Part I of two articles by TONY SEED*. Baseball Canada, which extensively collaborates with the Rogers-owned Toronto Blue Jays, capitulated to the U.S. baton in the meetings of the baseball federations to organize the Classic and became one of its first casualties. Part II is here.
HALIFAX (March 15, 2009) – TEAM CANADA ignominiously exited the World Baseball Classic in the first round for the second successive time. Playing in a pool with the United States, Venezuela and Italy, it lost successive games to the United States and Italy on March 7 and March 9 respectively. Canada’s overall record in the 2006 and 2009 tournaments is three wins (against South Africa, Italy and the U.S.A.) and four losses.
The Friday March the Thirteenth Prime Time Sports, the Canadian nationally-syndicated TV and radio show, convened its roundtable to assess the emphatic exit.
The daily show is broadcast on The Fan radio and Rogers Sportsnet, which had purchased the TV broadcast rights of the World Baseball Classic for Canada. Rogers owns both the Skydome (Rogers Centre) and the Toronto Blue Jays and is involved in the relocation of home games of the Buffalo Bills of the U.S. National Football League to the Skydome, in short, the integration of sport with the U.S. empire. In turn, the Blue Jays are increasingly involved in Baseball Canada which, with baseball’s elimination from the Olympics, will be suffering financially. The link has less to do with scouting and drafting Canadians than with mking the big score; wrapping the Blue Jays in a Canadian flag for marketing to the Great White North. But then Primetime Sports has very little to do with sport and is characterized by non-stop speculation by fiftysomething cronies from the Toronto sports media on professional sports empires, celebrity athletes and scandal.
Discussing the drama of the closely-fought match with Team US, host Bob McGowan observed that “for the first time in fifteen years baseball fans were witnessing a game that mattered” – referring to the Toronto Blue Jays winning the U.S. “World series” in 1992 and 1993 and perhaps his own boredom over playing golf with Joe Carter for 15 years. It was time for some real-life glory in losersville. Fifteen years is a hell of a long time.
But they had been hung out to dry. The folks at the roundtable cited all manner of excuses and problems for Team Canada’s performance in losing to the U.S.A and its elimination from the tournament: the “passivity” of manager Erne Whitt in the elimination game against Italy; blaming Canadian pitcher Ryan Dempster, whose contract with the Chicago Cubs had been recently extended for mega dollars, for not showing up; injuries to other Canadian major-league pitchers; the rotation of the starting pitchers; and Major League Baseball, whose organizers failed to understand how to market the game in Toronto as shown by its scheduling of games at 6:30 pm (in fact, a time dictated by TV).
The WBC failed, accused Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail, to “generate a buzz” – this psychometrician’s favourite criteria of success. There was no joy in Hogtown. A similarly ignominious performance in the Winter Olympics, they opined, would have fueled a national debate about the “crisis in hockey.”
So how else to promote the sport of baseball? The discussion continued and was led by the talk show host into a downward spiral of pathetic speculation.
The comment “for the first time in fifteen years baseball fans were witnessing a game that mattered” is itself an abject confession. Why not then have the courage to ask why Rogers does not use its considerable financial resources to recruit Canadian professionals to compete under the Blue Jay banner and provide Canadian athletes incentives to compete in Canada rather than abroad. If all the top athletes are lost and not known in their native land, then who would attract the spectators? Nor do the “experts” ask why the governments permit hundreds of professional foreign athletes to be brought to Canada on a mercenary basis by the private sports monopolies while thousands of Canadian student athletes leave the country each year to compete for semi-professional NCAA teams in the U.S.A. A five-year, $47 million deal for a ninth-innning closer closer here; a seven-year, $126 million contract extension for a centre fielder there; a seven-year $70 million contract for a right fielder – you do the math.
Instead, the “experts” made the competence of the team manager and the “attitude” of the players as the reason for the capitulation of the red-and-white, while finding a problem with the low turnout of the spectators and the lack of a feel-good “buzz” in the nuclear wasteland. Instead of a sober discussion on the objective reality of amateur baseball, or calling a spade a spade about a feel-good “world” tournament that is a tool of U.S. Major League Baseball, the sports “experts” unfortunately individualized the question and focused their commentary on every diversionary issue possible.
Not that each of them does not contain a grain of truth – but only a grain. The tightly-found match against the U.S.A did not merely reflect “the first baseball game in 15 years that mattered” to Toronto. It illustrated how Canadian athletes with the support of the Canadian people will fight to the end against the enemy despite the capitulationist and craven approach of the management of Team Canada and the sports media. In every sport Canadians traditionally compete very well against the United States with a never-say-die attitude. In the 1999 Pan-Ams Canada upset both the U.S.A and Team Cuba.
In addition to this well-known attribute is the fact that many of the Canadian batters are second to none in offense. They themselves, such as Justin Morneau from New Westminster, B.C., an American League MVP in 2006 and runner-up in 2008, had been quietly organizing for the past three years to convince their peers to don the Canadian jersey.
