Think whatever you want about this first World Baseball Classic, but the first two rounds of ’06 Clasico Mundial de Beisbol came to a close tonight in San Juan with a game as intense and interesting as any game, anywhere, between any two teams, as Cuba advanced to the semifinals, avenging last week’s loss to Puerto Rico when it counted in a thrilling 4-3 win.
Lots of tension tonight on and off the field. First, the Cubans had been sent a sheet of paper today that mistakenly listed them as the home team. As I mentioned last week, home and visitor were determined for the first two rounds by draw. That draw — which was observed by a Cuban representative — had Cuba as the visitor tonight. Unfortunately, the observor was back in Cuba, so the team wanted to rely on the paper they had received.
Once that mini-crisis was resolved, the game started, and in the first inning, the first argument of the night occurred — about the location of the ballboy of all things. Cuba contended he was too close to a direct line behind the plate; Puerto Rico responded that he was where he had always been. People got more exercised than the issue seemed to warrant. The ballboy moved a few feet, and the game actually proceeded.
Things got really hot in the bottom of the seventh, when second base umpire James Hoye called the Puerto Rican baserunner safe when the Cuban shortstop was pulled off the bag on a force play, allowing a run to score and leaving two men on with none out. The Cuban manager, Higinio Velez, complete with intepreter in tow, came out and argued the play vociferously and when he refused to stop arguing he was thrown out of the game. (The interpreter was allowed to stay). The bench partially emptied, and it took some time for order to be restored, with the crowd roaring the entire time.
Replays showed Hoye clearly made the correct call. This was not a "neighborhood" play where the pivotman is given the benefit of the doubt. The throw was wide, and the shortstop was pulled off the bag when he caught the ball. When the dust settled, Puerto Rico scored one more run and had the tying run thrown out at the plate to end the inning on a perfectly executed relay play. The final argument of the night occurred in the eighth inning when the Cuban first baseman Barrero bobbled a throw in the dirt and the runner was called safe. Again, replays showed umpire Rob Drake made the right call, but that did not stop Barrero from jumping four feet in the air several times and complaining about the call.
The real mystery tonight was which Cuban team would show up, the one that got thumped by Puerto Rico last Friday in a game that did not matter — or the one that handled a Major League star-laden Venezuela team on the opening day of Round 2. And at the end, it was the latter. The Cubans were much more animated and spent the entire game standing and rooting on the top step. And they don’t make many mistakes on the field.
By the way, from what I can glean from our information, meetings with Cuban officials, the story in today’s USA Today, and conversations with IBAF officials, this is not a team of Cuban second-stringers, as has been suggested in some of the postings. These are the best players Cuba has to offer, including perhaps the best player from the island, second baseman Yulieski Gourriel. Their whole lineup is made up of veterans of international play.
I don’t think you get to see the anthems on television from all of the games, and they are pretty cool. All four flags of the participating teams are together, along with a flag with the Classic logo. In addition, there is a flag for each of the two competing teams at the head of their lineup along the baselines. They play the anthem of each of the teams and the host country. Tonight, all that was followed with a five-minute firework display that got the crowd even more frenzied before the game started.
Responding to some of the news today, ESPN the Magazine is just plain wrong in stating that somehow our drug testing protocol for this event is less that the WADA standards, or is in some way deficient. From the very start, it was imperative that we have a drug testing program that complied with international standards (i.e., WADA) so as to avoid any chance that any countries would run the risk of losing certification by participating in a non-sanctioned international event. The MLBPA agreed to these standards long before the negotiations last year that resulted in MLB’s new comprehensive 50/100/life drug program agreed to during the off-season and in effect this season. The testing program in our event is being run and administered by the International Baseball Federation. This list of substances that was submitted to the players was taken off the WADA web site. That the list may now have been amended is frankly irrelevant and a red herring, and not our responsibility.
Some media got out in front of our discussions here about Major League games continuing in San Juan. The fans here have been great. The promoter has done a terrific job. He would like to bring more games to the island. We are disposed to do so, and have talked to him about it, but we need teams and schedules that would accommodate it. We certainly will look hard at 2007 and 2008 for a limited number of games, and if we can squeeze some in this year, we are not opposed to reviewing that. Up to now, however, we have spoken to no teams about giving up home games to travel here to host a series or two.
Good coverage in USA Today on Wednesday. In addition to the Cuban story mentioned above, there are two stories about the nascent event’s popularity. I think it is also interesting to read the evolution of the postings to my reports. They have gone from issues the first couple of days about whether the players would try and skirt the pitch count restrictions (which has generally proven to be an irrelevancy), to real unhappiness that not all the games have been televised on readily accessible cable outlets in realtime. While none of us likes to disappoint any fans, for a maiden voyage, that’s a back-handed compliment. If no one wanted to watch, our problem would be much more serious. This one is remediable in 2009.
On to San Diego where, I am sure to the surprise of many US fans, at least two of the teams will be predominantly or totally made up of non-Major League Players.