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Upsets, emotions build buzz for WBC

Wed., March 11, 2009

Tourney bigger, better than expected

Who needs baseball in the Olympics? Let the IOC kick the sport out forever, if it wants to be grouchy. As long as we have the World Baseball Classic, we’re happy.

Three years ago, the WBC hooked me against my will. The loaded U.S. team finished eighth. Big-league stars gagged on the pressure no matter what country they played for. International baseball bully Cuba choked in the final. And I ended up wearing a “Japan” cap all summer. Now, even as I resist, it’s happening again.

On Monday I built my evening around watching the Kingdom of the Netherlands play baseball on TV. When the unknown Dutch lads took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning against stacked-with-superstars Puerto Rico, my wife came to see what all the yelling was about.

“This could be one of the biggest upsets I’ve ever seen,” I said, explaining that a team of teenagers and unknowns for the Netherlands had beaten the all-star-filled Dominican Republic on Saturday and now might whip an even mightier Puerto Rican team, with Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, even though they were playing in San Juan.

Before I could explain the vast ramifications, I was halted.

“The Dutch baseball team?” my wife said slowly. “I think CNBC has finally gotten to you.”

Thanks goodness Puerto Rico finally won, 3-1. How tight were the winners? They left 21 men on base. Afterward, their players, with MLB all-stars everywhere, looked like their baseball souls had been saved. The only person in a Netherlands uniform most fans heard of was the pitching coach – Bert Blyleven.

Pudge Rodriguez, who hurled stuff around the dugout after he fanned with the bases loaded against a 19-year-old, can enter Cooperstown someday without wearing sunglasses and a mask.

The WBC still draws lots of bemused mockery. Many chuckled when Nationals manager Manny Acta called the Dutch win over the Dominican “the biggest upset since the U.S. beat Russia in the ’80 Olympics.”

The whole goofy WBC, with four first-round pools of games all over the globe, looks like an ungainly animal built by a committee. A couple of teams still look like they can’t beat anybody. Just like the Dutch, until they did.

You can’t claim, with a straight face, that the event is truly important or that such a fluky format proves a great deal. For American fans, it’s totally outgunned by the NCAA basketball tournament. But it sure is a lot of fun.

The central feature of the WBC is that, more than in any other major sport, the “wrong” team can win one game on dumb luck, defense, unfamiliar pitchers, inspiration and a whole lot of late-inning choking.

The Dutch showed how against the Dominican Republic. They scored three runs in the first inning without a hit to the outfield – dribblers, walks, errors and wild pitches.

They never scored again. The Dominicans took a win for granted, suddenly woke up in midgame, terrified, then ran the bases like they were headless.

“Any given day, any team can beat any team,” said Italy’s Chris Denorfia. He should know. His single and three doubles, after batting tips from hitting coach Mike Piazza, helped Italy knock huge favorite Canada out of the WBC on Monday.

The heart of Canada’s order is Russell Martin, Justin Morneau and Jason Bay, who averaged 100 RBIs in the majors last year. Italy counts on stars like Davide Dallospendale and Giuseppe Mazzanti.

“This was like a playoff game, even though I’ve never been in the playoffs,” bubbled Adam Dunn after the United States’ one-run win over Canada, adding, “If the playoffs are better than this … ”

General fans might appreciate the WBC more if they realized the buzz it creates in big-league clubhouses. No game draws athletes from more distant parts of the world

On Saturday, commissioner Bud Selig had wandered into the clubhouse during a Cubs-Brewers spring training game in Arizona.

“I was talking to the trainers about – well, you can guess what I was asking them about – and I heard all this yelling coming out of the training room,” Selig said.

“I went inside and there were 15 players going crazy screaming at the TV, rooting for the last out of the U.S.-Canada game. (Brewers general manager) Doug Melvin and (assistant GM) Gord Ash are both Canadians. They were both cheering like little kids. If you’d closed your eyes, you’d have thought it was the World Series.”

Without doubt, the WBC has caught on internationally more than it has in the United States. The rivalry between Japan and South Korea is long and bitter with both teams advancing to the next round after splitting two games in recent days in Tokyo. Games in Latin countries often end with crowds dancing on the fields.

“The first WBC game I saw on TV in ’06, David Ortiz for the Dominican hit a home run off Johan Santana for Venezuela and there were people celebrating on the field in the first inning,” Selig said.

No one thinks the WBC, played in March before the MLB season even starts, will rival the World Series. Selig, though he’d never say it, probably wouldn’t even want that. But even he’s surprised at what his game has cooked up, in part because Olympic baseball has been a disappointing anti-climactic stage for the sport.

“Isn’t it an interesting experience?” Selig said. “I read quotes from our (MLB) players saying it’s the most emotional game they’ve ever played in.”

Baseball wanted to create a March shindig to boost the international game, sell some tickets and TV time, maybe thumb the eye of the Olympics a bit. It’s too soon to tell. But the game may have stumbled onto something that’s a little bigger and better than it expected.

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