Dominican Republic fans cheer in the stands during the World Baseball Classic. (Reuters)
SAN FRANCISCO – One embarrassing truth about baseball in the United States is that the most animated moment at any given major league game is when the stadium's theme song plays. Red Sox fans vomit out "Sweet Caroline" even though Neil Diamond is a Dodgers fan. Kansas City blurts "Friends in Low Places," and it's more redneck revelry than ironic nod to the Royals' spot in the standings. Even here at AT&T Park, maybe the most electric atmosphere there is for the actual game, nothing brings tens of thousands together quite like "Lights" by Journey, a band that first broke up in 1984, when 22 of 34 current Giants weren't even born.
It is amazing, then, to see how gluttons for such aural torture have taken to the energy that accompanies every other baseball-rich nation in the World Baseball Classic. The bellyaching and bitching about the horns and flag-waving and general enthusiasm that emanates from the fan bases of Latin American teams – and the way they infuse the players with the sort of joy major leaguers are taught to suppress, lest it seem they're showing up the opponent – is, of all things, tone deaf.
If this tournament has been an homage to anything, it's not the superiority of the baseball players from other countries. It's how much better their fans are than ours and how it works in beautiful symbiosis with their players. And how instead of criticizing the style of Latin American baseball, we not only should embrace it but try to emulate it.
Major League Baseball promotes the WBC as an entity to spread the game internationally. Turns out we're the ones with a thing or two to learn.
Now, this is not just a baseball affliction. It goes for all American professional sports. We are, with very few exceptions, a passive fan base. We suffer from Touchdown Syndrome – waiting for the big play, addicted to it, really, and happy to sit on our hands until it happens. The monster dunk in basketball. The goal in hockey. The home run in baseball.
Only when we expose ourselves to the world, or rather the world exposes itself to us, do we see what fandom can be, and how the boring, staid world of baseball, relegated to the nursing home by so many younger fans, could be so much more if people here deconditioned themselves from the passivity encouraged by the NIMBYs who have taken their personal-space restrictions to sporting events.
Think about it: If someone blares a horn at a major league game today, it will take, what, two innings before an usher arrives to barter a truce? During the Friday game that knocked the United States out of the WBC, the announcing crew on MLB Network decried a fan waving a Puerto Rican flag off to the right of home plate – a flag billowing, mind you, when both U.S. and Puerto Rican pitchers were on the mound. Apparently flag privileges don't apply to field-level seats.
It is like this everywhere, and for that MLB can hold itself culpable. When the sport's attendance cratered after the 1994 strike, baseball recognized its changing demographics and made a conscious decision: In a saturated entertainment market, no longer could it subsist strictly on die-hard fans. Stadiums needed to be family-friendly, and whether that meant larding between-innings breaks with absurd games to give the kids a chuckle or sanitizing crowds with a practical Lysol bath, it has worked out frighteningly well for the sport's revenues. It's tough to argue with an $8 billion business.
Lost was baseball's grimy charm and much of its fan spirit. The loudest noisemakers are drunks caterwauling at the moon. Fans who stand with two strikes are to be lauded. Heaven forbid somebody start a chant outside of the Yankee Stadium bleachers. And if a player dare celebrate a home run, he'll find the next pitch he sees in his earhole.
The WBC gives other countries an avenue to express their patriotism in the stands and on the field, offering the U.S. a glimpse at a more raw kind of baseball, the sort that plays out every winter across the Caribbean. In the Dominican Republic, baseball is the greatest export. Curacao, which gives the Netherlands the majority of its starting lineup, treats baseball similarly. Despite a burgeoning basketball culture, baseball still reigns in Puerto Rico, too.
And in each of those places, and Venezuela and Cuba, baseball is a sport worthy of a party. They yell and scream and whistle and toot and turn the idea of stadium decorum on its head. The players are an extension of them. Stoicism is traitorous.
"The Latin Americans and Hispanic culture is more involved, more noisy places, more music," said Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, a former Marlins manager. "They're more involved emotionally in the game, and that's what we are. I mean, they transfer that to the game. In the United States, Americans are a little more under control, if you can call it that maybe. And they kind of control themselves a little bit more."
That is the kind way of saying: American fans are boring. And players, too. Because we are. We rationalize it through our willingness to placate those who might react poorly. Those are the people who think the loudest a stadium should get is when the NOISE METER flashes on the Jumbotron. It's not just the wine-and-cheese crowd, either. The sterilization of American baseball crosses boundaries socioeconomic, racial, age and sex alike.
And here's the thing: It is an issue unique to America among baseball powerhouses. Japan, a country with a culture that values respect and deference, nevertheless fosters an environment with beating drums and constant chants and players acknowledging achievements with a hand signal or a greeting outside of the dugout. It is not quite as blatant as the D.R. It is evident still.
"Of course every country has differences," said Japan manager Koji Yamamoto, not wanting to start a war of words. The world, after all, will see the difference for itself over the next three days as the WBC plays to its conclusion. On Sunday, Japan plays Puerto Rico for one spot in the finals. On Monday, it's the Dominican Republic against the Netherlands for the other. And on Tuesday, no matter who won the previous two games, there will be dueling chants and drums and horns.
It's unfortunate America won't watch any of it, for the same reason America doesn't watch the World Series: Baseball is a parochial sport. We love our teams more than we do the sport. And that's fine. It's a natural evolution. As football grew to supplant baseball as the nation's obsession, baseball needed to find a new role, and it has: the summer outing, the local treasure, the safe option.
Were people to tune in, they'd see baseball can capture the dynamism of college basketball and football, our two sports that feel as much like a rock concert as they do a sporting event. Much has been made of the United States not having the same passion for baseball as the Dominican Republic or Japan. That's rationalizing. And it's not true. If conventions were different – if players and fans both weren't boxed in to a preconceived set of emotions, reactions and morés – American baseball would be just like the rest of the world.
That's the truth. And it would be the furthest thing from embarrassing.
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