Not too long ago, I was in Japan watching baseball. It was quite different from watching a game in the United States. The differences begin before the game even starts. In the United States, there's a leisurely pace to batting practice, a neighborly setup with players laughing and joking around and placing little side bets.
In Japan? No. In Japan, before the games I saw, there were intense workouts with two batting cages going at the same time and fierce infield drills that were more like duels, with the coach smashing ground balls at exhausted infielders who refused to give in. And when the games began? Very different. The fans sang a different song every time a player comes to the plate - yes, each player had his own song. The fans kept singing and singing, the entire at-bat, never resting for a minute. At the same time, fans wore their favorite player's favorite color, and they brought props of the player's favorite thing. One player mentioned in the paper that he liked bananas. From that point on, whenever he would come to the plate, people waved inflatable bananas.
Not too long ago, I was in the Dominican Republic watching baseball. It was quite different from watching a game in the United States. On little fields all over the country, you can stop and watch kids play, using whatever material they can get their hands on. Players talk about using milk cartons for gloves, but in one game I saw more than half the players didn't have gloves at all. The bat was some sort of plumbing pipe, the ball was so warped it resembled a rock. The baseball was joyous, though, a celebration of life.
Not too long ago, I was in Puerto Rico watching baseball. It was quite different from watching a game in the United States. I was told, again and again, about the passion the fans feel for the game, how that passion can spill out in the strangest ways. In the middle of the game I was watching, a player on one team forearmed the player on another. And the fans went absolutely crazy. They started throwing stuff on the field. Firecrackers went off. Some fans stomped on the dugouts. At some point, the president of the Puerto Rican League went on the field, took a microphone, and asked the fans to calm down. No one really did.
Then they started chanting the name "Chris George, Chris George" who was an American pitcher in Puerto Rico on his honeymoon. They were chanting his name because they wanted him to plunk the next guy up and take up the intensity even higher. His new wife, scared to death, was crying and hoping he wouldn't go back into the game (he did, but he didn't plunk anybody). It was pure madness. And then, just like that, it was baseball again, with huge cheers for great plays and cheerleaders dancing on dugouts and joy. When I asked some fans about the scene afterward, they barely even remembered it. "Ah," one said, "something like that happens every game in Puerto Rico."
Obviously these are all just experiences of a tourist and not necessarily indicative the anything. I often think of what someone would think of American baseball if they happened to come on Disco Demolition Night or something. But here's what I did discover: Baseball is not just an American game. I don't just mean that other countries play baseball. That's obvious. I mean that other countries have made baseball their own in fascinating ways. They cheer differently, play differently, watch differently, enjoy the game differently. They take baseball to a different place. And it's a beautiful thing.
This is why the World Baseball Classic matters.
Sure, we all hear about how few people in America seem to care about the WBC. Over the last two weeks, it seems like the one thing many baseball fans want me to know is just how little they care about the WBC. The reasons for American apathy are obvious. The timing isn't great (not that there would ever be a good time). Many good players have skipped it for one reason or another, and many of the players in the WBC are not in regular season shape. The threat of injury to your favorite player hangs over every single game.
The other nations, though, don't see the WBC as an exhibition. There, the WBC does matter. In Japan, WBC games have received spectacular ratings. In soccer-crazy Brazil, baseball trended on Twitter. In Venezuela . the Dominican Republic . Puerto Rico . even the Netherlands, people are talking baseball. The U.S.-Mexico game had an amazing energy, it was like a playoff game in many ways. That energy was mostly powered by Mexican fans.
Yes, well, that is one embracing feature of the WBC: Every team wants to beat the United States. It is the U.S. team that makes this tournament official in some grand way, much in the way Tiger Woods makes a golf tournament "official." This, even though the United States did not finish in the Top 3 in either of the previous World Baseball Classics. The doesn't really matter. This is where baseball began.
I think, if this U.S. team keeps winning, there will be some buzz about the tournament here. I don't know how much. Some. It still isn't the point though.
The point is baseball is an infinitely better sport because it is played around the world. The different approaches . the different motivations . the different backgrounds . all these lead to new and wonderful kind of baseball. The WBC matters because the game should be played around the world - not so much for the business end (though MLB is working on television deals around the world) but for the diversity of the game. You know, baseball was growing stale in the 1930s and 1940s, and then Jackie Robinson crossed the line, and players from the Negro Leagues helped make the game faster and more exciting. The game needed an influx not only of new talent, but new ideas and a new energy.
One of my favorite baseball anecdotes comes from Vladimir Guerrero. You know how much fun it was to watch Vlady play ball - it was wonderful. Guerrero would swing at anything. Seriously: Anything. The guy was known to swing at low flying planes. But the thing is, he could hit anything too. He had this big swing, with a crazy uppercut, and he would take wild swings at balls in the dirt, balls over his head, balls behind him - and smack them up the middle for hits. The guy hit .318 for his career.
Anyway, one day he was telling the reporter Mel Antonen about this game he would play as a child in the Dominican Republic, and it suddenly came together. The game was called "La Placa." In the game, a pitcher would try to bounce a ball past a batter and knock over a license plate that was standing behind the ball. The batter's job was to protect that license plate.
Think about that for a minute - it's a little bit of baseball, a little bit of cricket, and a lot of the Dominican Republic. A ball, a stick of some kind, a bent license plate, that's all they needed to create something magical. Guerrero was, apparently, amazing at it. Sure, it shaped him. When he was right, nobody could throw a ball by him. "That game," Guerrero said of "La Placa," "taught me my uppercut." And that uppercut - well, baseball would not have been the same without it.