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LOS ANGELES – The symbol of American baseball dominance, 11 years in the waiting, March edition, was a 5-foot-8 half-African American, half-Puerto Rican kid from Long Island who, in declaring for Team USA three months ago, managed to innocently piss off both places.
Puerto Rico wanted Marcus Stroman for its own pitching staff. His mother is of Puerto Rican descent. Years ago, he’d hinted that would be his preference. He’d changed his mind. And here in the U.S. many looked at the guy with 24 career wins who would lead the rotation and wondered where in the heck Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgarner were.
So, yeah, when Stroman had no-hit the Puerto Ricans for six innings Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, by which time it had become clear the U.S. would be World Baseball Classic champions for the first time in four tries, then left the field after allowing a leadoff single in the seventh, he nodded his head to the crowd. To his teammates. Probably to his mom, Adlin, too. Then, maybe, to those who’d harassed him about his choice to wear this uniform and not the other, all the usual routine for a sub-sized right-hander who, for a good part of his life, had been overlooked and underestimated.
Maybe, starting from the day they took Joe Torre’s telephone call asking if they wanted to participate to Wednesday night’s last out in an 8-0 win against Puerto Rico, they’d surprised themselves with just how much they wanted to win this thing. By how the teams from the Dominican Republic, Japan and Puerto Rico, the last three teams on their schedule and recent international bluebloods, poured so much of themselves into a silly exhibition tournament. By what it meant in their baseball community, and how that community had expanded as the wins came, and then how wonderful it felt when Stroman walked down the mound and across the field, nodding his head, biting his lower lip, confirming to anyone who’d asked he’d been up for this. Again.
Over six innings, during which he flung heavy sinkers and boring sliders to the bottom of the strike zone, Stroman faced 18 Puerto Rico batters. One walked, and he was out on the front end of a double play. Fifteen of those 18 outs came by ground ball or strikeout. Stroman varied his delivery, occasionally hanging his lead leg for a second or two, occasionally stalling out early in his delivery, and a Puerto Rico team that hadn’t lost since the championship game four years ago pounded sinkers into the infield grass and fell farther and farther behind.
Stroman shimmied his shoulders coming off the field after the third inning. He looked back over his right shoulder toward the Puerto Rican bench, seemingly answering their chatter, after the fourth. Then, when Angel Pagan singled to start the seventh inning and manager Jim Leyland came for him, Stroman narrowed his eyes and nodded his head, like, I got this. Mess with me. Doubt me. Hate me. Whatever. I got this.
An hour later, he ducked his head to receive his gold medal, strung with blue ribbon. He was handed the tournament MVP trophy, which he hoisted overhead. The smallest man on the podium, he was applauded from the third-base line by members of the team he’d forsaken to pitch here, with these guys, for Leyland, before a goofy eagle mascot that looked like it had been discovered at the last minute in a CVS store.
“I love pitching in these moments,” Stroman said. “I love the atmosphere. I feel like the bigger the game, the more I’m able to get up, the more effective I am. I truly try to pride myself on being a big-game pitcher. This was probably one of the biggest – if not the biggest – game I’ve ever pitched in, and that was just a nod to coming off with a lead and giving us an opportunity to win that ballgame.”
The night before, in the seconds after an impossibly tense semifinal game against the Japanese, Team USA noted the 27th out and its berth in the final against Puerto Rico. The catcher, Buster Posey, made his way to the mound, where he shook closer Luke Gregerson’s hand with an earnest countenance. Together, shoulder to shoulder, they strode toward second base, where they would shake the hands of their teammates.
Wednesday was different. At the final out, they climbed the mound and grabbed the man next to them and bounced up and down.
They’d put on their nation’s colors and given a crap, not just in words, but in deeds. In wins. For three previous iterations of the tournament, the red, white and blue had seemingly served to sap them. Maybe it was arrogance. Maybe it was all the guys who stayed away. Maybe, they just got their butts outplayed.
The WBC could, perhaps, work with the players here not wholly committed. It was better, however, this way. Not because they won, but because they showed up and fought for outs and runs like the other guys did. The 72-year-old droopy-eyed man who led them, Jim Leyland, asked them to make a memory, and they responded with a sub-2 ERA from their starting pitchers, and just enough offense to put away the likes of Colombia and Venezuela, and a bullpen that composed itself after a first-round disaster against the Dominican Republic. More people attended this year’s WBC than any other. MLB Network drew more viewers. More than 50,000 people attended Wednesday night’s game, nearly filling Dodger Stadium. In a joint news conference pregame, commissioner Rob Manfred and union head Tony Clark agreed this WBC was the best of the four, that the tournament was gaining momentum. All the signs said so. Perhaps it remains a niche event, or viewed as such. The games themselves, however, generally were good, taut and raggedly emotional.
Christian Yelich, the 25-year-old Miami Marlins outfielder, called his experience, “The most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.” Carlos Correa, the Houston Astros shortstop, expressed a similar sentiment. Many did.
“I do think, and I don’t mean this to sound wrong, but for the most part, up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States,” Leyland said. “But in talking to our players, I know they’re going to spread the word. I’ve had some players already tell me this is the greatest experience of their life.
“We had players that wanted to be here. And that’s the kind of players you want.”
Some will be superstars. Some will be gaining on it. Many will be good ballplayers, just that, just like the players from other teams from other countries. Probably it won’t matter beyond how well they play for two weeks in March, and how hard they play. And, man, if there’s anything to be learned from the World Baseball Classic, it’s that there’s hardly ever making everyone happy. Until, maybe, the end, when they shoot off the confetti and hand you the MVP trophy.
“I love these guys,” Stroman said. “It was an unbelievable experience. I’ll be back in four years to defend the title.”
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