“There’s guys that any time I run into them, I’m talking about it. I’ve been looking forward to this thing since the last one,” Mr Morneau said back on December 17th when he was named the team’s first player.
Forty two thousand people in the most Americanized city in Canada were, proud of their baseball players, on their feet in the SkyDome shouting as one, ”Beat U.S.A! Beat U.S.A!” There is no need to elaborate how sport is one arena for the resistance of subjugated peoples and nations; on any given day, athletes of the smallest nations, derisively mocked as “minnows” by the sport superstars, can demonstrate the right-to-be of their nation in international competition. The phenomena has been extensively documented.
In contrast, Team Canada and the sports media entered the World Baseball Classic with the neo-colonial conviction that the American superstars are unbeatable, as if representing some superior race. Longtime Olympian John Cassidy, who campaigned for Canada’s national basketball team for ten years which played (and defeated) U.S. teams composed of top stars, once told me that as soon as you start thinking that the Americans are superior they have entered your head, and you are finished on the court.
In 2006 manager Ernie Whitt, an affable American and long time employee of the Toronto Blue Jays, sent out a rookie in the opening-round against Team U.S.A. It was reminiscent of the Canadian cannon fodder Lord Montbatten sent to die on the beaches of Dieppe in 1942 to “prove” the impossibility of opening up a second front In Europe against Nazi Germany. The manager did not believe that Team Canada could beat the American superstars, and held two of Canada’s then top rated pitchers in reserve for the following day’s match against Mexico. The management of Team Canada decided to tank.
The problem in 2006 was that Mr Whitt didn’t tell the sacrificial lamb picked out for the slaughter.
Young, left-handed Adam Loewen pitched the game of his life, starting and pitching 3 2/3 runless innings, leaving the game with a 7-0 lead.
Mr Loewen had the bases loaded with one out in the first inning when Mr Whitt visited him on the mound.
“He gave me the right answer,” Mr Whitt later recalled with some humility. “I said, ‘Do you know who you’re facing?’ and he replied, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I said, ‘That’s all I wanted to hear.’” His next pitch was a double play grounder hit by all-star Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves to end the inning.
Team Canada shocked the baseball world by whipping the U.S. 8-6, a score that flattered the Americans. The game’s highlight was Adam Stern’s inside-the-park home-run against the shoddy American defence. Amazed, sportswriter Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail called it “the miracle on grass.”
In the end, the Canadians were eliminated on the run-differential tiebreaker, the result of allowing a South African team comprised of weekend warriors and a 17-year-old high school pitcher come back to score runs in the latter innings (with Mr Whitt again withholding Canada’s best relief pitchers for later, due to the bizarre pitch count rule), and went home.
Instead of learning from this experience in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Team Canada in Pool C, again held back its top-rated pitcher, Scott Richmond, in reserve from the second win-or-else game against Italy, which it assumed it would win handily, for what it deemed to be the third and decisive elimination game against Venezuela. The winner of that game would be guaranteed a place in the second round.
But the issue is not why Mr Richmond was not started against the Italians in the second match-up, but why he was not started in the first inning against the Americans in the opening game or brought on in long relief.
Worse than the chauvinist assumption that Canada could not lose to Italy – which the sports media focused on – is the assumption that Canada could never beat the Americans – which the media has been silent about.
Equally ludicrous was over-rating the U.S.A viz-a-viz the talented Venezuelan squad, which has benefited by the investment in and support to athletics in that country by the Bolivarian government of president Hugo Chavez and is emerging as a contending team in international competition commensurate with the undisputed talent of its top individual players.
As the match unfolded, a run in the first, another in the third and Canada was on top of the Americans again.
Could another upset really be in store?
The problem again for the capitulators was the starting pitcher, Mike Johnson. Who? Mr Johnson is a 33-year-old right-hander from Edmonton now in his 17th year of playing professional baseball, who kept Canada in the game for the first three innings before running into trouble in the fourth.
Mr Johnson pitched in 81 games for the Orioles and the Expos from 1997 through 2001. He was 7-14 with a 6.85 earned run average.
Since then, he has had quite an odyssey as a professional athlete. He has pitched in Japan, China and Korea, with a detour in 2005 for Tommy John elbow surgery. Last season he went 20-2 to win the M.V.P. award in the Chinese Professional Baseball League. In 2009 he will be pitching in Korea.
Still, the Canadians kept coming. Jason Bay scored on a wild pitch in the fourth to cut the American edge to 4-3.
Then there was young Phillippe Aumont, a 20-year-old, who wiggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam by getting a broken-bat pop-up from David Wright and striking out Kevin Youkilis and Curtis Granderson of the American side.
After again falling behind, a solo home run by catcher Russell Martin in the seventh off Scott Shields pulled Canada to within 6-5 before its courageous comeback rally in the ninth fell short. The team put the tying run on second base in the bottom of the ninth inning, before Mr Bay flied out to right field to end the intense affair. The team died while waiting for the power game to show up.
