No more excuses. No more rationalizations. If the United States still wants to consider itself the preeminent baseball country on the globe, then Team USA will win the World Baseball Classic.
The noted baseball fan Bill Parcells once philosophized that you are what your record says you are. The Americans went 7-7 during the first two World Baseball Classics. They appeared in zero championship games. And if they were paying attention, they learned the essential elements of tournament success from twice-champion Japan: Show up in game shape, catch the ball, throw it to the right base, manufacture a run or two, and, finally, raise the sterling silver trophy.
USA Baseball has had four years to consider the lessons of 2009, and now it is time to deliver. Gone are the days when America could claim sole ownership of the sport, based on the premise that, well, this is baseball and we’re America.
Wednesday, Cuba wrapped up pool play at 3-0 despite losing defectors Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman since the last WBC. Japan advanced to the second round without a single active major leaguer on its roster. Venezuela probably has the best group of position players in the tournament. The Dominican Republic just routed the Phillies and Yankees on consecutive days by a combined score of 23-4.
Baseball used to be our game. We’re sharing it now, which is a fundamentally great thing. But if we wish to argue that America boasts the best baseball players — and not just the most major leaguers — then we need to win the WBC.
“It’s our game,” Team USA manager Joe Torre maintained Wednesday, prior to his team’s last tune-up before Friday’s opener against Team Mexico.
“That doesn’t mean other countries can’t play it as well — if not better — in a short series. We’re here to win. We’re here to get to San Francisco (site of the semifinals and final). We’re not interested in moving on and making sure we get to the second round. That’s the process. We can only pay attention to that. But our goal is long-range. That doesn’t mean, obviously, we’re looking past anybody.
“We’re not looking to make just a good showing.”
Great. Glad we’ve established that. A number of American players have acknowledged that they have something to prove in this tournament. They understand that the third installment of the WBC will be an even truer measure of the game’s global competitiveness than the first two. The format is familiar now, with its pool play and pitch limitations. The secrets to success — from roster construction to game strategy — aren’t mysteries anymore.
Of course, Team USA wouldn’t be Team USA without a little bluster.
“I don’t think we have to prove anything,” Team USA second baseman Brandon Phillips said following Wednesday’s 8-7 exhibition loss to the Colorado Rockies. (The national team led, 7-2, before minor-league pitchers surrendered six runs in the ninth.) “I just think we need to go out and play the game. It’s America’s pastime."
Other countries, they’ve been playing the game very well — Japan, Cuba, the Dominican. We already know they can play. It’s up for us to keep the tradition going and do better than what we’ve been doing in the previous WBCs.
“We don’t have to prove anything. But we’ve got to go out there and win and show everybody that this is America’s pastime. We want to bring the trophy back to the USA.”
The WBC should be accepted as a legitimate measure of baseball’s international pecking order — and already is, among most constituencies outside the United States. Yes, U.S.-born players account for roughly 70 percent of all major league roster spots. But America’s share of the world’s best players is probably closer to 60 percent — and maybe even less than that.
Cubans can’t play in Major League Baseball unless they defect. South Koreans tend to stay at home because their country’s compulsory military service can complicate life for those who leave. Japan’s posting system keeps talented players from crossing the Pacific until late in their careers. Such market inefficiencies prop up the percentage of Americans in the major leagues.
The WBC is a quadrennial truth teller.
So, yes, it’s awfully important for R.A. Dickey to deliver an efficient start Friday against Mexico — which eliminated the U.S. in ’06, has All-Star Yovani Gallardo on the mound and can roll out a bullpen featuring the man who delivered last season’s final strike (Sergio Romo). Dickey will face a 65-pitch limit, as everyone does in pool play, and catcher J.P. Arencibia will handle his knuckleball for the first time in a meaningful game.
Dickey won’t have a long man ready to rescue him, because the bullpen is a collection of mostly single-inning relievers. (Ross Detwiler, while stretched out as a starter, is slated to pitch Saturday in relief of Ryan Vogelsong because that is his normal day to pitch. That’s probably not ideal, since Mexico figures to be a tougher opponent than Italy.) Meanwhile, there’s a strong chance that close to half of the fans at Chase Field that night will be cheering for Team Mexico.
“From what I’m hearing, on Friday, you’re not going to have a shortage of fans in the ballpark,” Torre said. “We’re going to have a pretty good crowd. It’ll be noisy, whatever it is. I’m sure we’ll be hearing some paraphernalia we’re not used to hearing.”
But the U.S. should win the game — and, really, the entire tournament. For all the (justified) criticism about the names that aren’t on the U.S. roster, this team is stacked. Giancarlo Stanton batted seventh in Wednesday’s exhibition, Adam Jones eighth.
The lineup isn’t as formidable as it would have been with the injured Mark Teixeira; Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer was named as Teixeira’s replacement partially because Hosmer’s team trains in Arizona and he could join Team USA quickly. Arbitrary personnel decisions aside, the American lineup can generate offense with speed and power alike. Their chemistry appears excellent. Phillips was brilliant in the No. 2 hole Wednesday, going 4-for-4 with a stolen base. Jones went 3-for-5 with two runs while impressing Torre with his baserunning savvy.
So, is Team USA ready?
“We’re there — we’re getting there,” Phillips said.
The better question might be whether U.S. fans are ready. Neither the Tuesday nor the Wednesday exhibition was particularly well-attended, and the games weren’t televised. (Starting Friday, they will be.)
Torre acknowledged that American fans need to get “conditioned” for the WBC to come around every fourth year. The U.S. is in a unique position, with an abundance of talent but facing less domestic pressure to win than the Japanese, Dominican and Venezuelan teams.
“A lot of people don’t really know that much about the WBC,” Phillips said. “One of the main reasons is because we haven’t won. A lot of people don’t really take it that serious, but I think the team we have right now, we’re really taking it personal. We’re taking it real serious. We want to be the first team to win it for the USA. We want to represent our country in a positive way. We want to show everybody we’re here to play.
“We want to get the gold — gold medal, gold trophy, whatever we get. I don’t know. But we want to get it.”
Exactly. We won’t know what a WBC championship will mean to the U.S. until it happens. This is the year we should find out. And if we don’t, well, it will be time for the most un-American ritual of all: The admission that someone else is better.