LOS ANGELES -- I’ll be honest ... I was a skeptic. The World Baseball Classic never resonated to me the way a big playoff game, or even a June matchup between two well-stocked teams would. These were exhibition games, with some of the best players not on the field, being played at a time of year when maybe we weren’t quite ready to dive fully back into high-level competition.
This year, everything changed. The improbable run by Team Israel. The boundless joy brought by the Dominican Republic. The overflowing swag and joy showed by the impossibly talented and fun Puerto Rican infield trio of Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor. Suddenly, a tournament I’d largely ignored for years was appointment viewing.
Through a quirk in my work schedule, I ended up in Los Angeles the day of the WBC Final. I was due to fly out of town right around the time the seventh inning would be going. About eight hours before game time, I realized that would be a stupendously terrible idea. The final game between Team USA and Puerto Rico would be played at Dodger Stadium, that incredible jewel of a ballpark that would shine even brighter on this big night. I needed to go.
With the press box jam-packed and no credentials available, I bought tickets. By 6 p.m., my buddy Dan and I were settled in for what would prove to be an incredibly fun experience. Here are my six biggest takeaways from a game that ended with a one-sided 8-0 score, but offered tons of cool memories.
6. The gear!
Everywhere you looked, fans were dressed to the nines. The array of jerseys was endless: MLB-issued Trouts and Seagers, WBC-issued Lindors, and my favorite, the Team Japan fan who showed up wearing a head-to-toe Hiroshima Carp uniform. Honoring the Puerto Rico team’s all-in decision to dye their hair (and facial hair) platinum blonde, fans wore T-shirts with face silhouettes showing off those dye jobs.
Then there were all the markers of patriotism. Fans wearing flags as capes. As T-shirts. As shoes. Combine all that gear with the competing chants of “Puer-to Ri-co” and “U-S-A”, and one thing was clear: Pride in country was on full display throughout Chavez Ravine.
5. The sounds!
From first pitch to last, the sound of music resonated throughout the stadium. Not canned music over the PA system lamely urging people to cheer. Puerto Rican fans with drums, noisemakers, and all manners of instruments, keeping up the rhythm for hours and hours. After watching a game with that soundtrack, I never want to go back to the extended silence with intermittent crap-rock that populates so many major league stadiums.
4. The Stro-Show!
Not only has Marcus Stroman never been the best pitcher in the league (or close to it) in his relatively short time in the majors ... he’s never been the best pitcher on his own team. But whether it’s big games in September coming off a season-long injury, or high-pressure games in the postseason, Stroman has shown an almost Zelig-like knack for ending up with the ball in big spots.
Never before has he come through as completely in one of those spots than he did Wednesday night. Stroman carved through the dangerous Puerto Rico lineup, firing six no-hit innings before surrendering a leadoff double to Angel Pagan. As manager Jim Leyland strolled to the mound to go get his starter, the Dodger Stadium crowd rose to its feet, pouring out a massive ovation, while full-throatedly chanting “Mar-cus Stro-man!” into the L.A. night.
We should never try to dig too much meaning out of limited sample sizes, of course. But if Stroman ends up making big starts in another pennant race this year, he’ll certainly have plenty of big-game experience -- and dominance -- to draw on.
3. The sportsmanship!
In the WBC, you’ll often see teammates battle teammates, with delightful results. As much as Adam Jones’ legendary WBC catch became , my lasting memory of that play was of the hitter, Manny Machado. When Jones’ Orioles teammate saw Jones rob him of a home run, he immediately tipped his cap, with love and admiration transcending his disappointment.
The same held true at the end of the WBC final. After a brief moment of gathering their thoughts, all of Team Puerto Rico hopped onto the field, joining their Team USA opponents. In a sign of support and good will that rivaled the great hockey tradition of handshake lines at the end of playoff series, the Puerto Rican players doffed their caps in unison toward their rivals, who often double as their teammates on major league teams. After the hat-tips came a flurry of warm hugs. Lovely tributes all, after weeks of intense competition.
2. The cultural differences, and the hope for change
Team USA second baseman Ian Kinsler took a lot of flak for comments he made before the tournament’s deciding game. Rightfully so. Kinsler claiming his team was a breathtakingly arrogant and ill-founded move. His close-minded comments didn’t merely offer a hint of subtle bigotry. They spoke to something that’s long been my biggest problem with a sport I otherwise adore.
Go to a game in Japan or Korea or Puerto Rico, and the common theme will be fun. Not merely the kind of fun you get watching great athletes at the top of their game. But also players being allowed -- even encouraged -- to play with flair. Blast a home run in many other baseball-mad nations, and flipping your bat to the sky and skipping around the bases is embraced by similarly giddy fans. Watch a ball even a half-second too long off the bat in a major league game, and you might end up with a 97-mph fastball in your ear the next time up.
Baseball offers many wonderful traditions worth preserving. But the extent to which American players are taught to value decorum above all else -- and to punish any player that dares show a hint of style or bravado -- is absolute bullshit. Sports are far more enjoyable when athletes get to enjoy themselves, when they get to show joy in their faces, and in their actions. Celebrations and shouts of triumph are de rigeur in basketball, football, soccer, and so many other sports. Only baseball insists of having a stick up its collective butt.
Want to put your head down and trot silently around the bases after a homer? Go for it. But if you want to pump your first and let out shouts of delight, that should be cool too. Credit Kinsler for coming up huge in the finals. But he’s dead wrong about the right way to play. Baseball has a real chance to broaden its appeal if both players and fans ape their Dominican and Puerto Rican counterparts.
1. “Do it”
After the game, Team USA outfielder Christian Yelich was asked what he would say to younger players who are on the fence about playing in the WBC.
“Do it,” said Yelich. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
Team USA’s success, the tournament’s record attendance, and glowing reports from teammates and league peers, could prompt superstars like Mike Trout to suit up for the next WBC. A great event could become even greater.
Here’s hoping other positives carry over to MLB too. Playing for your country, in short- and then single-elimination formats, in front of huge crowds, will always bring a level of enthusiasm that’s unsustainable when you’re a fourth-place team fighting the grind of a 162-game season. But encouraging songs and instruments and flags could build the kind of fervor normally reserved for baseball (and other sports) in other countries. On the field, we’ll hope for fired-up celebrations that aren’t restricted to walkoff homers in the ninth. For good-natured trash-talking and fist pumps and back flips and any other ways for players to show off their love of the game.
Shame on me for holding this out long on the WBC. Hopefully holdouts like Trout come to the same conclusion, and the culture of Major League Baseball starts to more closely resemble the non-stop funfest that is the World Baseball Classic.