Wednesday night, Team USA will send Blue Jays’ sinkerballer Marcus Stroman to the mound at the World Baseball Classic final, while Team Puerto Rico will counter with the Mets’ Seth Lugo. Their matchup is a perfect microcosm of the melting pot (and lax eligibility rules) of the tournament: Stroman is not only a black starting pitcher, already a dying breed in Major League Baseball, but also a boricua, eligible to pitch for either team. On the other side, Lugo is a tall drink of water born in Shreveport, Louisiana, who speaks no Spanish and speaks his English with a slight southern drawl. These arbitrary national identities were a part of the tournament as a whole (for an example, see Team Israel), so their duel is a fitting capstone to the Classic’s best iteration yet.
Despite the tournament’s flaws (and there are many), it is unlikely that MLB will produce any content as compelling as the WBC until September, when the pennant chases begin and produce more dramatic matches and pressurized innuendos. And even the flaws, such as certain superstars declining to play and pressurized one-game semifinals and final, have worked to this year’s advantage.
Experts tend to argue that baseball is a game that necessitates series rather than individual games. You always want the sample size to be larger in the interest of fairness, but fair isn’t necessarily exciting. A bigger sample size means more revenue, but there’s no time for long series in March, with a 6 month long season set to begin in April. Cutting to the chase with a small amount of games certainly makes for excitement.
Although the tournament was exciting, the results were unsurprising. The round robin phase of the tournament played out as most would have expected. When the field narrowed to 8, the Netherlands and Japan cruised past Israel and Cuba, while the US, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic duked it out in the ‘group of death’. The two more volatile economies of that bunch had opposite fates: Puerto Rico fired on all cylinders, while Venezuela underachieved. The evenly matched ball clubs of East Hispaniola and Corporatocracy Inc. could be expected to tie over any sized sample of games, but the US avenged their 1st round loss to the DR in one of the best games in the tournament’s short history, powered by Giancarlo Stanton’s go-ahead 2-run bomb, and Adam Jones’ freak robbery of his Orioles teammate Manny Machado’s sure home run that sent the reigning champions home.
The storylines for the two finalists, then, are rich with the type of drama you normally catch on premium cable. For the United States, it’s about, as most things are, proving America is the best of the best. Baseball was born and raised in the 50 states, and its spread is one of the few harmless byproducts of American imperialism. Given that, it’s disappointing that fourth place in 2009 was Team USA’s best finish in the WBC until this year. Yet, after edging two-time WBC champs team Japan on Tuesday, the Red, White and Blue finds itself in the final it has craved since the start of the tournament’s history in 2006.
In the other dugout, Puerto Rico used to have Latin America’s richest baseball tradition, until getting dwarfed by both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic in terms of infrastructure in the country and number of major leaguers. This set of boricuas is known to dabble in the very un-American tradition of showing emotion after most important plays, which has three known side effects that are all positive: making sexier television, entertaining fans, and pissing off joyless white people. Their team-wide blond hairdos have caused a hair dye shortage on the island, as fans in the unofficial 51st state have joined in as a show of support.
Team USA’s talent pool is extraordinary; a better team could be fielded of players not participating. American players may not feel the need to answer the call of duty because the talent pool is so dense, while the stars of smaller countries with smaller talent pools (like, say, Puerto Rico) are more vital to their teams. Add to that the risk of injury and the monetary incentives to stay away (with a return to his MVP form in 2017, noted WBC-dodger Bryce Harper could sign a 400 million dollar contract; why risk it for what some see as a glorified exhibition?), and it makes sense why the biggest names in baseball thought twice about the WBC.
So, what drove some Americans to play where their compatriots declined?
Allow me to speculate: the Americans who decided to play feel healthy, secure in their contracts, and spring training is boring. One of team USA’s most valuable players thus far, Miami’s Christian Yelich, said the tournament was the best baseball experience of his life. For fans, International competition is a break from the impersonal fantasy culture and statistical analysis that takes baseball fandom hostage during the long, uneventful regular season.
“The honor of representing your country,” is a new addition to baseball’s well-worn stock phrases. Team USA pitcher Chris Archer mentioned ‘division in the country’ during a press conference, though baseball, international or domestic, doesn’t even graze the surface of American civic life, let alone American culture. That applies to Puerto Rico, as well: the Puerto Rican people who might need this little bit of brightness as the country grapples with its issues and their ripple effects are probably not those who can be present in Los Angeles to fly #Mofongo banners.
Despite being a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is at the bottom of a heap of American issues. The island is 70 billion dollars in debt, nearly half of its people live in poverty, San Juan’s gun violence is worse than Chicago’s, and, just to make things worse, there is a ‘brain drain’ trend this decade as the territory’s most valuable minds flee to the mainland, because they can. Like Taiwan, and the U.S. Virgin islands, however, there is a small but vocal minority in Puerto Rico who want their independence, even if it means subsidies are cut.
One of the only consolations for these countries-slash-territories are international competitions like the Olympics, the World Cup, and the World Baseball Classic. It is a charade of independence that the competitors and fans of bastard commonwealths relish, especially when they meet their Mother Country, like Puerto Rico is on Wednesday. There could be no more fitting end to the best World Baseball Classic yet.