at the World Classic Baseball game in Miami on Tuesday. Wright’s base hit drove in Brian Roberts and Jimmy Rollins.
Less than 24 hours before Tuesday’s U.S.-Puerto Rico elimination game in the World Baseball Classic, Tim Dalhberg wrote a column for the Associated Press wire services that began this way:
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 (right) 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 [stats] to hand Cuba its first loss. …
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…
Before Tuesday, the only news the U.S. team made in the WBC was, in no particular order:
== Getty “mercy ruled” in an 11-1 loss to Puerto Rico.
== Injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Chipper Jones and Ryan Braun took them out of action, and resulted in catcher Brian McGann playing the outfield for the first time. Manager Johnson also said that if he had to, he’d have forfeited a game because of a lack of players.
== Johnson, the former Dodgers skipper, slipping out to attend a step-son’s wedding.
== A dust-up with the Dutch team over Bryan Engelehardt posing too long after a meaningless home run, to which which U.S. reliever Matt Lindstrom decided to throw behind the next hitter, the dangerous Vince Rooi. Johnson said Lindstrom told him his shoulder was sore, and that’s what caused it.
Seems logical enough, with all that’s been going on with the U.S. team.
From a U.S. baseball fan’s perspective, the blase attitude generally expressed by many in the media is easily and eagerly regurgitated by those who either are so out of tune with this tournament that they feel better trashing it, or are so indifferent about it that its easier to speak ill of it because they’re trying to justify their lack of interest in it.
It’s probably just a residual effect as well from the players who have opted out of the competition for fear of … whatever they fear having millions of dollars resting on their arms and shoulders and rib cages, when a “meaningless exhibition” could endanger their livelihood.
Kind of like the struggle Manny Ramirez seems to be facing with a sore hamstring from trying to play the outfield just one day in spring training.
Just when everyone seemed ready to toss this whole baby with the bathwater, the U.S. pulls off a bottom-of-the-ninth victory, knocking out that same team that mercy ruled ‘em a couple of days ago.
And, perhaps, the buzz may be back for those who have tried to dismiss it (story linked here), especially since the U.S. has now qualifed for the semifinals to be played this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Or, at least a double-take. A U-turn. Pretending now to be on board.
Now, does it matter? Probably, since the U.S. team somehow made it this far, when in the inaugural event, they didn’t get past the final eight and seemed to be not that frustrated so much by it. Willing their way into the Final Four seems to be a major step in the process.
For those not closely following, the U.S. can lose tonight’s game against Venezuela … it’s only for seeding purposes and could determine whether the Americans face Japan or Cuba in the next round of win-or-go home. So don’t read too much into the results
We caught up with Steve Phillips, the former Mets GM and current ESPN analyst doing the Pool B games in San Diego, including tonight’s elimination contest, and he agrees with much that’s been written, like Dalhberg’s column. But he also agrees with the recent assessment of the WBC by MLB commissioner Bud Selig when he called it “remarkable.”
“Among most baseball people, maybe I’m in the minority, but I love it,” said Phillips. “The whole concept is phenomenal. There have been some unbelieveable stories, in the way Puerto Rico has performed, the Netherland’s story is fantastic, and a guy like Pudge Rodriguez, without the WBC, may not have had a place to showcase himself and found a job.”
Phillips doesn’t want to be the spokesman for defending the event, but he will if it means that negative attitudes are trying to sink it.
For those who choose to point out all the shortcomings so far in this event, Phillips has an answer for that as well.
“We shouldn’t think, ‘What’s the problem with the World Baseball Classic,’ it’s ‘what’s the problem with the U.S.?’” Phillips said. “Maybe we are focused on trying to fix the wrong thing.”
Dalberg’s column, while assuming the U.S. was on its way out the door and was attempting to problem solve, is still useful. And Phillips agrees — to fix the American’s problem of nagging injuries and lack of players who want to commit because they feel it could compromise their spring training routine, players who are all-in from the start must be recruited. Phillips likens it to the recent changes in the structure of the U.S. Olympic basketball team.
“You can’t commit half-heartedly to this, especially when you compare the U.S. to the Cubans, Korea, Japan and the other Carribean countries,” said Phillips. “Many of them have the benefit of playing winter ball, and they’re in good shape when this begins. Cuba is already in mid-season in their leagues.
“What the U.S. needs is a more structured preparation process, not just making spring training two weeks longer. I think they need to have a combine, a three-week minicamp prior to spring training, play intersquad games. Some people may say that makes the season too long, but when you look at the ‘Dream Team’ in basketball, they’ve given a two-year committment to play in qualifying events and practices. And they still get the best players.
“I know the ‘Dream Team’ is preparing for the Olympics, and that has a certain sort of credibility that the WBC hasn’t got in that stature yet, but if you can get the best players to commit now, it could work out better in the end.
“There are other tweaks you can make about having too many days off between games, or rules about replacing injured players. But you see what guys like Roy Oswald did to prepare for this. He was starting to throw back in mid-December instead of January. He had five bullpen sessions instead of one during that time. That extra work has paid off, while maybe others haven’t done enough. The training has to be more structured, not leaving it to the devices of the players to let them do it.
“If I’m a general manager, I’m not looking to eliminate the World Baseball Classic, but looking for more structure so we can say we did everything we could to eliminate any kind of issues with injuries. It’s easy to see a player get hurt during the WBC and say, ‘Ah, ha, I told you it wouldn’t work.’ Players get hurt in spring training just as easily.”
The WBC has had a couple of exposure moments where it’s a sitting duck, another reflection of Selig’s lack of forsight, when it comes to those who want to dismiss it.
But, with games like Tuesday night, there are more “Ah, ha!” moments of real entertainment. And enlightenment. And … success?
The process of this tournament is far more important than the outcome. If the U.S. doesn’t win, it’s not a failure. But it sure is a lot better for the future of the WBC, as long as it’s played in the U.S., for an American team to at least make it to the Final Four.
“And this is the right time to have it,” Phillips adds. “Everyone else may think it’s best during the All-Star break or after the season, but this really is the least disruptive time in the major-league season.”
Maybe because, considering everything else, it’s the time of year when a guy like Lasorda may be more energized to be the head cheerleader. The fact he has a team worth cheering for Friday night at Dodger Stadium says a lot about progress overcoming unnecessary hurdles that the U.S. team seems to want to put in its own way.
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