United States greets World Baseball Classic with a huge So what?’

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Rick Morrissey
Monday, March 9, 2009
— Most Americans are approaching the World Baseball Classic with an enthusiasm normally reserved for putting on their socks in the morning.

In the meantime, the Dominican Republic very well could physically detach from Haiti due to the seismic anticipation of a long run in the international tournament. The same excitement exists in Venezuela, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Cuba and various other baseball-crazy locales.

And the Netherlands thinks it could be the next Australia. Or something like that.

I donít feel badly that weíre lacking zeal for the WBC, but I do envy other countriesí fervor over our national pastime. To get an idea of what the event means to the Dominican Republic, take a look at the recent tortured seesawing of Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol. He initially was going to play in the WBC, until he heard Cubs manager Lou Piniella joke that while Marmol was gone, Kevin Gregg would be throwing 98 m.p.h. in spring training. Marmol saw that if he wanted to win the closerís job, it might be a good thing to be in camp.

This is what he told reporters at the time:

ďItís a hard decision and hard to say no (to the Dominican Republic). But I would prefer to stay here and work with my team. For me, it was hard because it was the first time I was invited and I canít go. I couldnít sleep last night. I donít know whatís going to happen (back home). I hope theyíre not mad at me.Ē

Several days later, he changed his mind again and decided to play for his country. The reason for the change of heart almost certainly was the pressure his countrymen put on him to play. Felipe Alou, the Dominican Republicís manager, tugged hard on Marmolís sense of duty and patriotism. It pulled him homeward.

(Itís sort of reminiscent of the patriotism Michael Jordan exhibited playing for the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics, isnít it? The way the Nike-powered Jordan draped an American flag over his warm-up suit so people couldnít see the Reebok logo? . . . OK, itís not like that at all.)

What do most Americans think about the WBC? If theyíre Cubs fans, they think thereís a decent chance Marmolís right arm will fall off, quite possibly in a game against the Cubsí Ted Lilly, whose left arm likely will fall off pitching for the United States.

But we Americans have no idea what it would be like to be Marmol and have to go home and hear the abuse from fans upset at his lack of loyalty. He was worried that Dominicans would be angry at him for not playing. There was a reason for his concern: They would have been angry.

Kosuke Fukudome would have helped himself by showing up at spring training to prove that the second half of last season with the Cubs was an aberration. Instead, heís playing for Japan, perhaps for the same reasons Marmol is playing for the Dominican.

When White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen talks about pro baseball in his native Venezuela, you can almost feel the passion rolling down the seats and onto the field. Whoever is the visiting team in those games can expect nine innings of constant abuse. And if the home team should be losing, it can expect worse treatment.

We Americans save our emotions for the day-after-Christmas sales.

If the United States doesnít win the WBC, there will be a collective shrug in this country. Part of it will have to do with our understanding that many of the best major-league baseball players come from other countries. The Dominican Republic is a factory for American baseball.

Thereís more anger here when a group of NBA players doesnít win Olympic gold for the United States. The vast majority of NBA stars are American. It doesnít make sense to us when other, less talented countries beat us.

But we lose to Cuba or the Dominican in baseball, and we understand.

Lots of American players turned down the opportunity to play for the U.S. team in the WBC, and most of their fans were just fine with that. They probably wish more foreign-born major-leaguers would skip it too.

According to a USA Today study, four of every five pitchers who took part in the 2006 WBC had a higher earned-run average that season with their major-league clubs than they did the season before. Fourteen pitchers who competed in the WBC ended up on the disabled list in April and May with arm or muscle problems.

Piniella is concerned that Lilly will be throwing as many as 75 pitches in a WBC game. In a normal year, he wouldnít throw that many pitches until much later in spring training.

You get the feeling the Dominican Republic would gladly sacrifice Marmolís arm for a WBC championship.

Same planet, different world.

Last updated: 9:55 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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