Canada beats its neighbours at their own game

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By TIM MARCHMAN, The New York Sun

(9 March 2006) – YESTERDAY’S ESPN-2 broadcast of Canada’s 8-6 upset of the United States in their first-round World Baseball Classic game was tremendous fun. There was the game, which was loosely but enthusiastically played, and quite dramatic in several points. There was the crowd, about which more shortly. And then there were the announcers. At several points throughout the game, colour man Rick Sutcliffe, probably reiterating a talking point a producer was piping into his earpiece, went on about how this would be the biggest WBC upset yet, if Canada managed to pull it off.

Was it a bigger upset than Korea’s defeat of Japan? Of course not, and no one who stopped to think about what they’re saying would say such a thing. But whether or not something is true doesn’t always have much relation to whether it gets incessantly and bizarrely repeated on a broadcast of a baseball game.

ESPN’s narrative going into yesterday’s game was simple – Team USA is the biggest, baddest, and best collection of ballplayers anywhere in the world, save maybe those of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The idea that they might be beaten by lowly Canada was just unthinkable.

This isn’t football, though. Even the 2003 Tigers won 43 games, and they didn’t have the benefit of a quartet of hitters as strong as Canada’s Jason Bay, Justin Morneau, Matt Stairs, and Corey Koskie. Part of what makes baseball so great is that a team pitching Jose Lima can beat one pitching Pedro Martinez. Canada’s team is full of good major league players, and Bay is a true star, one of the dozen best in the game right now. The Americans were favourites yesterday, but not by insurmountable odds.

To be perfectly blunt, it was fun to watch them get knocked around the park. Dontrelle Willis is one of the most likable and talented pitchers in the majors, and it wasn’t all that much fun watching him give up five runs in just under three innings, but it was fun to see Canada whack Al Leiter, who politicked his way onto the team before magnanimously announcing he would retire after the tournament. (In a similar spirit, allow me to announce that I will be turning down free-agent offers from any and all teams that choose to make them, as I’d prefer to concentrate on journalism and my family.)

The thrashing dealt Team America yesterday was made all the more enjoyable by the behaviour of the boorish crowd in Phoenix. They began loudly booing when Stairs’s shot up the middle off the majestically mulleted reliever Gary Majewski put his team ahead 7-0 in the 4th inning, and they chanted “USA! USA!” when Chipper Jones came up in the bottom of the inning. Of course, they acted as if they were at Game 7 of the World Series when Jason Varitek’s fifth-inning grand slam cut the game to a score of 8-6, so it was all the funnier when America blew several chances, as when Chase Utley, with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, lined a deep drive towards the centre field wall, flipped his bat, threw his hands up in a heroic pose fit for the back covers of newspapers in all our great nation’s great cities … and watched the ball drop into centre fielder Adam Stern’s glove.

I hope no one will think all this schadenfreude unpatriotic; it’s just that one would have to be quite churlish not to root for anyone who’s playing against Team Goliath, especially when that team has been deliberately stocked with such upstanding men of high moral character that it resembles a meeting of the Maplewood Rotarians rather more than a ballclub.

Tomorrow, Team USA will face South Africa, a team one might charitably compare to a good American high school team, and a team that came shockingly close to upsetting Canada. (That would have been the biggest upset of the tournament.) Is it too much to hope, to dream, that our African friends might somehow win against a team on which Derek Jeter is the eighth-best hitter? Of course it is. I’ll be watching nonetheless, and rooting for the right team.

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