JEFF BLAIR, Globe and Mail Baseball reporter on the Second Round quarter-finals
SAN DIEGO (18 March 2006) — NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the beauty or deep meaning of a literal translation, especially when the person saying it is one of the game’s international icons.
“I was really surprised that the American team lost to the Mexican team because we thought somehow the Americans would be the world’s best,” Sadaharu Oh, who has spent 16 years as a manager in Japanese professional leagues since and holds the professional home-run record of 868, said yesterday. “And because of that notion, when we lost the second game in the second round, we never thought that we would be able to be playing in the next round here.”
Not too many people thought the World Baseball Classic semi-final round would be played today without the host country. Today, the Dominican Republic will play Cuba and South Korea will take on Japan, managed by Oh. The winner will advance to the final on Monday, and neither San Diego nor Major League Baseball knows what to expect this weekend.
The success of the Cuban team has introduced a entire new set of security concerns at a time when the city is already playing host to one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s regional basketball tournaments — the tipoff of which on Thursday was delayed by a bomb scare at the Cox Arena — and at a time when San Diego’s tenuous financial status forced the Padres at the last minute to agree to pick up the $125,000 (US) tab for security at Petco Park.
Cuba’s games in San Juan were marred by protesters in the stands. During the Cubans’ workout yesterday, journalists were kept away from the dugout by a roped-off security zone — the only team to take those measures — but a small group of fans watching from a berm in a park behind the right-field wall applauded and cheered the Cubans as they did windsprints, and the players responded with waves.
Cuban manager Higinio Velez said his team had been shown “kindness, courtesy and respect” since it arrived in the United States on Thursday. He played down concerns that some of his players might defect. “Don’t you think our players would want to go back home after playing so well here?” he asked.
Tickets for the event were sold in three-game strips, and all those that were made available were sold. A few thousand tickets were kept for walkup fans, and organizers are hoping the absence of the United States and Mexico might be offset by an influx of Korean or Japanese fans from Los Angeles.
The baseball world spent yesterday trying to digest the unexpected ouster of the US team. The United States lost to Japan under a tiebreaker format based on runs allowed after losing to Mexico 2-1 on Thursday, a game in which future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens made what might have been his final career start. The United States, which finished 3-3, needed the tiebreaker to advance out of the preliminary round.
“To me, it was a lot like what happens whenever the NBA sends a Dream Team to the Olympics or any other kind of international event,” Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. “Teams from the other countries beat us with fundamentals.”
“We got surprised like everybody in the whole world,” said Miguel Tejada, the Dominican shortstop.
“Everybody knows they have a good team. But, you know, it’s not about names, but about how you play on the field. The other two teams are here because they played well on the field. It’s too bad, because the whole world wanted to see the US and us as the last two teams.”
Canadians are all too aware of the navel-gazing that ensues after a country fails to perform up to expectations in its national sport. It happens every time one of the country’s national hockey teams doesn’t win a particular competition.
US manager Buck Martinez, who will now go back to the role for which he’s best suited — television analyst — might find some of those pregame interviews with players a little harder to come by, after he essentially called out major-leaguers for being pampered and not concentrating enough on fundamentals. “Obviously, you see the value of their practice regimen where they take hundreds of ground balls a day,” Martinez said of the two Asian finalists. “They swing 100 times a day more than we do in North America. I think it is time to say, you know, that that is not a bad thing.”
Stan Javier, the general manager of the Dominican Republic who appeared in 1,763 major-league games and collected 1,358 hits, said the elimination of the US team “didn’t mean a thing” about the state of the game in the United States or at the major-league level.
“A lot of players who do well in this tournament wouldn’t last one month in the majors,” said Javier, whose father, Julian, also played in the majors. “I mean, it’s like going hitless for a whole week over the course of a 162-game season. That happened to me as a player.
“When you have a tournament like this where it’s so short? Well, you can’t judge anything by it. It would just be the wrong thing to do.”