Saturday, March 9, 2013

The US squeezes into the second round of the World Baseball Classic begging the question: Is our World Series really a 'world' series? or is it a presumptuous public relations gimmick?

Win or lose, the World Baseball Classic begs the question: Do Americans still play the best baseball on the planet -- or do they just play the most expensive?

Let me lead off here with a caveat. I do not root for the home team in the World Baseball Classic. I tend to root for Cuba because Cuba is the biggest underdog in the world. Not the biggest baseball underdog, by any means, but certainly the biggest political underdog. This tiny country, hidden in our massive shadow, has suffered under terrible sanctions since 1960. That's 53 years of Cold War retribution, because any notion that sanctions lead to regime change have certainly been wiped away by Cuban history. Why a 53-year blockade? The best answer anyone can mount is that the Cuban economic system is socialist and the government has a record of cruelty to its own citizens. Seems to me we have a few major trading partners, at whose feet we tend to genuflect, who sport the same attributes but against whom sanctions are unthinkable.

A knee-jerk political action 53 years ago, in the midst of the 'Cuban Spring,' has persisted through several enlightened presidents who simply did not have the guts to stand up and say Basta! The Cubans are more like us than different. Nowhere is this reality more evident than between the white lines of a baseball field. How crazy, how out-of-date, how far from reality, are these sanctions? Think of the Cuban Democracy Act this way: Imagine black Americans are still banned, in 2013, from Major League Baseball.

If that were the case, the whole world would look on Americans as idiots.

OK, I didn't intend a political rant. I root for the Cubans because they're underdogs and because they play a stylish brand of baseball. I also root for the Netherlands because in baseball they're even greater underdogs. When the Cubans play the Netherlanders Monday morning at 5 a.m., I'll root for the Netherlanders. It's a simple calculus.

Back to the World Baseball Classic where the home team took a terrible drubbing at the hands of the Mexican team Friday which created much hand-wringing among self-identified patriots. If Ryan Braun and company had lost to the miraculous Italians Saturday, they would have been back to their Grapefruit and Cactus League games tomorrow. But they pulled out the Italian game on one swing of the bat Saturday and finally took the lead over Canada in the eighth Sunday. The television talker wondered aloud why so many teams had given up on the Canadian pitchers, since the big league "all-stars" were handcuffed by them most of the night. He was watching American all-stars handcuffed by 10-year minor league pitchers -- at best. The Americans (North, that is) have not won the World Baseball Classic in two tries.

Don't bring the argument in here about how the Classic happens at an awkward time for American baseball players. If they wanted to win, they'd have started conditioning earlier and brought their A-games to field of play. So far, they haven't.

And don't even think about arguing this isn't a real all-star team. First of all, a real all-star team would consist of many players on other World Baseball squads. Second, and this is what boggles the mind, these players are drawn from an enormous pool of talent -- talent paid in multiples of millions in major league cities and future millionaire prospects in minor league cities. The chauvinist in me asks, how can they not dominate the World Baseball Classic?

Look at the competition. World teams are cobbled together from current major leaguers, former major leaguers, major league nevers, players from major leagues around the globe, players from industrial leagues, minor league prospects, local heroes, and comeback hopefuls. In some places they are just learning the game. I read a comment from a coach in the Netherlands who said when he first handed a baseball to a kid on a practice field, the kid dropped the ball on the ground and kicked it.

Either they want it more, their style of play is better suited to winning, or... they're better players.

All three of which lead to the inevitable question. Is the World Series really a world series or it is a public relations gimmick? Is it really a world series, or is it a pretension, a big fat presumption born of 1900s ethnocentrism which has persisted, like the Cuban Democracy Act of 1960, well past the time when it made sense, if it ever made sense?

Let's just call our end-of-the-season tournament the Fall Classic and get everything back into perspective. A World Series it obviously is not.



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