The World Baseball Classic (WBC) has reached its championship game, which will pit the Dominican Republic against Puerto Rico tonight from San Francisco's AT&T Park. That means that for the third straight time (the WBC was also played in 2006 and 2009), the United States will not be a part of the title game, despite hosting most of the games and being home to the strongest professional league in the world. I'm not among those who are particularly disappointed that the U.S. was eliminated early. It's not that I don't care about the WBC (I think it's great), and it's not because I won't root for a favorite (I'm not sure the U.S. really was the favorite), it's because my strongest baseball loyalties are not to country.
A few years ago I had something of an epiphany about international sports after talking with my sister's boyfriend, who is Italian and a huge soccer fan. This was in the months following the 2006 World Cup, when Italy defeated France to win the Cup. That game is remembered by many for French star Zinedine Zidane headbutting an Italian player to the ground and being ejected. I assumed that as a soccer-mad Italian, my sister's boyfriend must have been thrilled with the result. It turns out, while he was happy, it wasn't as big a deal to him as I expected. Why not? Because the national team doesn't mean nearly as much to him as his favorite club team, Roma. The player Zidane had knocked to the ground, Marco Materazzi, played for one of Roma's rivals, and was one of my sister's boyfriend's least favorite players. That he was now representing Italy didn't matter.
I had no strong connections to any of the players on the U.S. National Team in that (or any other) World Cup, because I don't follow soccer that closely. Cheering for my own country makes sense. But for him, the national team is something of only occasional interest, Roma is the thing that really matters. And that should have been obvious to me, because while the U.S. winning the World Cup would be a bigger deal to me than any other possible outcome in soccer, in baseball, I would gladly trade 1,000 Team USA victories for one World Series for my beloved Indians. Club before country.
Not only that, but some of the players on Team USA are likely to be players I normally root against. I can't just turn that off, even if they're wearing the stars and stripes, while other nations have at least some players I've never even heard of before (and thus never rooted against). Former Yankees skipper Joe Torre manages the national team, I spent more than a decade hating his teams, I can't turn that off. Screw him! Meanwhile, Carlos Santana, the Indians catcher and one of my favorite players, has played a pivotal role for the Dominican team. That isn't to say I have any issue with most of the American players, or strong affection for most of the Dominicans, but the jerseys these guys wear for most of the year have much greater meaning to me than the ones they've worn for the last couple weeks.
|The best relief pitcher on the planet|
This isn't about being anti-USA or rooting against the big guy. This year's team doesn't have many players I dislike, I'd have been happy to see them reach the final and win it, but I'm not particularly bummed that they didn't and I'll have an easy time cheering for the Dominican team tonight. Also on the team is Fernando Rodney, who has been on one heck of a roll for the last year. Rodney has a ridiculous way of celebrating victories he closes out, shooting an imaginary arrow into the sky and then gathering with teammates to watch its flight (that's what you're looking at in the picture above). My girlfriend will tell you, it's one of the best things in baseball. Rodney wears his hat at a jaunty angle and has been keeping a plantain from home in his belt like a revolver (for good luck, obviously). He's my kind of character.
The Dominican Republic is baseball crazy, their team plays with obvious joy and their fans are boisterous to the point of delirium during games. I'd be happy for their happiness, should they win. I'll also have an easy time being happy for Puerto Rico if they pull of the upset (if we just made P.R. a state the U.S. wouldn't be in this position!), because good for them! If your identity at American means you can't root for anyone else, I pity the narrow scope of your worldview. Appreciate the passion these teams have played with to get here, and tip your hat to whichever side wins. Oh, and if you're in the Bay Area, keep an eye out tonight, there could be an arrow streaking right toward you.