For the first time in my life, I was rooting for Jason Varitek today. As a Yankee fan, I am no supporter of Varitek, but today, when the Canadian team went to their bullpen to bring in a lefty to face the switch hitter, I was ecstatic. As any Yankee fan knows, Varitek is much dangerous hitter from the right side of the plate.
The situation was perfect for some heroics. The U.S. team, one of the favorites of the World Baseball Classic, was down 8-2 in the 5th inning. Bad pitching, sloppy fielding and anemic hitting had the ESPN commentators predicting the biggest upset of the tournament by the end of the 4th. Varitek’s grand slam put the game within reach. It was 8-6, and Team USA was finally hitting off of Canada’s weak bullpen.
But it, alas, it was not to be. A deep centerfield and a defensive Adam stern conspired against Chase Utley and a would-be three-run home run. Instead of a 9-8 USA lead or at least a tie game in the 9th, the Americans were stuck watching Canada, a group of not-so-great Major Leaguers and some very young Minor Leaguers, celebrate an improbable victory.
As I watched the USA/Canada game and the Cuba/Panama game before it, I was struck by the reaction of the American players to the game. Or at least the lack of reaction.
The Cuba/Panama game was one of emotion and tension. As the announcers pointed out over and over again, Cuba and Panama had a history. At the last Baseball World Cup in Rotterdam, some showboating on the part of a Cuban hitter led to a war of beanballs. This war carried over into today’s game as six different players were on the receiving ends of pitches.
As the battle wore on and Panama, the underdogs, kept coming back, the players on the field really cared about this game. For Panama, it was a chance to upset the best team in the Caribbean. For Cuba, it was a chance to show the world that this awesome team of amateurs could beat a team consisting of at least some Major Leaguers.
This game was also about national pride. The Cuban fans would be disappointed if Panama won. The Panamanians would have been ecstatic had they emerged victorious. Home run after dramatic home run, great defensive play after great defensive play, the players in the two dugouts never let the emotion sag. They were bouncing out of the dugouts after every great play or timely hit. As Bruce Chen noted during an in-game interview, these were two teams that genuinely cared to be playing in this tournament no matter how slim their chances of winning.
When I switched over to the USA/Canada game, I hoped to see the same thing. I wanted to see a loose, powerful American team behind the exuberant Dontrelle Willis battering the Canadian team and Adam Loewen, a pitcher who has yet to see action above Single A. Instead, I saw a tight American team that frankly looked uninterested to be playing in this competition.
I saw Michael Young hacking at first pitches with key men on base late in the game. I saw Mark Teixeira make a bad play early in the game. I saw Matt Holliday give up on a foul ball a few plays after allowing an inside-the-park home run to get past him in a park with which he ought to be more familiar.
Had Varitek been on the Panamanian team, he would been greeted as a hero when he returned to the dugout. Instead, he was greeted as he will be during the regular season when he launched a ball over the Green Monster.
At the end of the game, Team Canada literally bounced out of the dugout. Meanwhile, the Americans walked away as though it were just another game. They didn’t seem to mind that they could be facing elimination on Friday and that their tournament fate is now largely out of their hands.
To me, it’s disappointing. While I am no fan of this tournament and would love to see Johnny Damon, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter return to Tampa for Spring Training this weekend, I would also like to see the All Stars my country trots out during the tournament play like they actually care about these games.
When Al Leiter is called in to the game to replace Dontrelle Willis and that is the best option available, something is wrong. When Buck Martinez manages the game like a Spring Training game instead of a World Baseball Classic game, something is wrong.
We might not like the tournament, but let’s show up. If I can root for Jason Varitek of the Boston Red Sox, then the American players can make an effort to show a bunch of Minor Leaguers who’s the boss when it comes to baseball.