Contributor's Notes: Jeff Beresford-Howe
Talk about getting mileage out of Spring Training: Bud Selig's brainstorm, the World Baseball Classic, buzzed around the baseball world, ESPN and the MLB network this weekend. It's an open question whether it works as a competition, but would you rather watch this stuff or a Milwaukee-San Diego split squad game?
The highlights and lowlights of a first weekend of competition:
* Japan and Korea advanced. So did the USA. China, Chinese Taipei and Panama were eliminated. The other five teams advancing will be decided by Wednesday.
* The 3-2 victory by the Netherlands over the Dominican Republic was almost beyond comprehension. To put it in perspective, the total of the MLB salaries of the Dominicans is around $83 million. For the Dutch ? a bunch of has-beens and never was's from places like Aruba and Curacao ? the figure is $400,000. That is, one guy at the Major League minimum. Even in the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. team that beat the Soviets had a bunch of guys who turned out to have long and successful NHL careers. This was more like the team from Bronx High waltzing into Yankee Stadium and pasting the Yankees.
* The Dominicans are still alive because of the first round's double elimination format, but they're going to have to beat Puerto Rico or the Netherlands on Tuesday to stay alive, and win another game after that, too. They'll have to do it with one brain tied behind their back. Felipe Alou, as bad a game manager as there is, will still be managing the team. His latest blunder: Trailing by one run in the seventh, he removed David Ortiz ? the trail runner and winning, not tying, run ? for a pinch-runner. Predictably, it came back to haunt the Dominicans when Jose Bautista rather than Ortiz came to the plate in the 9th inning of what was still a one-run game. Bautista was called out on strikes to end it.
* Alex Rodriguez figured in the result, of course, even without playing. ESPN reported that the Dominican team was angry and dispirited by Rodriguez's failure to show up to play; they assumed he was faking or exaggerating his injury to get out of his commitment. It turns out they were wrong ? A-Rod agreed to surgery over the weekend that could sideline him for much of the '09 season ? but it says everything you need to know about the guy that his compadres and peers jumped straight to that conclusion.
* In front of a bunch of truly disgusted fans at Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City, the Mexicans lost by so many runs to the Australians ? the Australians! ? that the ?mercy rule? was invoked after eight innings. Final score, 17-7. Beats the Claxton Shield all to hell, aye, mate?
* Foro Sol makes Coors Field in Denver look like a blushing virgin, as it turns out. Small and at high altitude, the park is a hitter's paradise. The Cubans ? notable for their lack of power in the '06 WBC ? hit six home runs in their game at Foro Sol on Sunday and the Australians hit four. There were 33 runs scored in the two games played there so far.
* Mexican fans were disgusted by their national team's performance and booed them off the field, but at least they showed up. In all four venues ? Tokyo, Toronto, Mexico City and San Juan ? the same pattern repeated itself: If the homeboys were playing, the place was packed. If they weren't, it might as well have been, uh, an early Spring Training game. In particular, premium seats were noticeably unfilled at all four parks.
* The quality of play varied widely. Some games, like the Canada-USA game, were well played and tense. Most were sloppy, and the very restricted pitch counts imposed in the '09 WBC after a raft of pitcher injuries in the '06 WBC meant a steady procession of pitching changes. Eventually, just about every team had to run a guy out there who didn't have it that day, blowing open some otherwise good games.
* Italy has a team. It's composed almost entirely of Americans, guys whose grandparents were born in the USA and who happen to have vowels at the end of their names. The whole thing seems like some sort of weird obeisance to Tommy Lasorda, all the way down to the uniforms, which were cheap Italian knock-offs of the classic Dodger look. What they're doing in the tournament is anyone's guess. The United States is essentially fielding three teams: the official USA team, Italian team and the Puerto Rican team. How much more interesting would it have been if Selig had decided to let African-Americans field their own team, an homage to the Negro Leagues and African heritage in America? Think that would have increased the buzz factor in the tournament just a little? Think that would have ratcheted up interest in baseball among African-Americans in the United States?
* Two pitchers stepped onto the international stage in a big way: Yu Dervish, the Iranian-Japanese ace of the Japanese national team, was unhittable in his appearance against China, and Armando Galarraga was awesome on the mound for Venezuela against a team of American All-Stars. Because of the vagueries of the Nippon-MLB agreement, we'll probably have to wait until about 2011 to see Dervish in America, but Galarraga was good for the Detroit Tigers last year and may be ready to become a Cy Young-ish type pitcher for the Tigers this year. Good news for a city that needs some.