At the World Baseball Classic, Who Cares Wins

Team USA was bounced before the WBC semifinals, again. But given the exuberance and joy of the teams that remain, this doesn't seem like a bad thing.
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Before the rest of the people—who and how many remain unclear—who cared about Team USA learned it, every Mets fan knew it couldn't last. David Wright was on the big stage again, for the first time since Adam Wainwright's curveball to Carlos Beltran began its fateful, unhittable break in 2006, and he was playing like an Avenger. Square-jawed, muscle-bound, tongue stuck out like bush league bowler, Wright kept coming to bat in high-pressure situations, and kept delivering—none more fantastically than the grand slam that sent the United States into the second round. Articles were referring to Wright, the Mets' captain, as Captain America. Mets fans knew what was coming next.

For a long, happy moment, it seemed the last star of Flushing was about to do the impossible: get American fans interested in baseball's would-be World Cup. But because every superhero needs a weakness, Wright was playing hurt. For the entirety of the Classic, he had been nursing a rib injury: a lingering soreness that pained him not in play, but while he was sleeping and "just lounging around." When Wright was recalled to Camp Wilpon in Port St. Lucie on Friday of last week, the Mets medical staff—doubtless through a state-of-the-art application of leeches and a scientific bleeding regimen—decided that Wright should be encased in bubble wrap until after the start of the regular season. Wright's back has been an ongoing concern ever since he and Ike Davis ran into each other in 2011—an all time Metsian play—and Captain Flushing must not get hurt again. Mets fans always think the end is near. This time it happened to be true.

On Thursday and Friday, a line-up including Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer and Jimmy Rollins was shut down by one Caribbean journeyman after another, including ex-Met yo-yo long-man Nelson Figueroa. As Wright looked on from his holding cell deep inside the Mets compound, Team USA's run at its first WBC title died a quiet death, and the Puerto Rican players leaped from the dugout and celebrated as if they had just won some kind of super-lottery that turns millionaires into billionaires. Perhaps they deserved it more. They certainly seemed to be having more fun.

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It's not just his jawline that made Wright the perfect poster boy for the American team. He's a Boy Scout, or a friendly small town cop: wholesome, hard-working, a little dull—like a less-talented version of Harmon Killebrew, who once said his favorite hobby was "just washing the dishes, I guess." But like Killebrew, Wright honestly embodies some real and virtuous American virtues—civic pride, sticktoitiveness, a resistance to complaint, and a host of other Eisenhower-vintage clichés—and his brilliant performance of those clichés, plus timely hitting hitting, briefly made Team USA both very good and very likable in a sort of square-ish way.

National teams are invariably described in terms of national stereotype. In soccer, the English are always dogged, the Germans efficient, the Spaniards a lush, dysfunctional mess. For the last decade, none of this has actually been true—Spain's play has been brutally efficient, Germany's has been beautiful, and England's has been as hard-nosed as a middle school dance. But the stories are already written, and the narratives are cut to fit the space already built for them.

In the World Baseball Classic, the same thing comes through. How else to explain the unwarranted focus on the Latin players’ exuberance—all with a sniffing distaste for what was deemed excessive celebration or undue emoting—or announcer Matt Vasgersian's hugely dicey reference, during Sunday night's game, to team Japan's "groupthink?" Stereotyping lends the tournament much-needed texture, but it's superficial: pro wrestling shorthand for something both more complicated and more interesting. Beneath easy shtick about national traits are some very real differences in baseballing culture, on the field and in the dugout. Baseball is a game of rules and granitic convention, but the WBC reminds us that it contains a variety of style, philosophy and aesthetics that Major League Baseball would do well to absorb, rather than taxonomize as Sporting Peculiarities of Foreign Lands.

Consider, for instance, the typical Japanese swing. The player stands stiff-backed, bat rigid, and starts towards the ball with a high leg kick first popularized by Sadaharu Oh in the 1950s. The swing is meticulous, beautiful and slow—and Yadier Molina had it figured out from the first inning. The Puerto Rican veteran called a lightning quick game, and the Japanese batters never found their rhythm. The two-time champions went as quietly as the United States, brought down by an underdog team that understood, quickly and devastatingly, something beautiful: to beat players who've only ever played in the Japanese league, don't pitch like a Japanese pitcher. Call it cultural exchange.

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Puerto Rico's last out against Japan was the same as the one that finished off the United States: a pop-out to Angel Pagan. Both times, Pagan fell to his knees, hands in the air, as his teammates charged from the dugout towards the mound. It looked for all the world like they had just booked a ticket to the World Series. But while the vanquished American team was content to file sullenly into the dugout, the Japanese took to the third base line, where they bowed to their fans and then to the team that had sent them home.

Put it in a movie, and it would almost be racist—the Puerto Ricans whooping and hollering; the Japanese bowing solemnly, gracious in defeat. But the Japanese bow didn't look practiced, and the joy of Puerto Rico's team was the happy opposite of fake. It was all ragged, honest, beautiful—transcending cliché and dour routine in a way sports so rarely does. This tournament has been like that: a weird mishmash that broke through the wall of rote reverence and bullshit that surrounds American sports—a wall just low enough for David Wright to knock home runs over.

The World Baseball Classic is beautiful because it’s baseball freed from the grimly self-regulating convention of Major League Baseball. American sports are sodden with importance and pomp, and none moreso than baseball, whose playoffs become more of a slog each year. The Classic moves through sixteen teams in half the time it takes the MLB to sort through ten. It does it by playing a lot of one-off games—a format that baseball disdains because in a one-off, the better team will only win 60% of the time.

At tonight's final, in San Francisco, the best team probably won't win. Quality doesn't show in the World Baseball Classic, but a lot of other stuff does. Pick your favorite: heart, grit, spirit, desire—all clichés, all intangibles, all things that get smoothed out over the course of a highly profitable 162-game season. But in a one-game playoff, those things matter a great deal, and a good player having a great week can become a superhero. They always matter, of course, but it's a shame that it will be another four years before they matter this much, in this way, again.


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