Teamwork trumps star power in Classic

ON BASEBALL

March 22, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY

The inaugural World Baseball Classic is over, and one can presume that the flag-waving, sign-holding Japanese fan base has finally strolled giddily away from San Diego's Petco Park wearing smiles and plenty of official Classic merchandise.

So now that it is done, what has the Classic - the 16-team international tournament dreamed up by baseball commissioner Bud Selig and plunked down in the middle of spring training - taught us?

Well, most obviously, Americans aren't as openly passionate about the sport - or at least this preconceived version - as those in baseball-crazy outposts around the world.

The Dominican Republic-Venezuela game that kicked off the tournament in Florida rivaled a late-season New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox contest for energy, yet had none of the nastiness. Meanwhile, the Japanese fans at the semifinals and final in San Diego couldn't have had more fun soaking up the experience and the souvenirs.

Ultimately, that's what Selig wanted to generate when he put this together: global excitement for a product primarily controlled by Major League Baseball.

The most important lesson learned, though, came from the field. The disciplined teams without much MLB influence schooled the star-laden countries - and not because they had more talent or because the timing hampered MLB-heavy squads.

Simply put, Japan and Cuba didn't play ego ball. They didn't throw 100 mph or crush countless homers. They won by advancing runners and turning double plays. They scored with hard sprints and sweeping hand tags across the plate. They won by playing anti-modern-American, anti-MLB baseball.

It's not that the Japanese and Cubans wanted to win more than the Americans, Dominicans and Venezuelans. Don't for a minute think that Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Miguel Cabrera don't care about being Classic champions.

It's just that our pro athletes are rarely asked to play as a team. They don't have to. It's not what they get paid to do and not what our fans want.

A baseball purist can talk about fundamentals until he is Dodger Blue in the face, but ultimately, who would Joe Baseball Fan rather see with a bat in his hands, David Ortiz or Willy Tavares? Albert Pujols or David Eckstein?

Leaving the perpetually hustling, unselfish Eckstein off the U.S. roster wasn't a critical mistake, as some have suggested. The Americans didn't need one Eckstein. They needed a roster full of them, or at least a roster full of guys who would morph into Eckstein when the situation arose.

Not even a cabload of those types exists in the majors.

That's where the sport differs internationally. Case in point: the first inning of Monday's title game. With runners on first and second and one out, Japan's cleanup hitter didn't swing from the heels for a three-run shot.

No, he hit a bounding, opposite-field grounder as part of a perfectly executed hit-and-run. He tried to give himself up for the team and, instead, reached first safely to load the bases. Try getting a big league No. 4 hitter to do that.

As a result of that hit, Cuba pulled its 38-year-old, game-tested starter, who had thrown only 23 pitches and hadn't allowed a ball to leave the infield. ESPN would have had to slap an NC-17 rating on its broadcast if U.S. manager Buck Martinez had tried to take Roger Clemens out of a bases-loaded, first-inning jam.

There was disappointment but no international incident with the Cuban pitcher, however. It wouldn't have mattered in the States, anyway, because ESPN was still showing a double-overtime NIT basketball game when Cuba and Japan were demonstrating the team concept. Talk about freedom of choice.

The United States will get a shot for redemption probably in 2009, when MLB hopes to have the next WBC, removing it from an Olympic-year rotation before progressing with the tournament every four years staring in 2013.

Unfortunately, the me-first mind-set won't change. The primary reason given as to why their respective countries failed to make the Classic final is that major leaguers weren't in playing shape and barely practiced together, whereas Cuba, Japan and Korea had weeks or months to train as a unit.

"I think if we play this team in June July, May, [there'd be] a lot of difference because then we would be ready," the Washington Nationals' Alfonso Soriano said after Cuba upset his Dominican Republic squad in Saturday's semifinals.

He's wrong. Dead wrong. It's not when they play but how that matters.

Forty-eight hours after making that statement, the quiet and humble Soriano refused to start a Nationals exhibition game because he doesn't want to switch from second base to left field.

He's a big leaguer. He's paid to crush the ball. And he'll be a much more coveted free agent next November if he's hitting homers as a second baseman. So his thinking has merit. He's looking out for himself and his future.

That's the way it is in the world of Major League Baseball.

But, as we learned this week, that's not baseball's way in the rest of the world.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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