March 8, 2006

Jeters' s Bumbling Makes For Classic Fun at WBC

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My first glimpse of the 2006 Major League Baseball season came yesterday afternoon, when Derek Jeter fielded a routine grounder and immediately uncorked a horrendous throw to first that even all 6-5 of Derrek Lee couldn’t dig out of the dirt. E-6. “See,” I said to newly minted Sun Associate Editor Carlos Maycotte, “we arrived just in time.” Jeter started making the smugly self-righteous “I’m Derek Jeter” grimace that always makes him look like he’s locked in a death struggle with his lower digestive system. The ESPN announcers were falling over themselves to excuse the error by saying things like, “Oh, it’s just Spring Training.”

And if it were any other March 7, Rick Sutcliffe would have been absolutely right. But this is 2006, the year of Bud Selig’s grand experiment known as The World Baseball Classic. Theoretically, this 16-team tournament will aid with baseball’s global image, open new revenue streams, and increase the MLB talent pool. We’ll see about all that. I’m just excited for the prospect of meaningful baseball in March.

Then again, the term “meaningful” is somewhat suspect. Many of the big names – Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and Mariano Rivera, just to name a few – have backed out. Several others declined to even be considered. It begs the question as to whether this tournament is indeed relevant if so many of the world’s best players are saying, “No thanks.” Clearly, in many cases, national pride is superceded by professional commitments and multi-million-dollar contracts.

Not that these abstaining players are in the wrong. Why risk injury by dipping into the adrenaline before you’re ready? As a Sox fan, I don’t care if Jason Varitek hits .150 for the U.S. and tosses weak loopers to the covering infielder on steal attempts. As long as he’s healthy and ready to go when Boston opens the real season in Texas, I’ll be thrilled. In spite of all the flag-waving patriotic commercials featuring Roger Clemens (“I’m going to be there for my country. Will you be there for yours?”), the WBC is still just an exhibition.

Selig and the MLB higher-ups have attached meaning to normally meaningless spring baseball, but they’ve also hedged their bets by imposing pitchcount limits and decreeing that tie games in the early rounds will be called after 14 innings to save the pitching staffs. Instead of six-hour epics like Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, we’re looking at a repeat of the 2003 All-Star Game.

But what if someone gets injured? What’s the response going to be when/if a star pitcher throws out his shoulder in an exhibition?

As soon as the WBC was announced, I envisioned the ultimate doomsday scenario: The Dominican Republic and the U.S. inevitably meet in the final game in San Diego. Pedro Martinez, pitching for his native land, gets taken deep on his first pitch by old friend Johnny Damon. An enraged Pedro, his god-like status challenged and his nationalist ego bruised, puts his next pitch in Jeter’s ear, sparking a cataclysmic bench-clearing brawl in which David Ortiz mistakenly whacks Jason Varitek in the head with a fungo bat, Brad Lidge reenacts the 2005 ALCS and has a heart attack when he sees Albert Pujols coming after him, and Alex Rodriguez gets confused about which side he’s on and slaps himself in the face. When the dust settles, Pedro proceeds to throw100-mph gas the rest of the way, and records 27 consecutive outs, all on swinging K’s. On the final pitch of the game, his arm detaches from his body and lands in the stands behind home plate.

Something like that. Maybe I’m exaggerating. And, as I said, Pedro has already backed out. But tell me a similar disaster isn’t at least plausible?

Nevertheless, baseball is baseball, and junkies like Carlos and I needed our fix. Carlos is a Braves fan, if for no other reason than that TBS was one of the only American TV channels he saw growing up in Mexico. In fact, he’s currently trying to grow a mustache to look more like Sid Bream. As soon as his class ended on Tuesday afternoon, we jetted down to the Sun office to catch the U.S. vs. Mexico game and were just in time to see Jeter’s error.

Even though the U.S. starter was Jake Peavy, who has single-handedly saved my fantasy baseball team for the past two years (and if Saturday’s draft goes well, it’ll be three), I found myself more or less nonplussed by the game. I couldn’t get into it. My loyalties weren’t with my country. Since Varitek had the game off, I was interested only in the performance of Sox/U.S. pitcher Mike Timlin (who had a 1-2-3 inning, thank you very much). Other than that, I was actively rooting against Jeter and A-Rod . Does this make me a bad American? Am I going to get my phones tapped for this?

In contrast to my blatant disregard for patriotism, my Mexican amigo was completely behind his national nine. Short of painting his chest and brandishing a huge Mexican flag, Carlos was in full soccer hooligan mode.

I was incredulous, so I challenged him to name five players on the team. Without skipping a beat, he ticked off Jorge Cantu, Vinny Castilla, Odalis Perez, Elmer Dessens, and Karim Garcia. Impressed, I immediately screamed, “WHO IS KARIM GARCIA?” in my finest overwrought Latin accent, hearkening back to the infamous Pedro Martinez interview. This was the first of several times that Carlos threatened to cut me.

He scolded me, telling me that I had no national pride. Athletically, he’s right. The United States is a country of professional sports leagues. Other than during the Olympics, we don’t really have national teams, so we’re not used to getting behind our countrymen. There isn’t a single American baseball fan that would trade their team winning the World Series for the U.S. team winning the World Baseball Classic. Not one.

The difference is that fans in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Japan just might.

Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer. The Victory Lap will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Per Ostman