Maybe this wasn't such a bad thing, the United States gagging in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, going out with the style of a guy wearing white socks with Birkenstocks.
Oh, it was that heinous. Vernon Wells' shattered-bat double-play ground ball gave Mexico a 2-1 victory Thursday night at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. At least it ceased the misery of watching tournament favorite Team USA, which took the loss with the emotion of a cadaver.
It was a classic reaction, one that comes from a sense of entitlement accompanying the American uniform. Hopefully, the WBC debacle ends that and causes USA Baseball, the organization that chooses the manager and players, to take its job a bit more seriously.
Manager Buck Martinez did his best to mangle the lineup once again, letting Mark Teixeira extend his hitless streak to 15 at-bats and starting Jeff Francoeur, who he had tethered to the bench for the previous five games. Mexico's bullpen retired 12 consecutive batters before the U.S. put on two in the ninth inning.
Then came Wells' double play, and more telling than anything was the United States' reaction. The players stood in the dugout, their feet seemingly cemented to the floor, looks of shock plastered to their faces. Martinez shook his head once and embodied the team's stoicism.
Venezuelan players cried when they lost to the Dominican Republic, which plays Cuba in the semifinals and will take on the winner of Korea and Japan. Ichiro Suzuki, thinking Japan was eliminated following its loss to Korea, let out a primal scream.
The WBC mattered to everyone else.
To the United States, it served as a warning sign.
Baseball around the world isn't catching up. It has caught up and, in some cases, passed the country that invented the game.
Not even a blown call by Bob Davidson could salvage the U.S. this time. The umpire, who gifted the U.S. its victory against Japan with a bad call, missed even worse this time. Davidson ruled an obvious Mario Valenzuela home run – it did bounce off the foul pole – a double because he missed the ricochet.
Frankly, Davidson had it lucky. If his eyes are that bad, he didn't witness Team USA in all of its underachieving glory.
Let's see the tally. Team USA beat Mexico in its first game. It lost to Canada, apparently spooked by players who say "eh." In its best performance of the tournament, the Americans beat South Africa, where baseball is the fourth most popular sport, behind cricket, rugby and everything else.
If not for Davidson's call against Japan, Team USA – with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens – might have gone 0-3. Of all countries, Korea, an afterthought entering the tournament, showed the U.S. victory's recipe: fundamental baseball mixed with good pitching and timely hitting.
Because Team USA showed nary a sign of those qualities, getting bounced will do the Americans well long-term. For three years, the players will think about the embarrassment of blowing the tournament that was built as much to make money and heighten their profiles as it was to globalize the game.
Finally, there is incentive for every American player with a backbone to play in the 2009 WBC. Players will actively recruit friends and teammates, and so long as USA Baseball selects a manager who has proven he can actually manage rather than play Ouija with his lineup card, the Americans might again be the favorite.
Until then, the memory of disappointment – of the final scene – will fester. Mexico ran onto the field to rejoice. Pitcher David Cortes lifted his arms, and Esteban Loaiza and Vinny Castilla ran to congratulate him. Mexico celebrated like it was moving on, like this game actually mattered.
Team USA went back into its clubhouse to change. White socks and Birkenstocks were there waiting.
- Team USA
- USA Baseball
- Bob Davidson