America’s Surprising Reaction to World Baseball Classic

by Randy Shaw on March 22, 2006

Long before George W. Bush’s policies made the United States the least popular country in the world, Americans have long preferred to go their own way in sports and have distrusted international athletic bodies. Our leading national sport—football—is unknown throughout much of the world, while the top worldwide sport of soccer is not popular enough in America to support a stable professional league. That’s what makes the strong support of the World Baseball Classic by normally conservative America sports fans so surprising. Instead of putting down the contest, the sports media legitimized Japan’s championship victory over Cuba and questioned why America’s team performed so poorly. There even seems to be an emerging consensus that what occurs in America in October is not really a “World Series,” a reaction that nobody could have predicted prior to the Classic’s start two weeks ago.

When ESPN continually showed Cuban fans in Havana Park cheering on their team in front of a big screen television, it became abundantly clear that the World Baseball Classic had become a global phenomenon. The Bush Administration’s foolishness in trying to ban Cuba from the Classic also became clear, and many Americans who have never thought about Cuba may now question why we are boycotting this baseball-loving island.

Following Japan’s 10-6 victory on Monday night, a Fox Sports Radio host extolled the intensity of the Japanese and Cuban players and openly contrasted their attitude toward the Classic with that of the American team (which was eliminated prior to the semi-finals). Other sportswriters and commentators echoed this assessment, and even wondered how America could stage a “World Series” after Japan had prevailed in the Classic.

There were some who excused America’s poor performance on the grounds that its players were not in “mid-season” shape, but this did not seem to affect the play of Japan’s Ichiro, whose season with the Seattle Mariners has yet to start. But the dominant media frame was that players from Cuba, Japan, Korea, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela simply cared more about playing for their country than did the Americans.

For progressive fans, the Classic showed what the world could be if military contractors, multinational corporations and religious fanatics had not taken us on a different course.
National pride in a baseball team’s performance is far different from the raging nationalism that has kept the world at war for the past century.

But conservative commentators appeared equally entranced by the multiplicity of nations who had become expert at America’s national pastime. As much as American baseball is dominated by stars from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, it took the Classic to make American fans fully realize the extent to which the world has caught up with us in terms of baseball skills.
And also in terms of baseball enthusiasm. Japan’s players were so excited in the 9th inning that they were all standing outside their dugout, an exhibition that the Bush-praising Fox Sports commentator noted was not evident with America’s team.

The Cuban team played “for the revolution,” while the perception was that American players were less dedicated because they were playing for their country, not money. Sports commentators noting this distinction likely did not realize its harsh indictment of American values.

Since the Classic was created by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, the brackets were stacked to ensure that the USA at least made the semi-finals and that the Cuban team did not. But America’s unexpected losses to Canada and Mexico wrecked this strategy, while Cuba—the reigning international baseball power—had to first defeat Venezuela and then beat Puerto Rico on its home turf in San Juan to reach the semi-final round.

But in a nightmare for the Bush Administration, the Cuban team won the hearts of baseball fans by winning both of the above games. Cuba then faced the powerful Dominican Republic team that featured National League MVP Albert Pujols, former American League MVP Miquel Tejada, and powerful Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.

The Dominican Republic has become a baseball factor for America’s major leagues, and few gave the unsung Cubans a chance. But proving that one must never underestimate the power of revolutionary ardor (and a great pitcher), the Cubans silenced the bats of the Dominican superstars in winning 3-1.

Just what President Bush needed—Cuba comes to Southern California and gets America caught up in its underdog struggle against Major League stars. The only worse scenario for Bush was a Venezuela-Cuba semifinal, which might have been enough for the President to cancel the rest of the Classic on national security grounds.

With all of the focus on Latin America’s baseball prowess, few were paying attention as Korea and Japan won game after game. Korea beat Japan twice, and the team managed by the legendary Sadaharu Oh (whose 868 homeruns is the world record) lost a third game when an American umpire reversed another’s call to steal the game for the American team.

But in the semi-finals, Japan beat Korea, and the latter team was eliminated despite having lost only one game in the tournament. That set up the Japan-Korea final, and the new realization among sports fans that international competitions may be truer tests of athletic prowess than “world championships” that solely involve American teams.

We can only hope that support for greater international cooperation in sports reduces tension in the world’s non-athletic relationships. Alleged baseball fan George W. Bush did not attend any of the Classic games, so he can remain as content in his ignorance in this sphere as in all others.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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