MIAMI – Hang around the World Baseball Classic long enough, as Team USA has, as the Dominican Republic has, as the rest of us have, and you get one of those games that frames the original premise of this thing: Wouldn't it be cool, so cool, if you could get together the best players from the DR and the best players from the U.S., put them on a field, charge $35 for T-shirts, and see who wins?
Now, granted, the "best players" part needs some work. And WBC III suffers from the nicks and bruises of I and II. It won't ever be a perfect event. It can't be. So maybe we never get to the ideal.
But, come Thursday night at Marlins Park, it gets close. A game that should intrigue baseball purists. That could draw more decent baseball out of March. That will stir the competitive spirits of two nations whose teams are routinely favored in these tournaments, while neither has so much as sniffed the championship game.
And, as it so happens, the U.S., land of the free and home of the multi-million dollar baseball contract, has never played the Dominican Republic, its chief supplier of international talent and awesome bat flips, in the WBC.
On his way out, Dominican shortstop Jose Reyes spotted, on his way in, U.S. third baseman David Wright. The Dominicans had endured the Italians. The U.S. was up next against the resilient but beatable Puerto Ricans. Reyes caught the eye of his former New York Mets teammate.
"Jose," Wright said, "is kinda starting already."
Of the 243 players born outside the U.S. on last season's opening day rosters, 95 were from the Dominican Republic. By season's end, 137 had played in the big leagues, easily the most of any foreign nation. And so, while Japan-South Korea games were wonderful, and Dominican Republic-Puerto Rico games were as much fun as baseball can be, and even Dominican Republic-Venezuela was a very heated rivalry, there is something special about U.S.-DR.
No two countries produce more top-end players than these.
So when this tournament was sketched on a cocktail napkin, with all due respect to the global vision of the World Baseball Classic, the what-if question might have included names such as Reyes and Wright, Robinson Cano and Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins.
"It's gonna be great," Wright said after he'd driven in five runs – that's 10 for the tournament – against Puerto Rico. "There's pride on both sides. You want to be able to talk trash a little bit."
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He called them "those games within the game," and what he meant was the players within the game. These are teammates from April to October, or former teammates, and nearly all from the Grandes Ligas. They already know each other's tendencies, routines and frailties. They know what makes each other laugh and go sullen. They've picked up bits of Spanish or they've learned some English slang.
Samuel Deduno, who will start for the Dominicans on Thursday night, made 15 starts for the Minnesota Twins last season. Mauer was his catcher in eight of them. U.S. starter R.A. Dickey will pitch against his current teammates in Reyes and first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.
"I don't think there's any question this is a marquee matchup," U.S. manager Joe Torre said. "This is a stepping stone for – both clubs feel the same way – it's a stepping stone to where the finals are going to be played, and that was our goal when we started this thing."
It did finally get around to this, after a 2006 WBC in which the U.S. flamed out in the second round and the Dominican Republic in the semifinals, and after a 2009 WBC in which the Dominicans were bounced in the first round and the U.S. in the semis. The Dominicans are 10-4 in two-plus tournaments. The U.S. is 10-8.
And while there could be greater challenges out there, beyond this bracket (indeed, the loser will play for its tournament life Friday night), for the moment this will do.
"Yeah, man," Wright said. "It'll be fun. It'll be fun."
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