World Baseball Classic Round 2, Day 1
Well, did I ever get the good draw on weather. Eighty degrees, light breeze and back to beautiful San Juan and Hiram Bithorn Stadium. (Apparently the hats and mittens are out in Anaheim.) The ballpark here looks even better than it did for the Expos’ games two and three years ago, or for the opener in 2001 when Toronto faced Texas. Congratulations to Murray Cook and his staff and the promoter Antonio Munoz and his staff for their terrific work getting everything ready.
Venezuela went into a slump its third game in Orlando, squeezing by Australia by only 2-0. Today they faced the tougher Cuban pitching staff and their hitting woes continued. The game was really decided over a six-out span from the bottom of the fifth to the top of the sixth. Venezuela loaded the bases in the fifth trailing only 1-0. Two weak fly balls and a strikeout later, veteran pitcher Pedro Lazo had worked out of a real jam. A couple of sloppy plays in the top of the sixth and the massive three-run home run by Cepeda followed by the solo shot by Pestano and the game was out of reach instead of only 2-0 as it should have been.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the game was that the crowd of almost 14,000 was evenly split in cheering interest (and flags) between Venezuela and Cuba. After the Venezuelans were all-world in enthusiasm in Orlando, the mixed crowd was a surprise as was the source of all the Cuban support. Thanks to the policy of removing signs from fans as they enter the stadium, there was no signage visable except for seven T-shirted fans who sat down the left-field line and stood anytime Cuba did anything noteworthy on the field and between innings. Their shirts, read left to right with two letters each, spelled Vi-va Cu-ba Li-br-e. They were surrounded by security the entire time and sat when asked. No further commotion ensued. In fact, security is terrific here. It is always present, yet never obtrusive.
Someone posted that we missed an opportunity to make a political statement by not allowing anti-Castro signs and that somehow we had impinged on fans’ free speech rights. I disagree. If we had wanted to make a political statement, Cuba would not have been invited in the first place. The goal was to put the best teams in the world on the field. This is about baseball as it is played around the world, not ideologies. Our tournament rules clearly prohibited flags over a certain size or any offensive or political signs, just as we do in the Major Leagues. We were just applying our rules.
For those who wrote that the U.S. had an easy route to the finals, only A-Rod’s ninth-inning heroics staved off a possible Japan win today. But for the controversial call in the eighth, they might have gone extra innings or Japan might even have won.
Even a rain shower could not dampen the sold-out crowd’s enthusiasm for the big game tonight between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One veteran player told Ambassador Lasorda this was the biggest game he had ever played in, including World Series games. While maybe the player was caught up in the excitement of the moment, perhaps that is exactly the point. There was electricity in the air throughout the game and the players clearly are caught up with playing for their countries. The noise of the crowd after Puerto Rico scored three runs each in the sixth and seventh innings was the equal of playoff noise in the Houston or Angels ballparks, with half the number of people in attendance. In the seventh inning, the panderetas came out and a troupe peformed the plena. You would not know Lent was under way since it was truly a carnivale with dancers, costumes, big-headed masks and lots of noise.
The game was well attended. Aldo Notari, president of the International Baseball Federation, was on hand along with Puerto Rico’s Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila and Mayor Santini of San Juan. Javier Vazquez and Bartolo Colon did a great job for the first five innings, each giving up a single run, but the Dominican bullpen could not hang on and Puerto Rico pulled away.
I was thinking the way these teams are playing that it is entirely possible the four teams would be 1-1 after tomorrow. That would in essence set up the last two games in the round-robin as a pair of single-game playoffs to determine which two teams would advance. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.