It would take someone with greater journalistic skill than I have to truly capture the essence of last night's WBC game between Venezuela and Puerto Rico. I have never experienced a game in any sport with the level of zeal, enthusiasm, brio, rapture and simple enjoyment. There was spontaneous singing where everyone seemed to know the songs; homespun cheers; friendly banter between the sets of fans. Since Venezuelans outnumbered portorriqueños by about five or six to one, that was good judgment on the Puerto Rican side.
The irony, of course, is that most of the venezelanos are here in Miami because they are not happy with the Chavez regime. But they flew the flags and sang the songs and waved the banners and banged on the thunder sticks with no thought other than urging on their country's team. Oh, there was some booing for Magglio Ordonez for his support of Hugo Chavez. But, when he came out to toss the ball with Melvin Mora before the game the fans swarmed the front row with cameras and pleas for autographs.
How wound up were the players? The first seven outs that were recorded were strike outs – a combination of tough pitching and the anxiety of the hitters, who were swinging for national honor, not punching the ball into the opposite field.
There is a growing, but still miniscule, body of Americans who wear the colors and chant USA USA but it is not the same. As a sports culture, we are raised from birth in devotion to a team. So are English soccer fanatics. But, when the teams dissolve and a national side is established, even the most ardent Liverpool supporter will stop singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," and will take up their national anthem in a heartbeat. In the Venezuelan crowd, I saw a lot of Caracas Leones gear and a scattering of other local teams, but the country colors prevailed.
And, according to my friends on the catering staff, arepas outsold hot dogs.
XM radio and some other commentators are turning a tad nasty about the WBC. They are annoyed by the mercy rule defeat that the USA suffered on Saturday and by the injuries. I have to question their timing – coming right after the worst US performance it does sound too much like what sore loser language.
The mercy role may sound sissified to us because we think of it as a little league thing. But, ending a game after seven innings if one team is up to 10 runs is not an awful idea. They cut off beer sales around that time anyway.
The injury issue can be problematic. The Latin American teams have come off their seasons and the Caribbean World Series, so for them the WBC extends the season, but they are in shape. The Asian teams all create training camps for the WBC and have been preparing it for weeks. In the US, it is our spring training season and we are asking players to go all out much sooner than they otherwise would. There is no solution for the timing – no one wants to extend our season into November/December and stopping MLB in mid June or July is also a non-starter. So, I guess we have to suck it up every four years. Or, as on listener suggested, send out a team of college and AAA players.
Last night, I did experience video replay. And, it was not a good thing. Earlier in the game, the venzelano manager, Luis Sojo, came out to protest a ground ball that he said hit a Porto Rican runner. The umpires huddled, called out a fifth umpire to confer with them, and ruled in Sojo's favor. Not so bad. But later in the game, Ramon Hernandez hit a long fly to left center that the umpire rule bounced off the wall. Hernandez slid into third with a triple, but Sojo and the fans thought otherwise. Amid a chant of "jonron," Sojo came out to protest. Huddle. Send for the 5th guy. Then, the umpires left the field, leaving one behind to, I guess, maintain order. It seemed like an eternity when they returned and awarded Hernandez his home run.
Umpiring judgment and occasional errors are a part of baseball. Freezing everyone in place while the scorecard flashes, "play in review" is not.