Monday, March 11, 2013

World Baseball Classic

Unlike my esteemed colleague at KCBS, Stan Bunger, I am a big fan of the World Baseball Classic.  Perhaps that's in part because I lived in Tokyo for three-and-a-half years, and became quite fond of Japanese baseball.  And over the years, since returning to the U.S., I've become a fan of international baseball in general.  In other words, baseball is the most popular spectator sport (and has the highest TV ratings of any sport) in Japan, as it is (I assume) in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and perhaps even in Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan and the Dutch Antilles as well.

Television ratings for the WBC in all of those nations, unlike in the U.S., have been off the charts.  The Japan-Brazil game drew a 35 share in Japan.  A 35 share!  More than one-third of all TVs in Japan were tuned in to the Japan-Brazil game.  Not even Japan-Korea or Japan-Taiwan, but Japan-Brazil.  That fascinates me.  I also love watching baseball games that mean something in early-to-mid March, as opposed to a lazy Cactus or Grapefruit League game.  Don't misunderstand me--I love going to a Cactus League game, but can't even come close to watching an entire Cactus League game on television.  But I have watched entire WBC games this month.  More than a few.

Why do I find the WBC so compelling?  In part, it's because the games mean so much to all of the nations I listed in the above paragraph.  It may not mean a lot to the major leaguers in the U.S., but if you watch the Dominican Republic play Puerto Rico, or Mexico play Venezuela, or Japan play Taiwan, you can not help but find the intensity of the games very compelling, both from the players and the fans.  If you can't, then your mind is closed to the possibility even before tuning in.

I attended the semifinals and final of the WBC in San Diego in its first year, 2006.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was the MVP as Japan beat Cuba in the final.  The stands, as well as the Gaslamp District downtown, were full of Japanese, Cuban, Dominican and Korean baseball fans (the latter two teams lost in the semis).  The whole experience was captivating, the fan enthusiasm was infectious, the quality of baseball was excellent.

In the second WBC, in 2009, I became a huge fan of the team from The Kingdom of The Netherlands.  Actually, the team from The Netherlands is made up of a combination of players from the European nation, and players from Curacao and Aruba, in the Dutch Antilles.  Despite having just two major leaguers on their roster in '09, The Netherlands upset the Dominican Republic twice en route to the second round.  It was incredible.  The Dominicans had just four players who were not major leaguers.

This year, in the third WBC, The Netherlands is providing fabulous theater once again, having upset South Korea in the first round, and then stunning heavily-favored Cuba twice in the second, reaching next week's semifinals at A-T-and-T Park.  This time, The Netherlands once again has two current major leaguers on its roster, in backup outfielder Roger Bernadina of the Nationals, and shortstop Andrelton Simmons of the Braves.

But the more I watch this team play, the more fun it is, and the more intriguing it becomes.  The 22-year old Simmons took over the Braves' starting shortstop job last summer, and hit .289 in 166 at bats, after hitting .293 in AA.  Their third-baseman, 20-year old Xander Bogaerts, is the Boston Red Sox top minor league prospect (also a shortstop), and hit .301 with 20 homers and 81 runs-batted-in at A-and-AA ball last season.  Their second-baseman is the Baltimore Orioles top minor league prospect, 22-year old Jonathon Schoop.

Their closer is 7-foot-1 Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil, also known as Loek Van Mil.  He throws in the low-to-mid 90s, and had a 1.94 ERA in AA with Cleveland last season.  It may not be long before he becomes the tallest player in major league history, surpassing Randy Johnson by two inches, in  which case, he'll become the Really Big Unit.  They've also got five-time major league all-star Andruw Jones, who will play for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan this year.  Oh, one more worth mentioning:  The Texas Rangers' top minor league prospect, 20-year old shortstop Jurickson Profar, hit .281 with 14 homers and 19 steals at AA last season--he decided to stay with the Rangers this month in an effort to win a big league job, but may be added to The Netherlands roster before next week.  I'm not sure where he'd play, but I'm certain that manager Hensley Meulens could find a spot.

I'll be attending the WBC in San Francisco next week.  The Netherlands will be decided underdogs if they play Japan in the final, and certainly if they play the Dominican Republic or U.S. in the semis.  I'm looking forward to chatting with Meulens, the Curacao native and current Giants' hitting coach.  I remember talking with him at great length in the spring of 2010, about his experiences as The Netherlands hitting coach in the 2009 WBC.  He loved reminiscing about it.  The memories were still raw, and precious.  I don't know whether he envisioned where he'd be now--in 2013--but it was special for me to hear him say earlier today that his team's dramatic, come-from-behind 7-6 win over Cuba this morning, to clinch a spot in the semis, was the biggest win in the history of Dutch baseball.  It might not be for long, if his band of underdogs keeps winning.

Look, I totally understand why major league managers are paranoid about losing key players, not to mention critical investments, to injuries in games that have nothing to do with their own teams' use of spring training to get ready for the regular season.  I get that.  If there were a better time to stage the WBC, I'd be all in favor.  But as long as the WBC is being staged now, I'm watching.  And I'm enjoying.

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