“We owed them a little payback,” said U.S. manager Davey Johnson. “You know three years ago, it wasn’t that close. All the scoring (in 2009) ended up fairly close. They’ve got a heck of a lineup. I thought our guys did a heck of a job holding them down.”
Baseball Canada overestimated the U.S. and underestimated Italy, coached by Mike Hargrove and Mike Piazza and composed primarily of Americans, most of whom if not all do not even speak the Italian language. According to the granny rule, all they had to was claim one grandparent to be eligible to compete for the Italian national team.
Call it Team MLB Satellite. Francisco Cervelli, a catcher with the New York Yankees, was born and raised in Venezuela. Veteran major-league outfielder Frank Catalanotto of the Texas Rangers, featured as MLB’s poster boy for Italy on the side of the Rogers Centre, is from New York. Mike Costanzo of the Seattle Mariners is from Pennsylvania.
Instead of a walk in the park, the born-again Italians rightly and emphatically shocked Team Canada, 6-2.
The biggest contributors – centre fielder Chris Denorfia, starter Dan Serafini, relievers Chris Cooper and Jason Grilli – were not actually from Italy either and are American citizens. But the defence of Team Italy was superb.
The Italians haven’t bought into the U.S. con job. “In Italy there’s a lot of pride in national teams. And a lot of people just don’t feel a connection with this team,” said Paolo Tartamella, a writer for America Oggi, an Italian newspaper publishing in the United States back in 2006. “They say: ‘Who is Mike Piazza?’ They’d rather see 30 ordinary guys out there who are Italian.”
One could say the same about South Africa who seem to be converted cricket players or China, where MLB went in 2002 looking for the big score. MLB staff were also assigned to manage or coach the colonials.
“We came in expecting to take a step forward, and I feel like we took a little step back,” said Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau, whom one reporter described as looking “shell-shocked” following the loss to Italy.
Scott Richmond never got to hurl a single pitch.
Instead of any distinctive national style of play, Team Canada plays the U.S. style, relying on the power game; it failed them abysmally, as they were unable to manufacture runs. In its two games, Canada combined to hit just .176 (3-for-17) with runners in scoring position. In Monday’s loss to Italy, the Canadians stranded 11 baserunners. Against Team U.S.A on Saturday, the bulk of Canada’s offense came from just two players: Joey Votto and Russell Martin. The pair combined for six of Canada’s seven hits and scored four of its five runs.
There were fewer people in the stands (12,411) watching Team Canada lose to the Italians than saw Team USA beat Venezuela the day before (13,094).
The media had its priorities. The top story in the morning’s Globe and Mail was about the Montreal Canadiens firing coach Guy Carbonneau. The Toronto Sun led with the lowly hometown Leafs losing once again to the Ottawa Senators, the “Battle of Ontario” more important than a world competition.
“I’m really devastated,” said Cincinnati Reds outfielder Joey Votto, who had four hits in Canada’s 6-5 loss to Team U.S.A in its first game, and doubled and walked against the Italians. “Sure it’s just a baseball game and everything, but when you do it for a living and you’re playing for your country … I was really excited for this tournament, and to leave after just two games, it’s going to take some time to recover.”
The following night Venezuela beat Italy 7-0 (using its best pitcher Felix Hernandez in relief). The game was much closer then the score indicated, as it was a scoreless tie after the first four innings. Italy hit the ball well and had the bases loaded twice in the first four innings and their pitching for the first five innings was solid. That left Venezuela to take the U.S.A to the cleaners in the final Classic game at the Rogers Centre to determine the higher seed for the second round in Miami.
I have already written in 2006 on the nature of the World Baseball Classic Inc. as a tool of U.S. imperialism to achieve world supremacy in sport and how Major League Baseball rigged that tournament for self-serving reasons in violation of a level playing field and all the modern norms of athletic competition. Baseball Canada, which has fallen prey to the neo-liberal and annexationist program of the ruling oligarchy, capitulated to the U.S. baton in the preparatory meetings of the baseball federations convened by MLB to organize the Classic and set out its technical rules of play – one of which restricted player selection to national teams – and became one of its first casualties. Mysteriously, Canada’s best five pitchers with contracts held by U.S. monopolies all bailed out.
Those are the conditions in which our Canadian baseball players are forced to compete on the uneven U.S. playing field, which the sports journalists with their annual trips to MLB training camps in Florida and Arizona are indifferent to. That is the reward for a sport and a nation with only 205 baseball professionals in its entire history but which has known the glory of defeating the U.S. teams in Pan American contests and the 2006 Classic.
*Tony Seed is co-author with Curtis Coward of The Kids’ Baseball Book (New Media Publications, 1994), president of the Nova Scotia Cricket Association since 1993, a certified coach in three sports, and editor and publisher of Shunpiking Magazine, Nova Scotia’s discovery magazine.