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Nightengale: World Baseball Classic, Despite Imperfection, Looks Here to Stay

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Adam Jones of the United States after hitting a run-scoring single on Friday to defeat Colombia, 3-2, in 10 innings in Miami. Photo: Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

It is nearly 4 in the morning, and the streets are still alive in downtown Miami and South Beach, in the aftermath of the most celebrated game in Marlins Park history.

Take a midday stroll into a beer and burger joint in the Mary Brickell Village and look at the big-screen TVs on the walls, and the World Baseball Classic is being shown on every TV but one, with even a couple of Team USA players huddled inside for lunch, glued to the set.

You walk outside Marlins Park two hours before game time, or even two hours after game time, and there are fans dancing, singing, drumming and blowing horns, with even a local marching band.

Simple, unadulterated elation, with fans from all parts of the world, celebrating the game of baseball.

But it’s no secret that major league clubs and their front office executives and coaching staffs detest the event, wishing it would quietly go away so it doesn’t disrupt spring training camps and imperil their assets – once known simply as players.

This could be the year Team USA finally reaches the final for the first time, in the event’s fourth edition. Or perhaps it’s the year the Dominican Republic again loses a game; it pulled out a dramatic 10-3, 11-inning victory Sunday against Colombia to advance to the second round.

The emphasis on player health, however, remains much stronger than national pride.

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore watching All-Star catcher Salvador Perez of Venezuela get carried off the field after a collision with his own Royals teammate, Sal Butera of Italy, is the type of horrifying moment every GM fears. The initial diagnosis is that Perez suffered left knee inflammation, but the Royals say he is done for the tournament.

Teams preach about wanting their players to compete as hard as possible, only for Colorado Rockies GM Jeff Bridich to momentarily lose his breath watching his All-Star third baseman, Nolan Arenado, slide headfirst into the first-base bag, trying to keep a rally alive.

The WBC still has not captivated the masses in this country, with franchises putting restrictions on players beyond the tournament’s regulations and privately trying to persuade them to stay home.

Still, as much as Major League Baseball teams want to weaken the spirit and fabric of the WBC, with several players and executives privately belittling it, once you’re involved in the event, you’re captivated.

“It’s awesome, just unbelievable, to be honest with you,” says Baltimore Orioles All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who’s putting on a power and defensive show for the Dominican Republic. “Obviously, we didn’t get to play in the Olympics, but it’s do-or-die for us.

“I will definitely sign up for it again.”

And if the WBC suddenly went away because of apathy in this country?

“It would be very disappointing,” Machado said. “I think they need to do everything possible to keep it going. It’s a great experience for all of us, the players, MLB, all over the world.”

You watch the Dominican Republic fans dance in the aisles Saturday night throughout their 7-5 victory against Team USA, blowing their horns, banging their drums, shaking their noisemakers and proudly waving their country’s flag, and you try telling them it’s only an exhibition game in mid-March.

“Not even in a World Series do you feel a crowd like this,” Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez tells USA TODAY Sports. “The way the Dominican crowd enjoys their game is unique. The way we behave, the way we enjoy the game, the way we embrace the game, is totally different. I hope many more teams and people around baseball realize how passionate we are about baseball.

“Once they realize what our culture is like, they will realize it’s a lot more fun behaving the way we do at games.”

You see tears of joy from fans of Colombia, winning its first WBC game against Canada, less than 24 hours after tears of pain, as the Colombians came so close to stunning Team USA.

“When a mistake was made with Miss Universe, and they awarded the crown to the other one, it made her more famous,” Colombia manager Luis Urueta said, recalling the infamous Steve Harvey blunder. “I think the same thing happened to us. We also lost, and I think we are more famous for that reason.”

You watch Dominican Republic slugger Nelson Cruz hit the game-winning homer Saturday against the USA, waving his fist on his way to first base, screaming on his way to second, thumping his chest rounding third and nearly ripping his jersey off when he reaches home, and you understand.

“Even in Little League when you are a little kid you get so emotional that you don’t know what to do at that moment,” Cruz said. “Maybe for the whole of the Dominican Republic, I know that they were with us. The whole country stopped and is watching us.”

Then you hear this man who won a home run title one year, who has hit 284 career homers and 16 in the postseason, call it the greatest home run of his life.

You talk to Israel manager Jerry Weinstein, who two weeks ago was known as the new manager of the Hartford Yard Goats in the Class AA Eastern League in the Rockies organization, and now is a national hero. Team Israel, which wasn’t supposed to win a game in this tournament, is undefeated after beating Cuba and could soon be the greatest Cinderella story in WBC history by reaching the finals in Los Angeles.

“It feels like the World Series,” Weinstein says, “but only bigger.”

Sure, the WBC still has competitive flaws. It was exposed Friday when U.S. pitcher Chris Archer threw four perfect innings and was 24 pitches short of the WBC’s 65-pitch first-round limit, only to inform manager Jim Leyland that he was not supposed to pitch longer than four innings. He had an agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays that he would not throw more than four innings, no matter how many pitches it entailed.

Meanwhile, Colombian pitcher Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox went just 5 2/3 innings and might have thrown a complete game if not for the international first-round rules.

There also is the matter of security. It probably wasn’t the best move having all four WBC teams staying in the same hotel in Miami, with managers worrying that emotions are too raw after games for players to see one another.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, the game between Puerto Rico and Mexico was delayed in the ninth inning  when there was a fight in the stands between fans. Puerto Rico’s entire team left the dugout and checked on their families in the stands. Ricky Bones, Puerto Rico’s pitching coach, brought his family into the dugout for their safety, and catcher Yadier Molina, in a posting to his Instagram account, called it “a shame” players had to worry about their families’ security.

Still, despite the blemishes and imperfections, the tournament is captivating, and no player involved has publicly expressed any regrets, only wishing more of their contemporaries could witness it.

“I believe everybody that played the game, that understands the game, and represents their country  understands that this is the moment we all want to live,” Martinez says. “This is what baseball is all about.”

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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