WBC: Bud Finally Gets One Right

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 29, 2006
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Take a bow, Mr. Selig, it worked - wonderfully.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic was just that, a classic. Nations the average fan thought fielded nothing more than minor league quality talent slapped down the big boys from the U.S., the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Nearly 43,000 people watched the final in San Diego. The twoday total outdrew any two consecutive games played by the Padres in the same stadium. A South Korean band banged drums the night before the team’s semifinal game vs. Japan. It was Venezuelan fans clad in yellow and the Cubans in their undefeated red, while those supporting the Dominican Republic danced to merengue. Mexico, with absolutely nothing to play for except pride, defeated the U.S. And if you’d seen Puerto Rico hosting Cuba, you’d think it was the center of the baseball universe. Even the Americans couldn’t help but crowd around the front of the dugout, too excited to sit down.

And then there was Peter Moylan.

The 27-year-old Australian hurler hadn’t pitched in seven years and was working as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company when he got the call to represent his country. At one time Moylan was an immature 19-year-old playing rookie league ball in the Twins’ system who couldn’t hit 90 on the gun. He’s now older, faster, more mature, signed to a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves and has already seen preseason action in a game against Cincinnati.

I know Bud hasn’t got many things right in his career, or gotten the credit for the few things he has done well, but what a way to make up for missed opportunities.

Beyond all the subplots of Japan vs. Korea and a dictator-led Cuban team playing on U.S. soil, there was baseball - great baseball - played hard by athletes skilled in the fundamentals and talented enough to improvise when needed. This was never more evident, especially on the defensive side, than during the final game between Cuba and Japan.

In the fourth inning Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki dove for, and grabbed, a scorcher that bounced off the mound and nearly hit the pitcher. A split second after eating dirt Kawasaki was on his feet throwing out the baserunner. Two innings later Cuba returned the favor. With the fielders playing back Kawasaki dropped a perfect bunt only to have it swept up by Cuban third baseman Michel Enriguez, who submarined a throw to first to register the out. Enriguez was nearly on the first base line when he made the unbelievable throw.

There were other moments. Going into the semifinal game against Japan, the Korean pitchers combined for a paltry 1.33 ERA. The defense behind them made no errors.

The Netherlands never made it beyond the first round, but right-hander Shairon Martis etched his name into baseball history with a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama. The game was stopped because of the 10-run mercy rule.

Jingoists who thought putting up big offensive numbers were the privilege of only the U.S. and Dominicans were offered Japan, who led the Classic in hits, runs, home runs, RBI, total bases, stolen bases and batting average.

Were these the best athletes from the best baseball-playing nations playing the game at its highest level? No. Too many major leaguers from the U.S. and Japan decided to sit it out. But that’s not the point. The purpose of the classic was to sell Major League Baseball to the international market. It worked. Fans from the 16 nations left the stadiums with MLB souvenirs at a rate that surprised organizers, while major league talent evaluators got a good look at athletes who could be added to their rosters in the near future.

The WBC comes around again in 2009. It will then switch to an every-four-year format so as not to conflict with the Olympics or the World Cup. Not all was perfect. Work remains to be done.

A more diverse field of officials is needed, and Major League Baseball has to ensure Bob Davidson is kept a safe distance. Brackets must be changed so no one nation has an easier ride to the finals and so that teams will not play each other a multitude of times. The Japan/Korea games were fantastic, but it would have been nice to see either one take on Venezuela or Panama. Reworking the tie-breaking rules so it doesn’t take a slide rule and a degree from MIT to figure out would make things easier.

And TV coverage has to improve.

ESPN missed the opening ceremonies before the final because of a double overtime NIT game between Michigan and Notre Dame - thus depriving fans of seeing baseball’s two greatest sluggers, Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron, take the field together.

The post game wasn’t any better. We got to see the Japanese players storm the field, and had a brief look at the two teams shaking hands after the game, but that was it. We got no images of the Cuban team thanking their fans or the Japanese bowing to theirs. The trophy and medal presentations, and the sight of the stadium awash in enough confetti to keep maintenance crews busy for a month were cut just so ESPN could shift to lesser programming. What a shame.

Here’s to 2009.

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