The passionate crowds at Marlins Park for the opening round of the World Baseball Classic last weekend provided animated evidence that what was once our national pastime is now Latin America’s game.
Team USA managed to win two of three games to advance to the second round, but they felt like visitors in a home venue. Every time the Dominican Republic and the Colombia teams played their fans took over the ballpark.
It was fun. It was festive. It left some of the American players feeling a bit wistful about the size and volume of support for the opposition.
Dominican fans had everything to do with the two sold-out games at Marlins Park. In San Diego, the Americans will be up against three formidable Latino opponents, beginning with Venezuela on Wednesday followed by Puerto Rico and a rematch with the Dominicans.
Can a U.S. team well stocked with All-Stars and World Series champions inspire American fans to rally behind their cause?
“I don’t see why not. I think the way we have been playing baseball lately, I think that’s going to set the tone for people to come out and watch us play,” third baseman Nolan Arenado said after Sunday’s win against Canada.
“But we’ve got to win. Dominican Republic won it in 2013 and they haven’t lost yet in the last couple times. So it’s easy to be a fan for them. If we keep playing our game and keep doing our thing, I think we’re going to start drawing some crowds.”
Americans still get bonkers for baseball when their teams are big winners, as Cubs fans showed, and has been seen in places like Kansas City, Mo., as well as Cleveland when the Indians came close last fall. The drama of October baseball remains a compelling attraction.
The WBC in March has yet to register more than a blip on the U.S. sports consciousness, unlike Japan and Latin American where entire countries are riveted to their teams’ pursuit of national glory.
It’s the middle of spring training here. Americans are busy finalizing their brackets for March Madness, pondering NBA playoff positioning and looking ahead to the NFL draft.
It hasn’t helped that Team USA has only reached the final four once in three previous WBC tournaments and has yet to medal.
The absence of some of the top American stars, due to their indifference to the WBC or their major league teams’ reluctance for them to participate due to injury risks has contributed to the perception of fans in the States that the tournament is an exhibition rather than a bonafide world championship.
Players on this American team have been outspoken in their enthusiasm for representing the country, and their effort in the opening round underscored the commitment.
“There’s no doubt we’re taking it real serious. I’m diving headfirst into first. I mean, I don’t know how serious I can take it other than that,” Arenado said. “I love this and I love being here, and we’re representing our country and it’s not just a walk in the park.”
Arenado’s dive into first base, hustling to keep an inning alive after striking out on a wild pitch, had a lot to do with Team USA surviving the first round. The tying run scored on that play in the game against Colombia and facilitated a walk-off victory in 10 innings.
Those were attention-grabbing moments, but the U.S. will need more of them this week if the Americans are to summon any semblance of enthusiasm for their cause that they saw for the Dominican and Colombia teams.
Several players remarked about the playoff-type atmosphere when they faced the Dominicans, including Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy, who helped the Royals win a World Series.
“Regarding Saturday night, that’s an atmosphere that I’ve truthfully never been a part of,” Duffy said. “I mean, me and Hoz were talking . it was the loudest I’ve ever heard any place ever. And it’s a different style of fan base; they have a different approach to the game. Their passion for baseball and their country is pretty awesome. I think it’s really cool.”
U.S. pitcher Tanner Roark, who has been to the playoffs with the Nationals, acknowledged that the noise affected him during the Dominican comeback from a five-run deficit.
“It was very loud all game long. Even in warm-ups it was loud,” Roark said with the Dominican celebration still audible as he stood outside the clubhouse more than an hour after the game. “Even now you can hear the horns going off.”
The flip side of the WBC story was Canada manager Ernie Whitt lamenting the difficulty of attracting some of the best players to represent the national interest.
“If they watch the games and they see the excitement and the fans getting into it, and the way that all the players are playing for other countries, I’m dumbfounded in a sense that I don’t understand,” Whitt said. “But you also have to get the MLB general managers and the ownership to buy into it and encourage their players to go.”
The U.S.-Venezuela game will have Marlins Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton up against teammate Martin Prado and former Marlin Miguel Cabrera.
Hosmer, a South Florida native, made it clear that baseball this March is much more than an exhibition to him and his teammates.
“It’s something special to see. It’s a room full of all-stars and a lot of guys with some championships under their belt,” Hosmer said. “So it’s really cool to see guys willing to do whatever they can to help the team win.”
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