MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The World Baseball Classic is a farce. There's no other way to put it. As much great baseball as it showcases, and as much as it means to other countries, until the United States starts treating the games as something more than exhibitions, the American public will continue to ignore it, and rightfully so.
This has little to do with the outcome of Team USA's game Saturday night against Puerto Rico, an 11-1 mercy killing. The WBC invoked its 10-run slaughter rule in the seventh inning. However embarrassing, it happens. Puerto Rico played well. The U.S. didn't.
What's inconceivable and inexplicable and downright insulting to anyone who wants the WBC to succeed was Team USA manager Davey Johnson's explanation of why he continued to let his starting pitcher, Jake Peavy, rot away any chance for a win with pitch after ugly pitch that the Puerto Ricans sprayed to every corner of Dolphin Stadium.
"Just basically let him get a little more work," Johnson said.
OK, just to go over this one time: The WBC bills itself as a tournament to determine the world's best team and spread the game's allure (and, yeah, maybe fatten Major League Baseball's wallet). It expects fans to take such notions seriously. They do, even though a double-pronged reticence within MLB – players and management alike – prevents many of the best players in the world from participating. Still, the games in the first round win support for their intensity and quality, especially this early in spring. And how does the manager for the most visible team, the one with the most major league stars, repay such commitment from those who bought tickets and watched on TV and sponsored the event figuring it more than a glorified spring training game?
He makes sure Jake Peavy hits a pitch count.
Fifty-two, by the way.
That it followed manifold other mistakes makes Johnson resemble his predecessor, Buck Martinez, who fumbled and bumbled as the United States bombed out of the first WBC.
By the time Johnson summoned Joel Hanrahan to warm up in the bullpen, Puerto Rico led, 4-0, and had runners on second and third base. After the Puerto Ricans crossed their fifth run, Johnson still played with the infield back and allowed a 6-0 deficit, which showed an ignorance as to how the tournament's emphasis on deep bullpens neuters the chances of big comebacks or revealed Johnson's true feelings about Puerto Rico starter Javier Vazquez's big-game prowess.
Actually, Vazquez pitched well. Of course, Team USA's slipshod coaching helped his cause. With Adam Dunn on second base and Puerto Rico ahead, 7-1, Ryan Braun singled up the middle. Carlos Beltran kicked the ball in center field. A tortoise could have scored – except that the third-base coach was Mike Schmidt.
He stopped Dunn as Beltran approached the ball, then yanked his arms toward home when he realized his mistake. Fans along the third-base dugout – among the few of the 30,595 in attendance with a rooting interest in the U.S. – razzed Schmidt about the decision. He defended himself. Schmidt held up seven fingers, then one, to remind them of the score. And then he touched to his right biceps, to indicate that Beltran has one of the most accurate throwing arms in the game.
And finally Schmidt pointed to himself, then the ground, held up a zero sign, and, man, would he ever be good at charades, because it looked like he said he had no business being here.
Maybe he didn't do that last part.
Look, Schmidt is a Hall of Famer, probably the best third baseman ever. That does not qualify him to coach third base for Team USA, or at least a team that wants to put itself in the best position to win.
Someone from Team USA – Johnson, Schmidt, another coach, whoever – should have reminded the players that another run in the seventh inning meant a mercy loss. Felipe Lopez doubled to make it 10-1, and with Mike Aviles up, the United States did nothing. The outfield didn't move in, and Johnson didn't order an intentional walk for a force play, and it may have been moot, but no one on the bench bothered to act like it mattered.
Aviles flared a single to right field. Dunn ran to retrieve the ball. Second baseman Mark DeRosa ran toward him to cut off the throw. Neither realized the game had ended, nor did catcher Brian McCann.
"It didn't register in my mind that it was even a possibility until I turned around and saw their entire team at first base," DeRosa said.
There, Puerto Rico celebrated. Not only had it sent Team USA into a do-or-die game Sunday against the Netherlands, it emasculated the tournament favorite, which previously dropped the final game of its pool to Venezuela.
"We lost," Derek Jeter said. "You've got to get over the embarrassment."
Not just to Team USA. To all of the WBC.
Its second pool kicks off play Sunday in San Diego with a rematch of the 2006 final, Cuba and Japan. If Cuba's starting pitcher struggles, manager Higinio Velez will have no qualms about yanking him in the first inning. He did so in the first championship game, pulling Ormari Romero after 23 pitches and one out.
That's the urgency this tournament demands: caring more about the team's well-being than the individual's. Let Peavy throw his pitches in the bullpen. The WBC deserves better than Johnson's cockamamie excuse.
Because with a tweak here and there, and the commitment of everyone involved to building a sustainable event, the WBC will succeed. Fans will recognize it and appreciate it and flock to it. A farce of the past, a force for the future.
- Puerto Rico
- Team USA