My friends—and, by now, my readers—know me to be a cynical guy; it's hard for someone so interested in politics not to be. But, miraculously, I'm able to flip off the cynical switch when it comes to certain other subjects. One of those subjects is baseball.
I simply can't get enough of the stuff, and I become irritated when talk of the game itself is infected with news of player-contract disputes, new-stadium brouhahas and steroid controversies. Unless you're talking about whether that last fastball was a two-seamer or a four-seamer, or whether or not Johnny Cleanup Hitter can hit the curve, I'm going to cup my ears and shout, “ I can't hear you! La la la la la la! I can't hear you! ”
Which is why I'm stoked about the first-ever World Baseball Classic, the 16-country global baseball tournament that started two weeks ago and ends next Monday. You may not know it, but this magnificent beast culminates in San Diego, at Petco Park, with the semifinals on Saturday and the championship game on Monday. By the time the WBC reaches our burg, four teams will remain; they'll come from a pool that, as of Tuesday morning, included eight teams still alive: Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, Korea and the United States. Already eliminated are South Africa, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, China, Taiwan, Panama and Canada. Most of the teams' dugouts were stocked with players from the American Major Leagues, the Promised Land for foreign-born ballplayers.
My hope is that someday baseball will reach a level of worldwide appeal currently enjoyed by what we yanks call soccer and the rest of the world calls football. Something like the WBC can only help that cause.
Already, there have been great stories. Even before the tournament started, there was the geopolitical intrigue over whether the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba would keep that country's fantastic amateur squad off the field. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, and now the world gets to see how Cuba, which dominates the amateur circuit, matches up against the pros. Maybe more importantly, we all now have caught a glimpse of Cuba's phenomenal 21-year-old second baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, who scouts say would be an all-star in the U.S.—if only he could find a way off that island.
Then there was Shairon Martis, an 18-year-old pitcher from the Caribbean island of Curacao, who played for the Netherlands (the island is under Dutch control). Martis, a low-level prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization, twirled a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama after both teams had already been mathematically eliminated from the tournament.
Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, both loaded with Major League all-stars, were supposed to be the class of the Classic, but it was Puerto Rico, far less talented on paper, that emerged from Round 1 undefeated and was 4-0 until losing to Venezuela last Sunday.
But the best story thus far has been the team from South Korea. With just a small handful of Major Leaguers, Korea was supposed to be manhandled by the likes of Japan, Mexico and the U.S.—but it's Korea that's still undefeated, and it's those other three that are facing elimination (either Japan or Mexico would be pretty much finished by Tuesday evening; the Americans have to beat Mexico on Thursday).
Korea made the vaunted U.S. team look like a bunch of sloppy amateurs Monday night en route to a 7-3 win, fueled by impeccable defense and home runs by the L.A. Dodgers' Hee-Seop Choi and the powerful Seung-Yeop Lee. Lee, a 29-year-old first baseman nicknamed “The Lion King,” has dominated pitchers in the Classic, slugging five homeruns so far—more than anyone else in the tournament. He'll likely be a Major Leaguer in 2007. Korea also features Chan Ho Park as its closer, the relief pitcher who finishes games when his team has the lead in the ninth inning. It's a great story because Park, currently slated to be the Padres' fourth or fifth starting pitcher, is on the career downside, but his success in the Classic might give him new life in the majors as a reliever.
The tournament has shown casual baseball fans how good foreign players are—the U.S. has struggled against Asians, and the Latin Americans, largely from impoverished countries, are even better. And who knew they played baseball in South Africa, the Netherlands and Italy? Hopefully, the WBC will stimulate the Europeans and the Africans.
There are no good seats left at Petco Park for the semifinals or the final game, but ESPN, ESPN 2 and Cox Cable's Channel 4 are broadcasting the remaining games live and tape-delayed (check www.worldbaseballclassic.com and www.4sd.com).
Next week, the cynic returns: More about our lying, law-breaking, bloodstained president.