Saturday, March 7, 2009

World Baseball Classic

Yesterday, while recording our weekly KCBS Sports Fans Podcast with my esteemed colleague Stan Bunger, I asked him if he had any interest in the World Baseball Classic, which began this week.  Without hesitation, Stan said no.  None whatsoever.  Not in the slightest.  He'd rather watch grass grow.  

Knowing that Stan loves baseball like I do, I can safely say that he doesn't know what he's missing.  

Earlier today, the Netherlands beat the Dominican Republic 3-2, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Think about that for a moment. The entire Big League experience on the Netherlands roster can be condensed into two words: Rick VandenHurk.  The big right-hander threw 14 innings for Seattle last season, allowing 12 runs, 20 hits and 10 walks.   That's it.  And this team beat the mighty Dominicans, a team of Major League all-stars, including David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Miguel Tejada.  When the game ended, the winners celebrated on the mound as though they'd just won the World Series.  The losers were stunned.  And that was just the opening game of the WBC for both teams.  

Next up was the U.S. against Canada.  Nearly 50,000 fans, in the middle of hockey season, filled the Rogers Centre in Toronto.  The Canadians have some great hitters, including Justin Morneau, Jason Bey, Russell Martin and Joey Votto.  But their two top pitchers, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster, are out with injuries.  In fact, they have just two starting pitchers with Big League experience:  Scott Richmond, with 27 innings last season for the Blue Jays; and Mike Johnson, who has a career ERA of 6.85 in 218 innings, mostly with the Expos.  That's right, the Expos.  He hasn't pitched in the majors in seven years, and spent the last two in the independent Atlantic and Northern Leagues.

And yet, Johnson had his moments of glory against the U.S. today, and the Americans barely won, 6-5, when Jason Bey flied out with the tying runner at second in the 9th.  Votto had doubled with one out, not only bringing the fans to their feet in a collective roar, but the scene in the Canadians dugout far more resembled the excitement of a World Series game than a spring training affair.  The players were going nuts. As I watched the drama unfold, with the electric atmosphere in both the stands, and on the field, I had to pinch myself with the realization that this was baseball in early March.  Awesome.

As one who went to see the semifinals and the final, at the inaugural WBC in San Diego three years ago, I can honestly say that if you're a baseball fan, and haven't given the WBC a chance, you're really missing something.  Three years ago, I was totally caught up in the excitement of walking the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego, surrounded by baseball-crazy fans from the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Japan, along with Americans of Cuban descent.  They had all gathered in southern California to watch those four nations battle for the first WBC title, which Japan finally won, led by a brilliant right-hander we would all come to recognize shortly thereafter--Daisuke Matsuzaka.  

Meanwhile, back to 2009:  The mighty Dominicans are one loss away from elimination.  The top two teams from each of the four four-nation groups advance to the quarterfinals, in San Diego and Miami, with the semifinals and final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.  The fact that both the D.R. and the U.S. failed to reach the semifinals three years ago was an embarrassment to the players on both rosters, and serves as a major motivating factor for them this year.  But it won't be easy.  The Dominicans already discovered that, today.  The Americans, barely victorious, did as well.  

I'll be watching.