Wednesday, March 18, 2009

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

The World Baseball Classic is probably not taking off in popularity the way Bud Selig would have hoped. The United States has met the WBC with a combination of oblivion, boredom, and animosity that it even exists.

A decent post addressing some of the WBC issues and potential solutions can be found here at the Bleed Cubbie Blue site (though there has been a charge from the anti-BCB site, Fire Al Yellon, that the post is plagiarized). For my purposes, I don't really care who wrote it first, the post serves as a good summary so I don't have to bore my three readers by rehashing it.

Obviously, I have not been following much of the WBC on purpose, despite its best efforts to get me engaged. First, Italy, featuring a roster whose best known name belonged to hitting coach, Mike Piazza, took down the Canadian team featuring Justin Morneau, Russel Martin, and Jason Bay.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands starring such baseball superstars as Sidney Ponson and Randall "Sausage King of Chicago" Simon knocked off the highly favored Dominican Republic with Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, David Ortiz and others. But I still didn't care all that much.

I found myself tuning in to the game between Puerto Rico and the United States last night because A) Ted Lilly was starting for the U.S. team and I hadn't seen him pitch yet this spring, B) it was an elimination game so I hoped there would be some drama, and C) there really wasn't anything else on that was worth watching - which was ultimately the deciding factor.

The game went back and forth early on. Lilly gave up a couple of homeruns, Kevin Youkilis hit a monster homerun of his own, Carlos Beltran made a great catch that appeared to steal a homerun away from Brian McCann (the replay shows pretty clearly that it would have stayed in the park), and Derek Jeter's lack of range at shortstop allowed an insurance run to give Puerto Rico a 5-3 lead going into the bottom of the 9th.

All of that was fine and enough to keep me from actively turning the channel as I played around on my laptop. I also noticed that someone in the stands had a whistle that they would not stop blowing throughout the game. How they didn't end up hyperventilating and passing out, I will never know. It was a standard of annoying fan behavior that is unmatched by even our own Ronnie Woo. (This is not to be interpreted as a call for Ronnie to step up his Wooing capabilities.)

As the game turned to the bottom of the 9th inning, it reminded me why I love baseball.

Shane Victorino opened with a single to right. Brian Roberts quickly went down two strikes but fought back with a line drive into center for another single. Suddenly, the tying run was on base with Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, and Kevin Youkilis due up.

Jeter also worked the count and hit a hard line drive deep to right that allowed Victorino to tag and head to third base, which seemed unimportant at the time, but when Jimmy Rollins stepped up, Brian Roberts stole second base (barely) and put the tying run in scoring position. The Puerto Rican pitcher, J.C. Romero, responded by walking Rollins and that was the end of his day.

As Puerto Rico brought in Fernando Cabrera to try to end the rally, I found that I was no longer messing around on the computer and was actually invested in the game. Cabrera was in way over his head in that situation, promptly walking Kevin Youkilis to force in a run and bring the score to 5-4 with still only one out.

The U.S. lineup got no easier with David Wright coming to the plate next. Wright ended the game by taking a 2-1 pitch and lining it just inside the right field line to drive in the tying and winning runs.

The U.S. team flooded the field and they celebrated like they had won the pennant. Youkilis came very close to decapitating Wright in a celebratory headlock that probably would have killed a lesser conditioned person. It was the kind of finish that could build up some real enthusiasm for the WBC.

Unfortunately, it was only aired on the fledgling MLB Network, so only a small percentage of people probably had an opportunity to watch it, which is a shame.

If the WBC can continue to provide the upsets and last at-bat heroics that peppered the first two rounds, this could become a much more important event every four years. We shall see, but it certainly has made me anxious to see some real baseball where the outcome matters.

How many more weeks until Opening Day?


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